After hours

What happens when class is dismissed?

A weekend at Blakely is a field trip. Forest hikes and tide pooling take up most of the day, and in the evening, lectures and lab work trail on till dinner. But when the dinner bell is rung and dinner devoured, students have the rest of the night to themselves.

While dusk still yields light out, the first thing that students of Dr. Elena Brezynski’s “Introduction to Biology Attributes” anticipate is the lake.

Bobbing together, a floating huddle of students skirt the water on paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks. Sophomore integrated studies major Sarah Garvin finds the wide-open lake freeing from the day’s packed schedule.

Students boat across Spencer Lake after dinner. Photo: Micah Lim

“We’re in kayaks and canoes in the middle of a lake in the middle of an island. We did tide pools, so much lecture, a hike, and now we have free time for the first time since we got here, so we decided to sit in the middle of a lake. Jenna and I were thinking about jumping in, but maybe tomorrow morning,” Garvin said.

From one end of Spencer Lake and back, the sounds of laughter carry across the water. After every lifejacket is packed away and shoes are hung up to dry, the students head inside.

Spoons are arranged in a circle, one less than every player. The person who doesn’t grab a spoon in time is out. Photo: Micah Lim

Like a retreat center, the field station is also outfitted with a variety of activities, and it is a place to wind down. Inside the field station, encyclopedias sit alongside Apples to Apples, Connect Four, and Settlers of Catan. Decks of cards stack neatly next to Uno and Codenames.

Sophomore integrated studies major Olivia Pederson, opens the utensils drawer and pulls out a stack of spoons.

“To play you deal out cards and pass them to each other,”  Pederson said. “When someone matches four [cards] you’re supposed to grab a spoon from the middle [of the table] and if you don’t you’re out.”

Aptly named, spoons is a game of speed, like playing musical chairs, the cutlery clatters when someone slaps down a four-of-a-kind. Between games and the sound of spoons, others gather on the couches to sing songs. Hanging on the wall is an acoustic guitar and an ukulele.

From Taylor Swift to Disney Channel, song requests challenge muscle memory and chorus. Each catch tune brings voices together to sing along.

Upstairs in the dormitory, the fireplace crackles. Caretaker Brian Rodda leaves freshly chopped wood and kindle next to the cast iron fireplace.  As students stoke warmth in the common room, they spear marshmallows onto sticks, toasting or burning the Jet-Puffed to their liking.

Students gather around the fireplace to roast marshmallows. Photo: courtesy of Isabella Tranello.

Cozy with blankets, smores, and hot tea, the night ends. Students retire to their rooms with more lectures and hiking ahead of them. Surely, they will wake up and be back on the water and around the fire to do it all again.

Blakely Island: An artist’s inspiration

Seattle Pacific University student Emily McElheran speaks to how the natural beauty of Blakely Island is inspiring for her as an artist.

Emily, a Visual Communication and Illustration double major, went to Blakely Island with Dr. Langford’s Creation Care class in the Spring of 2024. While there, she was struck by the beauty of the island.

Sitting on Bald Bluff, looking out over the San Juan Islands, with sketchbook at the ready, Emily noted, “As an artist, I definitely feel like I can like engage with nature differently and I just, I see a lot of the details, I think.”

The view from Bald Bluff that inspired Emily McElheran. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

The breathtaking landscape in front of her was more than just inspiration for Emily, it was a challenge: “I see all these different like lines or all these different patterns and I just immediately think of how I could create that.”

This stunning backdrop helped Emily intersect her faith and her art. She said, “It’s so insane the different like patterns that God can create and the different intricacies that nature has. It’s like a constant puzzle of like how I could get remotely close to recreating that beauty and like capturing that.”

When asked what her artist’s eye was most drawn to on Blakely, she said that the mountains drew her attention the most: “Specifically on Blakely I think I’ve noticed honestly like more of the mountains. In the heart of Seattle, every now and then you can see them if you’re like going across the Aurora bridge or every now and then but like here that’s kind of like any opening you get, that’s all you see.”

