A place in the wilderness

If it hadn’t been for donating 1,000 acres of Blakely Island wilderness in 1976, the reality of having a field station and laboratory in the San Juan Islands for Seattle Pacific University students may have never come to fruition.

The process of attaining the land on Blakely Island occurred after Thomas B. Crowley Sr., the head of the shipping conglomerate Crowley Maritime Corporation, bought 4,400 acres of land on Blakely. The land purchased by Crowley Sr. is situated on the upper part of the island, which was previously owned by a logging company. This specific parcel of land included Blakely Peak and the land surrounding Spencer Lake.

For Crowley, it was especially important to purchase land on Blakely, as talk had circulated that heavy condominium development would occur on the land. The Crowley family also had preexisting ties to the island, as they owned a summer home on Blakely.

In purchasing the land on Blakely, Crowley Sr. wanted to gift 1,000 acres of the land for conservation easement. Originally, he approached the Nature Conservancy and the University of Washington about donating the property, but both organizations were not able to process the donation fast enough. However, SPU was able to handle Crowley Sr.’s donation within the designated time frame.

In donating the land to the university, Crowley Sr. also agreed to construct the island’s field station. Construction took place from 1979–1983, according to Thomas B. Crowley Jr., Crowley Sr.’s son and current CEO of Crowley Maritime Corporation.

The field station itself was finished in February 1984 and dedicated on May 5, 1984. In addition, an endowment was established by the Crowley family and a group of other donors in order to pay for field station operations.

blakely dorm
Blakely Island Field Station’s dormitory, shortly after construction, wrapped in 1984. (Courtesy Adrienne Meier, SPU Archivist)

“The new Crowley Laboratory is dedicated to the preservation of Blakely Island’s beauty and the environmental education of students,” said SPU Vice President Joe Constance at the time of the dedication.

A November 1984 copy of Response magazine also follows the arrival of Dr. Ross Shaw, the first director for the new field station. Shaw was directly involved in creating academic programs for the island, planning for increased student programming on Blakely in summer and completing his own research on Blakely Island’s lake, forest, and marsh ecosystems.

Students from Dr. Tim Nelson’s Plant Identification and Taxonomy class working in the Crowley Laboratory. (Jenna Dennison)

In fact, SPU’s 1984–1985 class catalog was the first time specific summer classes at Blakely Island were listed.

“We wanted to create a place where students could have a place to learn,” said Crowley Jr.

Blakely Island’s history and architecture

Blakely Island, located within Puget Sound in Washington State, is approximately seven square miles in area and includes two freshwater lakes: Horseshoe Lake and Spencer Lake. Spencer Creek, a freshwater creek, flows from Spencer Lake into Thatcher Bay. The island has a high point of approximately 1,000 feet and is accessible through a short hike to Blakely Peak.

Blakely Peak post sunset. (Peg Achterman)

The land surrounding the island consists of kelp forests, seagrass and habitats that are part of the neritic zone. These habitats lie below the low-tide mark but are still shallow and close to shore. They support a variety of seaweed, marine mammals, invertebrates and fish.

The forests and bodies of water on the island are home to river otters, bats, kingfisher birds, bald eagles and many kinds of plants.  

Blakely Island was named by Charles Wilkes during his exploratory expedition of 1838–1842. Wilkes’ group explored the Pacific Northwest coast, including Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, in 1841. The island was named after Johnston Blakely, an American officer who served in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He is considered one of the most successful American naval officers of that period.

Thatcher Bay, on the island’s east coast, was the location of seasonal Samish Tribal villages. Native Samish people regularly camped at the southern edge of the island. When settlers arrived in the late 1800s, they founded the sawmill town of Thatcher near Spencer Lake. During the territorial period, it was considered the “mill town” of Thatcher. The town declined in residency in the 1950s, resulting in most of the island being sold to private individuals. The individuals built a private marina and airstrip for private use. Land in the central and southern parts of the island was purchased by Thomas Crowley.

Thatcher Bay on Blakely Island. Photo taken from Inter-Island Propane.

In 2014, toxic pilings of carbonaceous chemicals formed by distilling various tars and pyrolysis of plant-derived material (wood or fossil fuel) left over from earlier periods were removed from the waters of Thatcher Bay. Thatcher Bay is separated from Cypress Island, the westernmost part of Skagit County, approximately halfway between the mainland and San Juan County to the east by Rosario Strait.

There is no public access or ferry service to Blakely Island. The only way to access the island is to arrive at the marina by boat or by private plane, which is available exclusively to property owners. The only service available on Blakely Island is a general store, which is located at the marina upon arrival and is only open seasonally. Otherwise, Seattle Pacific University runs a 967-acre field station that includes a laboratory on the island.

