(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Reporter Ashley Ahearn recounts her day spent with a woman she describes as “the beating heart” of an all-volunteer oil-spill readiness group in Washington’s San Juan Islands.)
LOPEZ ISLAND, Wash. — When I first meet Julie she’s standing on the shore of Fisherman Bay, talking to roughly 30 people from all corners of the San Juans.
She’s small and fit, with a wavy strawberry-blond lion’s mane framing her face and sparkling turquoise eyes. The grass behind her is strewn with maps and supplies. She’s neatly cut up apples and cheese and put them in Ziploc bags along with various other snacks for each of the four teams that will be going out on the water today.
Mother hen meets drill sergeant.
The folks gathered come from all different walks of life. There are men and women, teenagers and retirees, hippies with beards and Hawaiian shirts, people who are new to the islands and folks who have worked and lived here all their lives. There is also a team from MSRC (Marine Spill Response Corporation) and another from the ConocoPhillips refinery in Ferndale, WA. Julie Knight brings them all together under the IOSA (Islands’ Oil Spill Association) banner for regular drills like this and, to a person, they’re smiling and happy to be here.
The plan is for each team to go to one section of the bay and stretch boom (those yellow floating curtains that corral oil in the water) across the mouths of the ecologically fragile inlets and side channels here. If a spill were to happen, Julie wants to know how much boom will be needed for each section, where it can be attached and how fast the team can deploy it.
“Alright, everybody ready?” Knight asks. “Let’s go.” She and I go back to her black Chevy Blazer (she often forgets to close the doors) and drive over to another inlet of Fisherman Bay where about 1,000 feet of boom is neatly stacked on a trailer. Julie clambers up on the pile of boom like a sailor, nimbly untying the rope holding it down. The other team members arrive by boat and come up from the shore as she measures out the boom, section by section, and gives it to each team to drag down the rocky beach and out onto the water.
She’s like a seamstress, tailoring the lengths of boom to the needs of each team and the section of the bay they’ll be protecting. Julie Knight is making a custom-fit oil response plan for this bay, as she has for sections of coastline all around the San Juan Islands. And as the yellow lengths are dragged by me I can’t help but feel guilty, standing there with my microphone and camera, because I’m not helping.
“Can you count the lengths of boom for me?” Julie asks.
“Uhhh…I’ll do my best.” I respond, suddenly desperately nervous about letting this woman down.
“Each section is 100 feet, so every time you see one of those steel connectors, count it.”
The boom stretches out rapidly as 10 or 15 people pull it away to the boats. I’m holding the microphone, snapping pictures and anxiously counting away on my fingers (“was that 600 or 700 feet of boom?!?”).
I think it was then that I understood why IOSA works, and has worked for over 25 years. Julie has a way of making everyone feel necessary and important to the overall success and continued health of this special corner of Washington State. She doesn’t stop moving and she’s clearly passionate about what she does – scampering from boat to boat, as they pull up on the shore, talking with each team about where they’re going and what they’ll be doing there.
View Fisherman Bay, Lopez Island, Wash. in a larger map
When the boom’s finally deployed, we climb aboard the SeaGoose, a 46-foot vessel that belongs to IOSA and is piled high with boom. then we head down to the southernmost cove of Fisherman Bay with three other volunteers. As we motor along, the radio crackles non-stop as each team pipes in with status updates for how their deployment is going. One team needs more boom, another says the stakes they’re using to moor the boom to the shore aren’t holding on. Another says there’s no place to attach boom on a particularly rocky patch of shoreline and they’re going to need to drill an attachment for the next time.
Julie makes notes of all of these things. When she gets back to her office she’ll type them up and add them to her files documenting the needs and specific strategies for each island in the San Juans.
As we reach the bottom of Fisherman Bay there are already two other volunteer boats there, attaching boom to a pole in the marsh on one side of the inlet and then dragging it across to another spit of land that juts out from the other side of the bay. The opening isn’t more than 300 feet wide but Julie explains that stretching boom across this narrow bottleneck will protect acres of fragile marsh and bird habitat to the south and effectively stop oil from making its way any further into the bay. The team makes note of the length of boom needed and GPS plots the location of the hook-up points on the shore. A seal swims around, curiously observing from a safe distance.
We’ve been out on the water for close to two hours by the time the team finishes connecting the boom. The other teams are starting to radio in asking if it’s OK to take the boom down and come back to shore. Julie gives the OK and we do the same.
The weak fall sunlight is fading and the crisp air blowing across the water seems to cut right through my vest. My fingers are in what I refer to as “microphone claw shape” after a long day of recording but I know that I’ve met the central character in my oil story. This trip to Lopez was part of the research I’m doing with Bonnie Stewart for a series on oil in the Northwest. It’s a huge subject and in many ways, it feels like I’m wrestling some sort of giant squid or octopus. Oil can come from so many different places. It’s moved around the region by so many different types of transit. The risks to the environment and human health are abundant, but so is the work being done to prepare for a spill.
Meeting Julie Knight made the concept of preparedness, and what that means on the local community level, real to me.
I’m looking forward to bringing her soft yet commanding voice to the airwaves. My only regret is that you can’t hear the tears that well up in her eyes when she talks to me about the assortment of people from different socioeconomic and political worlds who come together to keep IOSA running and make these drills possible.
On the ferry home I emailed Julie to thank her for letting me tag along. And her response was so beautiful, I had to share:
I was thinking about your question ‘why do you do this,’ and I think that many of the people that live and work here year round feel that having a part in protecting and taking care of this place is like taking care of a family member. That is how I feel too for many reasons – the water and quiet surrounding us, the voices of the steller sea lions that I can hear at night over 8 miles away, the air that is flushed and cleaned by the wind and water as it crosses over to the islands, the clean water and all the life that covers every square foot of the solid surfaces below the water (the rocks, and kelp and eelgrass… ) and the complete quiet that happens in the middle of the night during the winter (so quiet that you can feel the leftover vibrations from the day dissipating and emanating out through your ears), and the big rock boulders and cliffs that the waves crash into at the south end of the island, where there is sparkling overwhelming energy that fills you when you stand there quietly at night.
This is a woman who has decided what’s important and her passion to protect it has brought people together for more than 20 years. I have no doubt it will continue to do so for years to come.
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!