Emily McElheran stands on Bald Bluff. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

Her time at SPU and experienced eye for art helped her to engage with this unique place in a way starkly different than the biology students who frequent the island. Still talking about the mountains, she said, “As far as you can see are all these different mountains and my brain then goes to like honestly to a color analysis of them. And then I’m like, how could I paint that? And I think of, ‘oh there’s a little bit of orange in here mixed in with that blue or there’s some yellow over there.’”

Emily sat looking out from the Bluff and commenting on it for only a moment before she put pen to paper and started sketching all that she saw.

Blakely: A legacy of family, nature, community

Blakely Island, a peaceful and beautiful retreat, is a beloved escape for many, including Elise Nelson, the daughter of the current director of Blakely Island, Dr. Tim Nelson. Over the years, Nelson has created countless memories, drawn to the island’s natural charm and close-knit communities.

“It’s a place where people can leave the city behind and truly reconnect with nature,” Elsie Nelson said.

As the rain poured down outside, dimly lighting the atrium, Nelson cuddled Kaya, the caretaker’s dog, under the skylight, reminiscing about her first visit to Blakely. The island’s magic continues to weave into her life, providing a sanctuary where cherished memories and new adventures unfold.

Elsie Nelson on Blakely Campus, taking a stroll (Sharli Mishra).

Since the tender age of three and a half months, Nelson has visited Blakely Island, building a quilt of memories that intertwine with the island’s serene landscapes and vibrant community.

“One of my favorite memories is a boat ride, playing cards, probably Go Fish, with my family and the previous caretakers’ black Labrador sitting by the door,” recalled Elsie Nelson. These early experiences laid the foundation for a lifelong bond with Blakely Island.

Dr. Tim Nelson and Elsie Nelson on the peak of Blakely chatting about the Douglas Fir
Dr. Tim Nelson and Elsie Nelson on the peak of Blakely chatting about the Douglas Fir (Sharli Mishra).

The island not only has a beautiful environment, but it also fosters a sense of community.

“The community that gets built in just one weekend is amazing,” Elsie Nelson shared.

This camaraderie, coupled with the opportunity to disconnect from the city’s chaos, makes each visit a rejuvenating escape. The consistent return to familiar faces and places cultivates a sense of homecoming and nostalgia. Each trip to Blakely is marked by familiar rituals and new adventures. A favorite spot for Nelson is a little pier by the lake, offering a peaceful retreat to soak in the surroundings. Nelson’s connection to Blakely is also deeply rooted in family traditions.

Many memories involve exploring the island with her father, strengthening their bond through shared adventures. The relationship with past and present caretakers of the island has also enriched these experiences. From enjoying cookies set out by previous caretakers to bonding with the current ones, these interactions add a layer of warmth and familiarity to each visit.

Elise cuddling Kaya by a door in the Atrium (Sharli Mishra).

One of the highlights of any trip to Blakely is the encounter with Kaya, the caretaker’s affectionate dog.

“Kaya is a sweetheart, always ready to greet you when you get off the boat,” Elsie Nelson fondly mentioned.

These small yet significant moments with Kaya encapsulate the welcoming spirit of the island. Nelson speaks fondly of the tall Douglas fir trees and the shorter hemlocks, whose presence contrasts sharply with the concrete jungle of Seattle. The island’s flora, including the distinctive skunk cabbage, evokes a sense of nostalgia with its unique scent, bringing back memories.

Reflecting on her father’s influence, Nelson acknowledges the impact of Tim Nelson’s long association with Blakely. Tim Nelson first visited the island as a college freshman in 1984, taking a junior-level ecology class.

“We were measuring trees, just hanging out at the field station. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I thought it was an amazing place,” Tim Nelson recalled.

The experience left such an impression that he resolved to take as many classes as possible that involved fieldwork, often returning to Blakely for research and teaching.

