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The Mission of the Blakely Island Field Station (BIFS) is to support excellence in education and research in field-based environmental and physical sciences while supporting the preservation and wise use of Blakely Island ecosystems. Blakely is the fourth largest island in the San Juan archipelago in the northwest corner of the State of Washington (San Juan County).

Directions to the station and various forms and applications are contained in Before you go.

What to bring to Blakely

Caretakers: Meet Deb and Bryan Rodda

Thirty-one years ago, Brian and Deb Rodda got married, and together, they raised three daughters. After Brian retired from public education, the couple decided it was time for a new adventure.

While Brian prepared to retire, the pair also launched their youngest daughter off to college. Thanks to their middle daughter, who attended Seattle Pacific, they discovered Blakely Island and the Field Station.

Deb was a nurse until she found herself calling the island her new home. Thanks to her past vocation she is able to be calm and help students who may find themselves in need of a little extra help.

The Roddas, along with their puppy, Kaia, are a blessing for Blakely Island and Seattle Pacific University.

Diary of a scientist at Blakely

Dr. Bruce Congdon inspects leaf litter under microscope in Blakely Island Laboratory (Sophie Beadle)

My first interaction with Dr. Bruce Congdon was full of laughter. The retired SPU professor spends his time attempting to play guitar, gardening, and bushwacking through the forest. After our first interaction Congdon was blown away by how much we admired him.

After only a couple minutes Congdon’s articulate and colorful storytelling skills stuck out. We were immediately engaged with his life story and adventures.

It took only a couple hours before he was added to our ‘cool kids club.’

Which he mentioned “that is the first time anyone has ever called me cool.”

At first, I was not sure which scientist I should observe and interview for a project about research on Blakely, after my first interaction with Congdon I knew that he would be the story.

From his undergrad adventures to his professional studies all the way to his bushwhacking adventures around Blakely, the man is full of life and even more full of curiosity, which he claims is the key to staying young.

What initially started as interest in what scientific research on what you can find at Blakely quickly shifted to what Blakely can make you find out about yourself. Congdon slowly reminded me what what is important is not what you find at the end, but what you find on the way.

Education

Congdon was a Professor Emeritus of Biology. He obtained his Bachelors of Science at the College of the Ozarks and his Masters of Science at Colorado State University, ultimately obtaining his PHD at University of California, Riverside.

In 1993 Congdon began his role at Seattle Pacific University where he aimed to study ecology, biology, and the evolution of animals in the context of Christian Faith. This was Dr. Congdon’s focus for nearly 10 years, at which point he began to start leaning into leadership roles and focusing on his calling as a teacher and mentor. At this point he became the full time dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to these accomplishments he also served as interim provost at Seattle Pacific University in 2013-2014 and 2019-2020.

Career

As far as scientific accomplishments Congdon was humble in revealing his discovery on Blakley, which is now safeguarded at the Smithsonion Museum in Washington DC.

Initially, Congdon took every oppurtunity he could to collect funnel seeds initially in areas of Washington, such as Skagit and Whatcom County.

He said “wherever I could beat on a bush, I was there.”

On Blakely he found interest in looking under the leaves of Salal, which is typically a very robust dense shrub, typically one to four feet high. During this time he had collected the organisms living on this bush and found a Phytoseiid living in these bushes.

Congdon admitts “that was unusual.”

“There was actually quite a few of them for multiple samples. And it turned out to be a species new to science. And I named it after Tom Crowley.”

Tom Crowley was the man who had largely assisted in acquring Blakely Island for Seattle Pacific University, who Congdon greatly admires.

Making scientific discoveries is no simple feat though, Congdon admitts that he was “suspicious because of where it was.”

Being on Blakely made this discovery even more meaningful in the eye’s of Dr. Congdon, someone who has been a career long and life long advocate for what he calls “Blakely Island Magic.”

“This is the only place that I that I put litter from under Salau bushes, and onto a very lazy funnel and looked at the mines that came out of it” he said.

Microscopic view of bacteria that Dr. Long and Dr. Congdon collected on Blakely Island (Sophie Beadle)

After making the discovery he was able to get the opinion of other scientists, such as Seattle Pacific University Biology professor Dr. Eric Long, who has also conducted countless research projects and class teachings on Blakely.

Congdon specifically kept his focus on discovering new forms of life and unique aspects of ecology at Blakely, starting off on Blakely in 1995 Congdon is a career long and now lifelong advocate for the island and its “magic.”

Legacy

Dr. Congdon shared multiple aspects of his professional and personal life, and was even kind enough to share about his spiritual journey. Before actually physically visiting Blakely Island, you here about how amazing it is, but you do not know until you go.

Dr. Congdon brings that to a human embodiment. As a professional researcher and amateur hiker Congdon is truly able to bring Blakely’s best qualities to life.

Dr. Congdon’s research and career will physically never be forgotten as his Blakely Island discovery is being kept at the historic Smithsonian Museum, and his lively character and adventurous spirit will forever be imprinted on my classmates and I.