Blakely Island Marina. By: Jenn Tran

In 1976, Thomas B. Crowley donated 967 acres of wilderness land on Blakely Island to SPU.

The Thomas B. Crowley laboratory is the main building on the SPU property, completed in February 1984. It was designed to blend in with its surrounding habitat. The building includes a laboratory space and a dining area for faculty and students.

Thomas B. Crowley laboratory. By: Peg Achterman

The building was named after Crowley, who donated the property and funds to be used to construct buildings on it. The Crowley family started an endowment, which has had other contributors donate to the operation of the Blakely Field Station today.

The Thomas B. Crowley laboratory was designed with small class sizes and independent research studies in mind. The space was mainly meant for courses in marine biology, geology, and independent field studies by SPU faculty members and members of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities. 

Crowley specified that the property would be used to provide students with an opportunity to study in an authentic wilderness environment. SPU agreed to his condition and formed a mission statement to honor it.

The mission statement reads: “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.”

At the dedication service on May 5, 1984, SPU’s Vice President Joe Constance said, “The new Crowley Laboratory is dedicated to the preservation of Blakely Island’s beauty and the environmental education of the students.”

Thomas B. Crowley Memorial is located on Blakely Peak. By: Jenn Tran

In 1977, after the SPU was given the right of the land, it began hosting classes in the field station. These classes consisted of natural science and environmental studies courses.

In 1978, a team of geologists from the University of Washington studied the composition of rocks on Blakely Island and various other islands within the San Juan region. They discovered plagiogranite—the result of fractional melting above a rapid subduction zone. (It is commonly produced in volcanic arcs and cordilleran mountain buildings) dating back 170 million years, fine-grained mudstone, and coarse-pebbled conglomerate. 

The Blakely Campus has been the setting for academic endeavors in fields other than sciences. In 1986, assistant professor of English Rose Reynoldson taught a unique writing course for adult learners on the island.

In 2018, a first for journalism, students were able to accompany biology professors Elena Brezynski, Eric Long, and Tim Nelson, who also serves as the director of the Blakely Island Field Station, Bruce Congdon, and Baine Craft, alongside biology and integrated studies students on the weekend field experiences.

Diving into discovery: Dr. Tim Nelson on Blakely Island

When Tim Nelson, arrived on Blakely Island for the first time in the fall of 1984, he was hooked.

As a freshman in an ecology class at Seattle Pacific University, experiencing Blakely’s virtually untouched lakes, forests and ocean beaches confirmed his interest in learning outdoors.

“It was a great way to learn biology as a student,” says Nelson. “Knowing that we were doing real science, actually learning ecology and not just having fun in the woods, is what made it so appealing.”

Photo by Caroline Metsker
Dr. Nelson’s signature in the Island Breeze, the boat taking SPU students to Blakely in 1986. (right side, left of the “10,” and in darker ink).

34 years later, Nelson is a professor of biology at SPU and director of the same Blakely Island Field Station that he visited as a bright-eyed undergraduate. Ever since Nelson first set foot on the island, he has found new opportunities throughout his career to revisit its serene land and seascape.

As an undergraduate, Nelson always knew he wanted to major in biology but debated between medical school and graduate school. His choice became easier when he began working in a clinical microbiology research lab at Harborview Hospital while simultaneously diving for his scuba certification in the summer of 1985.

“I remember I was sitting in the lab streaking plates while looking out the window to the sweeping view of Elliot Bay,” Nelson recalls, laughing. “I looked down at the plate and out the window again and thought, ‘I want to be out there, not in here!”

Graph by Dr. Tim Nelson
Dr. Nelson’s graph used to track his diving activity since he gained his certification.

Nelson relieved this itch to be outdoors by taking classes that went to Blakely Island during the weekend.

When summer came, Nelson did not want to stop learning from what Blakely had to offer. He found a job doing menial chores on the island during the summer between his second and third years at SPU.

After each day of splitting shakes, filling pot holes and washing dishes concluded, Nelson rushed to the marina to get a boat and dive before sunset darkened the deep waters of the Rosario Strait.

“There’s really something about being out on a boat on a sunny day and hopping in the water,” Nelson explains while remembering his first summer on Blakely. “It was really stark, amazing beauty.”

While in graduate school at University of Washington, Nelson assumed his time at Blakely was finished. However, within five years into his graduate education, SPU needed a marine botanist to teach some of the classes that Nelson took as an undergraduate. This just happened to be his field of expertise.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tim Nelson
Blakely Marina pictured in a 1983 photo book from Dr. Nelson’s collection.

“I definitely made sure to teach classes that had field trips to Blakely!” Nelson laughs.

