The Wacky Art of Stuart Island (A photo essay)

Discovering treasures in the Boundary Pass Traders’ chests…

Nikki Tate
Aug 10 · 7 min read
For twenty years the Bensons have been running the Treasure Chest self-serve ‘shop’ on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. We expected to find a shop of some sort… what we found instead was real treasure… [Nikki Tate]
The map on the back of one of the art cards purchased at one of the most unique shops on the planet. [Nikki Tate]

Stuart Island in the US San Juans is a strange shape — a bit like an anchor or a puzzle piece.

Two long, deep anchorages, each with a government dock pinch a narrow strip of land between them.

It wasn’t the promise of the state park or camping facilities or even the protected anchorage that was so intriguing about the place.

A Shop That Uses I.O.U.s?

We had heard rumors of a mysterious gift shop on Stuart Island where visitors could serve themselves and, if short of cash, send in payment once back in civilization with access to wifi.

There were, we understood, only eleven houses on the island and so few families that the one-room schoolhouse had closed a number of years earlier after the last child of Stuart Island had outgrown the local educational opportunities and headed off to high school elsewhere.

The island sounded tiny and quaint and because there are no services (beyond the honor-system shop) we didn’t think it would be too busy.

Puttering into Reid Harbor after leaving San Juan Island we were shocked to see the place was jam-packed with boats. Some were anchored, others had tied up at every available mooring ball and yet others were cozied up to the dock. After making a quick circuit of the sheltered cove, we decided to drop the hook, have lunch and then take the dinghy ashore so we could go exploring.

No wonder my calves were burning after our visit to Stuart Island! Just getting up the hill and off the dock was a challenge! [Image: Dani Tate-Stratton]

A Steep Hike Right off the Dock

Access to shore required a short, steep climb up into the treed camping area.

When my daughter told me of the self-serve store arrangement I imagined a small cabin or other structure at the side of a trail close to the government dock.

Alas, no such luck. Maps at the top of the climb from the docks informed us we had a bit of a hike ahead. So, we set off, following the clearly marked trails, eager to see what the ‘shop’ might have to offer.

The path continued uphill for a few minutes, gaining a lot of elevation (and a fine view down into the anchorage) in a short period of time.

No sooner had we summitted than we found ourselves at the top of a steep set of stairs heading back down toward the beach at the end of the cove.

Down, down, down we went by way of an excellent, well-maintained trail, descending just as quickly as we had ascended only minutes before.

The route we took from the dock to the school houses involved a lot of upping and downing… I was pretty happy to find this sturdy stick to help me on my way. Once we finally arrived at our destination (Boundary Pass Traders), the local ‘shop’ owner told us about a secret shortcut that stayed up on top of the ridge and avoided the steep downhills and many steps that would have been required had we retraced our steps. [Nikki Tate]

If you’ve been reading my stories for a while, you’ll know that I am awaiting a hip replacement so the fact I thought I had left my walking stick on San Juan Island and had to make do with a branch scavenged along the way did not make for an easy expedition.

Over Hill and Dale in Search of the Mythical Trusting Shop

After descending the endless stairs, we traversed the island on a path that ran parallel to the beach, making a mental note that next time it might make better sense to take the dinghy to the beach and then continue our walk from there.

Thank goodness the trek was mostly in full shade. Even though it was hot and sunny, temperatures beneath the trees were bearable. Because I’m still gathering photos for my new book on global reforestation, I took full advantage of the time spent in an actual forest to take some photos. [Nikki Tate]

The path eventually led to a small road where, our map told us, we had to turn right and head uphill. Up, up, up, and more up through a lush forest we walked (Dani) and limped (me).

Thank goodness the road was shady — it was a scorching hot day and we would have been in terrible shape had we hiked in full sun.

Walking = Time to Reflect

As each bend in the road came and went with no sign of a small shop or structure of any kind, I had flashbacks of our slow, labored trip along the Camino in Spain a couple of years ago.

Then, too, we had a lot of time to just be, to walk in quiet places with few people around. As we did in Spain, my daughter and I chatted, took photos, enjoyed our time together and simply existed without the beeping and buzzing of our digital devices punctuating our conversation.