From schoolhouses to school districts

Exploring Blakely Island’s schoolhouse, education opportunities in San Juan Islands

Scroll through this gallery to see photos of the inside of the Blakely Island schoolhouse

Brief History of the Blakely Island Schoolhouse:

A small boat rocks on the clear, cold waters of the Salish Sea. Inside, a wife and husband lookout to the forest-covered island ahead, hoping to capitalize on the growing novelty of the logging industry. Here, they will create a family, build their home and with others establish a community that will remain on Blakely Island for generations.  

In 2024, Blakely Island and the Seattle Pacific University Field Station may appear to tell a single educational story – college students traveling to a remote laboratory to engage in hands-on, practical research and collaboration. But the history of learning started with some of the island’s first homesteaders.

Bruce Congdon, professor emeritus of biology and former director of the Blakely Island Field Station from 1995 to 2002, believes that while managing, teaching and investigating the island, he discovered objects of the island’s hidden history, including the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

“I found a car out there that had been abandoned with trees growing out of the windows. It was just decrepit. I never saw it again, but it hid amongst the trees,” Congdon said. “Items like these help us understand who lived here first and what was most important to them. The schoolhouse is one of the few things spared from being overtaken by the trees and decay.”

Harrison Coffelt built the schoolhouse and it began operations in 1889 to serve the children of loggers.

“When you see those big, old stumps with that notch in them, it means that tree was felled during the period of the first homesteaders. They had to use that notch to help them cut down the trees to haul down to the Thatcher Bay,” Congdon said. “The schoolhouse was built for that population and was meant to serve them and their families as they worked those long hours.”

The exterior of the refurbished schoolhouse on a sunny day, surrounded by thick trees and green grass (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

The first teacher at the schoolhouse was Richard Straub, who taught a classroom of about 15 students. The children typically enrolled in the school ranged from about one year to around elementary school age. When students reached high school, they had to travel to nearby islands to continue their education.

A view of the inside of the Spencer School through the viewing bars, including the original children’s desks, teacher’s desk, chalkboards and furnace (Isabella Tranello).

The school served the children for 61 years before closing in 1950. A teacher identified as S. Newcome taught the last class, with only four children enrolled, ages one, two and four. After the school’s closure, preschoolers and elementary-age children began traveling off the island to attend school. By 1987, about 10 to 12 children traveled to Orcas Island for school.

Despite dedicated efforts to refurbish the one-room schoolhouse, it remains unused and closed to public entry. SPU students visiting the Field Station can see the schoolhouse but can only go as far as the porch and the roughly two-foot square viewing area inside.

Educational Opportunities in the San Juan Islands:

Unlike other islands in the San Juan Islands, which have school districts and schoolhouses, the closing of the schoolhouse on Blakely Island meant the disappearance of an official educational institution. Luckily, the full-time residents on the island, many of whom are retired, do not have children, so there is no need to have a functioning school system. But other islands do, such as Orcas and Lopez Island. While they both have official schools for all grade levels, they also have unique opportunities for extended learning.

One is the Port Stanley Schoolhouse on Lopez Island. SPU students or general visitors of Blakely Island who wish to walk through a functional and preserved schoolhouse, the Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum might be worth a trip.

It is not a one-room schoolhouse like the Blakely Island schoolhouse; instead, it has three rooms. Although slightly different, it is also essential to the history of Lopez Island. Executive Director of the Lopez Island Historical Museum Amy Frost recalls the community’s deep passion for restoring this significant historical structure, reminiscent of the call to restore the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

A side view of the exterior of the Port Stanely Schoolhouse at the Lopez Island Historical Museum looking out on the water (Courtesy of Amy Frost).

“They saw it as an opportunity for the community to restore it, to have another building that reflected the history and was available for public use,” Frost said. “When it was restored, there were still many people here who went to school there. In the mid-1990s, some people were only in their 70s and had gone to school there.”

For a place like Lopez Island with a present population of children, a schoolhouse that can be rented out for classes allows them to meet the educational standards of their class while also engaging with the island’s history. The schoolhouse is available for rent for parties, art classes, general visits and full-time usage when needed.

Some islands even have preschools, such as Kaleidoscope Preschool on Orcas Island. The preschool primarily serves children and families on Orcas Island who aspire to find a quality childcare program and start their children’s learning early. Director Amber Paulsen believes their center is exceptionally unique and offers learning opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

“I think the most unique component of our program is our outdoor nature-based program. We have a very supportive family group committed to outdoor education,” Paulsen said. “We’re finding great benefit from this unique style of early learning. And the more time I spend in the forest with the kids and my teachers, the more I believe that the world would be better if every human could spend a year in the forest.”

While young children no longer learn in the small schoolhouse amongst the forestry of Blakely Island, education persists at the Field Station. Like the first homesteaders, SPU students sail across the Salish Sea and plant their feet on the beautiful shores of Blakely Island.