By 1995, SPU offered Nelson a tenured track as a biology professor. His interest in marine botany expanded as he began to receive research grants from The Murdoch Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

His grant research focused mainly on blooms of green seaweeds that are found in the oceanic tides around Blakely. With his passion for diving, Nelson spent time conducting studies in saltwater environments that other marine botanists typically avoid, such as the glacial San Juan waters in the dead of winter.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tim Nelson
A diver pictured in the same diving gear Dr. Nelson wore in the mid-1980s.

However, Nelson believes that science should not pause simply because of an uncomfortable setting for study.

“In ecology, things change,” Nelson explains. “Climates are changing. Fires happen. Earthquakes happen. It matters what patterns are consistent and what holds up over time.”

Nelson’s passion for ecology put him forward as the ideal candidate for Director of SPU’s Blakely Island Field Station in 2003. He enjoys teaching some of the same classes on Blakely that initially opened his eyes to the beauty of marine botany as an undergraduate.

Almost 15 years later, Nelson is still struck by the unmatched splendor and diversity found on Blakely, from the life in the oceanic tides to the vegetation of the deep woods.

He answered without hesitation when asked which experience stands most apparent in his memory over his years at Blakely.

“It’s more of the whole experience where you get that perfect dive,” Nelson says as he leans back in his chair. “You’re coming back at sunset and the orcas have decided to come into Rosario Strait. It’s quite an experience.”

Discovering the lifelong learner within

By Tori Hoffman

As an integrated studies major pursuing an Elementary Teacher Certification, sophomore Emma Walton is passionate about learning. Not only is she committed to being a lifelong learner, but she also wants to foster and grow lifelong learners in the students she will come to teach.

With a long line of teachers in her family, Walton loved the idea of being a teacher from a young age. As a child, she would even pretend to play teacher and grade tests. Math and natural sciences had never come easy for her, so she always imagined she would teach social sciences or language arts.

“No one ever told me that I couldn’t do science, but I just always felt that way. I never liked science, I never thought I was good at science. I loved sociology, psychology and history,” Walton said. “So I was so nervous to even be doing a college-level science course.”

When Walton started at SPU, she felt comfortable choosing the social sciences track, one of the six common areas of study that students in the integrated studies major choose as a concentration. There is, however, a set of common courses that all IS majors are required to take, regardless of concentration. These courses include BIO 2571: Introduction to Biology — better known to IS majors as “teacher bio.”

Walton took “teacher bio” in the spring of 2017 and everything about it exceeded her expectations. Not only did she find Assistant Professor of Biology Elena Brezynski to present the material in a very engaging, approachable way, but she also took her first trip to SPU’s 967-acre field station on Blakely Island, Washington.

The weekend trip was intended to apply knowledge from the classroom, and Walton had a blast. She expected to hate the course and struggle through it the whole time. After all, it was supposed to be her one and only college-level science class.

“I ended up learning so much from Dr. Brezynski and I found out that the material was so interesting to me and I was fascinated by it,” Walton said. “It was amazing, and I loved it, and Blakely really sealed that over.”

Sophomore Emma Walton visited Blakely Island earlier this quarter with Dr. Long’s Intro. to Biology course.

For Walton, “teacher bio” exposed her to processes that re-instilled her love of learning, a quality she finds very important in a teacher. Though she felt in her comfort zone in her other classes, Walton says she was engaged in this course, learning new things — including how to learn again.

“Even if I don’t teach science, the skills that you learn in a science classroom are applicable to all ages and all subjects,” Walton said. “Just observing, following a process, running an experiment, you can use that in everything.”

Not only did she love the academic side of the field experience on Blakely, but she also got to swim in the lake, kayak and hike while making wonderful memories with friends.

“Being able go out on that beautiful island and to act like a kid, digging in the mud, identifying things, it was honestly life changing,” Walton said. “So after that, I switched my concentration to natural sciences and this year, I started taking more science classes.”

Walton went to Blakely for a second time in spring 2018 with her BIO 2103: General Biology course, taught by Professor of Biology Eric Long. She said it was just as magical as the first time, and has now made it her goal to take all the courses that go to Blakely so she can go as many times as possible before she graduates.

Walton rediscovered her passion for learning during her “teacher bio” course and changed her concentration within the Integrated Studies major because of it.

Her favorite part of Blakely trips is the hike to Blakely Peak, where she can apply her knowledge of plant life and also take time out of her busy schedule to pause and embrace everything around her. She calls it “refreshing and relaxing.”

Walton hopes to instill the same passion that she has seen in the biology faculty at SPU in her students and to teach them how to be good people and citizens with good values, beyond just being a good student.

“The world is so amazing and there is so much to learn and I just want students to know that,” Walton said.


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).

In spring of 2018 Seattle Pacific University’s  journalism students produced a variety of stories as they traveled alongside biology, ecology, education, and psychology students. Please explore the site to hear from students and professors, explore the island, and learn of its history.

Directions to the station and various forms and applications are contained in Planning.