Value of Blakely Island

DONATING:

Thinking about giving to the Blakely Island Field Station, listen to these testimonials of Blakely Island employees, professors and students.

Friendship and Community

Belle Burnside

SPU Ecology Student and Former BIFS Summer Employee

Practical Application of Education

Krysta Reece

SPU Ecology Student, BIOCORE Scholar’s Learning Assistant and Former BIFS Spring Break Employee

Emphasis on Research and Teaching

Dr. bruce COngdon

Professor Emeritus of Biology and Former Field Station Director

Student, Professor Connections

Gemma Gaxiola

SPU Integrated Studies Student, attended ’24 Spring Session with “Introduction to Biology” course

Breathtaking Boat Views

Katie HIll

SPU Elementary Education Student, attended ’24 Spring Session with “Introduction to Biology” course

Hands-on Learning

Kiersten Moranville

SPU Elementary Education Student, Attended ’22 SPring

Unique Resources

Kaitlynn Knocke

SPU Biology Student

Strengthening structures of strong foundations

 Financial delegations of resources at Blakely Island Field Station

After a fulfilling day of labs, lectures, hikes, and outdoor adventures, a group of Seattle Pacific University students gather in the Blakely Island Field Station dining room—sharing laughter, stories, and the strum of a guitar, while enjoying their dinner. This vibrant atmosphere, brimming with joy and tranquility, fosters the creation of lasting friendships and connections that transcend the boundaries of the classroom, leaving an undeniable mark on the students’ lives.

For the Field Station to continue offering these unique, hands-on educational experiences and fostering deep connections among students, it is crucial that we address the financial aspect. Like any institution, the Field Station relies on funding and income to operate effectively and provide students with the best possible experience on Blakely Island. The bulk of our income is derived from university endowments, which are funds dedicated to ensuring the Field Station’s financial sustainability and are typically earmarked for specific purposes, and donations from external sources, which can be utilized for any pressing need upon receipt.

The Field Station has five active endowments: The Operational Endowment, The Friends of Blakely Endowment, The Ross and Barbara Shaw Endowment, The Zinza Endowment and the Ronald C. Phillips Endowment. Only two are used as an income source: The Operational Endowment, which keeps the facility open and running smoothly, and the Ronald C. Phillips Endowment, which helps support undergraduate research activities on Blakely Island. The other three are used to provide scholarships for students at SPU and other institutions. For the most part, endowments give the station a more significant sum than general donations because donors can directly decide where their money goes and how it will be used.

According to the Giving Day website, the Field Station plans to use these funds to rebuild the bridge that connects the dining hall and lab to the dormitories, which has visible signs of deterioration and rotting wood. It will also provide student fee reductions for summer classes, support undergraduate research projects, and address any other facility and repair needs around the campus.

The remainder of the Field Station’s income is from course fees and tuition from summer classes. Course fees are described in the SPU Course Catalog for any class venturing to Blakely Island during the summer or traditional school year.

For example, SPU biology professor Dr. Ferrer’s “Environmental Science” class has a non-refundable $300 fee to cover the cost of a Blakely Island trip. The price varies on the time the class spends on the island, ranging from $200 to $400.

The Field Station does not receive funds from tuition during the regular school year, but it does for any summer courses on the island. Seventy percent of students’ summer tuition for the courses they are enrolled in goes directly to the Field Station.

Money is gained and spent to run an educational and research facility such as the Field Station. From July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the cost totaled about $310,000.

The largest expense is the salaries and benefits of those who run the station. While this is a large sum of money, the cost is worth the quality of care that the caretakers and all other employees provide for students who journey to Blakely Island.

Many of the expenses paid by the Field Station involve improving the students’ experience, such as food, student aid, utilities, and maintenance and supplies.

The other four sources include operational costs that keep the actual facility functioning, which include insurance, taxes, utility bills and other miscellaneous expenses.

To pay off these expenses, the Field Station relies on the money it gets from donations, endowments, summer course tuition, and course fees. If these expenses are not paid, it will become difficult for them to provide impactful, safe, comfortable, and life-changing experiences for students, whether through their learning or their connections with nature and classmates. Students will continue to reap the benefits as long as money continues to flow into the beautiful, serene, and community-driven campus of the Blakely Island Field Station.

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.

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.

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

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.

Keeping fires at bay

 Exploring fire safety at Blakely Island Field Station

The Blakely Island Field Station is a place of education, community and tranquility for the Seattle Pacific University community. But imagine a forest fire engulfing the 967-acre isolated campus and that idyllic scene changes fast.

