Tatoosh

Posted by Ken Campbell May 27, 2008 0 Comment 521 views

Off the coast of Cape Flattery, about a quarter-mile from the rugged shore, lies Tatoosh Island. It seems very close – it’s a mere 10-minute crossing in a sea kayak – and it feels as though it’s even closer than that. From the lookout at Cape Flattery it is easy to see the birds wheeling in the skies above the rocky island. Common murres are everywhere, their plump black-and-white forms being propelled by wings that seem too short, too undersized. They follow the contours of the swells between the cape and the island. Bald eagles soar high above the diversity of seabirds: cormorants and puffins, guillemots and oystercatchers, the ubiquitous gulls of every shade and species.

You can’t see the landing beach until you are almost there. The best place to come ashore is in a little cove on the island’s east side, obscured from the mainland shore view. Landings are prohibited now, like so many good things are, and the island itself is a sharp bone between the Makah tribe and the government that has not yet been fully picked. The buildings that remain from what was, at various times, a weather bureau, an Army base, and a Coast Guard installation are slowly falling apart and being removed from the island by the tribe. The lighthouse is fully automated and the land it occupies is leased from the Makah by the U. S. government. Still, there are tribal members who view the past 150 years of dealing with Uncle Sam as time poorly spent and for whom the very presence of the light is a desecration.

There was a time when the island was an important outpost of the Makah nation. A village once stood where the lighthouse is now; between March and August of every year, large numbers of Makah gathered there, using the island as a forward operating base in their pursuit of whales. California gray whales pass through the nearby waters on their epic commute between Mexico and the Bering Sea and the hunters would chase after them in teams of canoes, launching harpoons by hand and towing the huge carcasses back to shore. (It was actually the job of one of the hunters to dive into the water after the whale had been killed in order to sew its mouth closed. If this wasn’t done quickly, the whale would sink to the bottom, lost. It was an important position to hold in the whale-hunting heirarchy, though understandably difficult to work into a resume.)

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