And Then, Boundary Pass Traders Appeared!

Eventually, we rounded a final bend and found ourselves in front of the most peculiar ‘shop’ I have ever seen. Instead of a building, the Boundary Pass Traders had two large treasure chests, both full of stock — T-shirts, hoodies, tunics, sweatshirts, hats, and art cards, all with original designs. Signs ask visitors to close the chest lids after departing.

The large chest full of stock neatly bagged and organized with clear instructions for pay-later purchases. [Nikki Tate]

There was a great selection of sizes and colours neatly organized in the two chests. Samples hung from a rope strung between two trees.

There was quite a good range of colors, sizes, and designs for both men and women. [Nikki Tate]

A large Tupperware tub was the sale bin and an old newspaper vending machine contained kits that included coloring books and crayons.

Dani investigates the sale bin (left) while a local corgi guards the coloring books (right). [Nikki Tate]

A water container provided a cool drink to anyone who had made the long, hot slog uphill to reach their destination.

The water was greatly appreciated! [Nikki Tate]

While we were browsing what the trading post had to offer, one of the island residents showed up with a fresh-water receptacle and new stock to resupply the store. She tied her corgi to the coloring book display and chatted with us about what else there was to see while we were on the island.

The lighthouse was a little far away for the state of my hip and the time we had available, but from the trading post we could see the first one-room schoolhouse (now the island’s cute-as-a-button museum) and the second schoolhouse (now the library).

Once the local schoolhouse, this one-room museum is free and open to the public. [Nikki Tate]

The third schoolhouse is now a community center, though the community seems to have shrunk so I’m not sure how much use the largest of these three now-abandoned schools could possibly see.

An old treadle sewing machine on display in the tiny Stuart Island Museum. [Nikki Tate]

The helpful corgi-owner, store-stocker, water-replenisher, and history buff suggested we make a short detour before heading back to the boat. “The museum is open 27/7. You can learn about a lot of the island residents. And then, another place not too far away is the graveyard. After you learn about the people who lived here, you can see where they are buried.”

I’ve never come across a better-documented cemetery. Just outside the gates, a bulletin board provides brief biographies of each of the people buried here. [Nikki Tate]

I’m not sure that I’ve ever had quite so direct a line drawn between the living and the dead. After we explored both the library and the museum we took the short walk to the graveyard.

This simple wooden cross marks the grave of a Civil War veteran buried in the Stuart Island Cemetery. [Nikki Tate]

Sure enough, those whose lives we’d learned about only minutes before were now gathered before us in a small collection of well-tended graves. Just outside the cemetery gates, an information board provided details of those who rested within, in some cases the causes of death listed right after their names and dates of birth and death.

We left the graveyard and returned to the treasure chests where we each made a purchase (Dani a shirt, me a set of art cards).

Jim and Linda Bergquist contributed to the island’s history and are immortalized in this art card I bought at the Boundary Pass Traders.

Stuart Island Gothic — The Turn Point Light Station Curators — Jim and Linda Bergquist created by Boundary Pass Traders, one of several fun art cards purchased at the self-serve store. [Nikki Tate]
Here’s a sample of the I. O. U. that’s packaged with every item you may wish to purchase from the Boundary Pass Traders. They even provide an envelope! [Nikki Tate]

The walk back to the boat was soooooo much easier along the secret ridge path pointed out to use by our new local friend. Madrona trees arched over the path (some people call them arbutus trees) and their mere presence made me smile.

Madronas on the way back to Reid Harbor and the boat. [Nikki Tate]

Their strange peeling bark and rich colors (at certain times of the year the trunks are a rich rusty red) are eminently photographable.

After returning to the dinghy dock, we tootled back to the boat so we could make our way back to our home port in Sidney on Vancouver Island.

As is the way when a lovely trip comes to an end, I climbed back aboard Easy Rider simultaneously feeling a bit sad that it was soon to be over and deeply blessed that I had been able to take a few days out of my busy life to spend time with family exploring one of my favorite corners of the planet.

Easy Rider snuggled back into her home slip. [Nikki Tate]

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

Nikki Tate

Written by

Author, creativity coach, storyteller exploring the world, living the dream. Nikki Tate Loves Books Fbook

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

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