Rowing To Yellow Island

Story and Photos by Matt Axling, Yellow Island Steward

I am a terrible swimmer. I sink straight to the bottom of the pool. I avoided swimming lessons my entire life. When I smell the chlorine at my son’s swim lessons, my palms sweat. With all of these factors, it is ironic that I have spent so much of my life on the water.

I am a mediocre biker. What I lack in talent I make up for with effort and silly biking socks. I really love biking to work. The morning commute has put me in a great state of mind as I arrived at various past jobs. And an uphill ride back to my house helps me leave my workday behind and be present for my family when I arrive home. I first started biking to work in Seattle in 1993 when I worked a summer job at a cherry processing factory in Georgetown. Nobody was riding their bikes around Seattle at the time. There were no bike lanes or established bike routes. My shortcuts included cutting through the Kingdome parking lot and the SoDo rail yard. I was hooked.

After accepting the position as steward for Yellow Island for The Nature Conservancy, my bike commuting has taken a back seat. In no way can I complain about my current work commute. I hop in the trusty Yellow Island boat in Friday Harbor, and zip out to Yellow Island in 25 minutes. Traffic consists of pods of orcas blocking my route and the only time I am forced to slow down is when the wind is blowing.

Yellow Island sits in San Juan Channel. 85% of the time, the weather is cooperative and the trip to Yellow is uneventful. The other 15% of the time, you don’t want to be on the water.

Orca cruises past the Yellow Island cabin that is occasional home to island steward Matt Axling.

Yellow Island cabin amidst the storm.

The Yellow Island boat was built in the late 1980s in Anacortes. It is a fiberglass landing craft that is good for hauling trash, tools, or people. It has dutifully sat in the water for close to 30 years as various caretakers have navigated their way to and from the island. The boat is powered by an 85hp Tohatsu outboard engine. The engine was purchased on the same day that I was hired four years ago. Since that time, I have put 300 hours of travel time on the engine.

The Yellow Island boat tied up on the shore.

I am very conscious about my boat usage and that 85hp engine has often given me pause. It is easy to see how a motorboat can have an adverse impact on the marine environment. Outboard boat engines are not known for their fuel efficiency. Also a boat traveling through the water at 20 knots and emitting a roar so loud that I wear ear protection are other factors which can impact marine mammals,

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