Springtime visitors on Yellow Island

By Matt Axling, Yellow Island Steward

Phil Green(left) and Matt Axling (right). Photo by Ken Salzman.

It has been one year since I started working as the Yellow Island caretaker. Soon after I started, I began keeping a list of common questions that I heard from the public on a daily basis. 

“When do the orcas go by?” 
“Are you the new Phil Green?” 
“Are you writing a novel out here?” 
“When should I come see the wildflowers?” 

Overall, close to 600 people came to visit in April and May—one-third of the total number who will set foot on Yellow Island in 2019.  Many visitors are regulars, locals from nearby islands who have visited every year since TNC acquired Yellow Island in 1980.  

Others visited for the first time and walked through the carpet of wildflowers with big smiles. Some came alone, like a woman from Orcas Island who paddled out and showed me a tax receipt from her $50 donation to TNC in 1979 to help purchase Yellow Island. 

Tulalip tribal members and TNC staff head to the island.

I’d like to share highlights from some special groups who visited Yellow Island this spring. 

Tulalip Tribes   We had the privilege of hosting members and staff from the Tulalip Tribes, who were interested in seeing camas in bloom. Camas is historically important to the Coast Salish culture. Bands of the Tulalip had ocean-going canoes, which are large and could have easily visited Yellow Island.    

Under rainy gray skies, we warmed the cabin and reflected upon traditional ways that tribes used ecological resources in the San Juan Islands, as well as how tribes advocate for their treaty rights today.  The weather improved, and we walked the island talking about strategies to steward prairie environments.    

On the boat ride back to Friday Harbor, we spotted a 7-member pod of transient orcas. Just before they passed us, two split from the group and headed directly for our boat! The orca is one of the most important animals to the Tulalip people. They believe they share ancestors, and the orca saved their people from starvation. In 20 years boating in the San Juans, I’ve never had orcas approach. I cut the engine and we drifted in silence waiting for the pair to resurface. When they did, their dorsal fins came up just a few feet from our bow. It was a beautiful moment to share with amazing people.    

Orca whales near Yellow Island. Photo by Phil Green.

TNC Donors  Donor trips to Yellow Island are some of my favorite events. This year TNC staff brought 137 donors out, over four trips. As caretaker, I’ve come to understand that anybody who makes it really wants to be here. It takes effort, coordination and a sense of adventure. TNC donors epitomize this. No group of visitors to Yellow Island come from such geographic distance, from all over Washington and even out of state. Many talked called it a “bucket list” trip! 

Matt Axling with participants from WILD Program.

WILD Program  The Wilderness InnerCity Leadership Development (WILD) Program is an environmental justice and leadership development program for teens in Seattle’s International District. I worked with them to help plan a weekend camping trip to the San Juan Islands, including a Yellow Island excursion. They arrived on the rainiest day of the year, but still had a great time. The teens were especially interested in Coast Salish history, and how tribes were instrumental in creating the anthropogenic prairie we see today. They learned about medicinal plants, and we even transplanted camas bulbs from the garden to a restoration site overlooking the west spit. We also planted seeds for a relationship I would love to grow. 

Latino Outdoors  Our very own Alfonso Orozco, Field Experiences and Volunteer Manager, along with David Garcia from Seattle Audubon, brought out a group from the Seattle Chapter of Latino Outdoors to help with TNC's Bird Challenge. Latino Outdoors is a nationwide network that connects Latinos/as with the outdoors, and supports storytellers to share their personal experiences with nature.   

Latino Outdoors group on Yellow Island.

Many of the group members had not taken part in any organized birding before. Together with David Garcia and our retired Yellow Island Steward Phil Green, the group learned birding basics, typical species on Yellow Island in the spring, and how to identify birds through visual observation or by their calls.  It was a fun experience for everybody and we look forward to hosting more Latino Outdoors trips in the future.