To protect students, researchers, residents, wildlife and native vegetation, Blakely Island and the Field Station have a strict outdoor recreational burn ban. Sadly, making s’mores over a cracking campfire is prohibited, but the Atrium fireplace is a nice second choice.

Fire departments in the San Juan Islands typically implement these burn bans when humidity is low. This weather leads to dry trees and grasses, which are perfect for the rapid spread of wildfires. 

Three students from Dr. Elena Brezynski’s “Introduction to Biology Attributes” class roasting marshmallows in the fireplace (Isabella Tranello).

Fires can be dangerous for a place like Blakely Island, which has no official fire department, because it has several spots of dry vegetation among its beautiful hikes. The closest thing to a fire department on the island is two trucks that residents can use for small fires. 

Unlike Blakely Island, other surrounding islands, such as Orcas and Lopez Island, can adjust and remove burn bans when weather conditions improve because they have access to local fire departments. Fortunately, Blakey Island is protected under Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources because of its forest landscape. 

The DNR protection requires emergency and fire rescue teams to respond to incidents on the island. Chief Noel Monin leads one such team at the San Juan Fire Department and Rescue in Friday Harbor, Washington. 

Monin has an extensive history working among Washington’s wildland fire protection agencies despite only being the department’s chief for the last two months. One of these agencies is the United States Forest Service, where he gained extensive experience responding to emergencies and assisting during wildland fires. 

While working in his current district, Monin has responded to several incidents on Blakely Island. 

“I was on a wildfire at Blakely Island that had to be over a decade ago, and we think it was a lightning strike that occurred in the summer. We had to take our boat out there because we have a contract with the DNR as the local initial attack wildland response team,” Monin said. 

Knowing that Blakely Island has no fire department may strike fear in some potential visitors. However, according to Monin, the likeliness of a large, uncontainable fire occurring is unlikely. 

“We are in a marine environment that has very, very moist air. And what drives wildfire is a combination of things. It’s a science,” Monin said. “You have to have fuels that are drought-ridden, such as live fuels that are dry, dead fuels that are dry and fields that are conducive to fire spread. You also have to have topography that aligns with these things as well. So, in the San Juan Islands, we typically don’t have those alignments.”

Despite the unlikeliness of a fire, students and other visitors need to know what procedures are in place if a emergency like this occurs. Deborah Rodda claims that other caretakers on the island are great about banding together to fight small fires, but wildfires are an entirely different beast. 

“The other caretakers around the island will help each other by providing water from their supplies to put out the fires if they are small enough,” Deborah Rodda said. “Wildfires are more scary. We could call someone to put the fire out, but we would likely have to evacuate, which is sad. It would be the only thing we could do until it was put out.” 

Blakely relies on responses from departments such as Monin’s for larger fires as they lack the resources to handle them properly. Still, fire extinguishers are available all around the Field Station, such as in each of the four stairwells in the dormitories, the kitchen, the dining hall, the laboratory and next to the fireplace in the Atrium.

There are also fire alarms installed on the walls of each building, a fire blanket in the kitchen, sizeable red emergency boxes in various outdoor locations and a standpipe near the canoes and floating gazebo. 

Besides readily available fire extinguishers and fire prevention equipment, the Blakely Island Field Station caretakers, Brian and Deborah Rodda conduct routine maintenance around the island to protect the island, the residents and visitors from potential fires. 

Isabella Burnside, a junior ecology major and former summer employee at Blakely Island, worked alongside them and two other students in 2023.

“There’s so much dead wood, especially around campus,” Burnside said. “Over the summer, we took piles of it, hauled them into a truck and moved them to a burn site, where they’re allowed to burn once a year. It all gets burned at one time, and then it helps prevent the fires.” 

Although fires may not occur during a person’s visit to Blakely Island, Monin’s experiences prove it is not impossible. Other incidents of fires are outlined in JoAnn Roe’s book “Blakely Island in Time,” including a fire in 1956 that was started by a campfire on a beach at the southwest end of the plat and burned for 72 hours.

The fires described in this book are rare, and while there is always a potential risk for fire, the dedicated efforts of those who oversee the land have significantly reduced the danger. If burn bans are respected and proper fire safety procedures are practiced, Blakely Island’s atmosphere of relaxation and knowledge will continue to captivate visitors for generations. 

“There’s a danger, but it’s not as bad out here as people think. They look and see all these trees and bushes and think it’s just going to blow up and burn the whole island down,” Monin said. “That takes conditions, and those conditions don’t happen very often. We’re not running scared from nothing.”