“It was warm, it was comfortable, it was welcoming. Nature there is spectacular,” Tim Nelson added.

Tim’s dedication to the island has shaped Elise’s experiences as well. He fondly recounted how the island has evolved over the years.

“There have been a few new homes built, and the island did have a pretty serious thinning operation that cut down a lot of trees. But in a lot of ways, it hasn’t changed much in terms of the physical structure,” Tim Nelson noted.

The unchanged aspects of Blakely contribute to the timeless charm that continues to draw the Nelson family back. In addition to family hikes and teaching moments, Tim has countless memories on the island. These explorations not only strengthened the father-daughter bond but also instilled in Elise a deep appreciation for the natural world.

Elise exploring the Tidepools
Elise exploring the Tidepools (Sharli Mishra).

Despite the strong connection to nature, Elise’s career aspirations lie elsewhere. Preferring a math-based path, she aims to enter elementary education, inspired in part by a family legacy of teaching. Interestingly, one of her former teachers was a student of her father, highlighting the interconnectedness of their educational journey and Blakely Island.  Elise Nelson considers Blakely Island a place of peace, community and personal growth. Her visits to this cherished place strengthen the bond, making it a constant source of joy and nostalgia. As Tim explained in his testimony, Blakely was the start of a legacy of shared experiences and a deep connection to nature that will continue to shape his and his family’s lives for years to come.

Deer dynamics of Blakely Island

Inside the eclectic sanctuary of Dr. Eric Long

Dr. Eric Long’s office is a sanctuary for the curious mind, a repository of knowledge and memories. Upon entering, one is immediately struck by the walls lined with a rich collection of ecology books on the freshly polished shelves. These shelves groan under the weight of an impressive mini ecology library, with volumes ranging from ancient botanical texts to the latest research in environmental science. Each book, lovingly worn, tells a story of countless hours spent in study and contemplation. 

Scattered throughout the room are personal photographs, capturing fleeting moments of joy and discovery. In this small part of his room, Long can be seen smiling broadly with a group of students, their faces alight with the thrill of learning. There is also a candid shot of him and his family on a rugged hiking trail.

Dr. Long Office tables that reflect memories created over a lifetime

These pictures, framed in simple, understated wood, bring warmth to the space, reminding visitors of the man behind the scholar.  But perhaps the most arresting feature of Long’s office is his collection of deer skulls. These macabre yet fascinating artifacts are displayed with a reverence that borders on sacred. Each skull is unique and carefully mounted, with its antlers stretching like gnarled fingers grasping the air. They are not trophies of conquest but relics of curiosity, each representing a story of the wild and untamed.

The room is bathed in a soft, natural light that filters through a large window overlooking a verdant campus quad. This light, coupled with the earthy scent of old paper and polished wood, creates an atmosphere of quiet contemplation. Dr. Long has created a space that is as much a reflection of his mind as it is a tribute to the natural world he cherishes.

Long shared insights into his lifelong passion for wildlife and ecology, tracing his journey from a young ornithologist to a distinguished expert in large mammal ecology.

“I have always been interested in wildlife,” Long said, reminiscing about his early experiences with birds. “I just loved the feeling of working with wild animals and figuring out what stories these things could tell me if I had a chance to track them.

Long’s master’s project involved working with cougars, which he described as a “blast,” despite the challenge of working with a small number of individuals over many years. Transitioning to his PhD, he found himself immersed in deer ecology.

“I enjoyed it because I was still working with large mammals, but there were a lot of deer,” Long explained. Over four years, he and his team captured over 2,000 deer and placed radio collars on 600, allowing them to ask and answer critical ecological questions.

Long talks about how blacktail deer got into Blakely.
He mentioned one of his memories with a deer named Pablo, who traveled on and off Blakely Island.

One significant focus of Dr. Long’s research has been the impact of hyper-abundant deer populations on ecosystems, particularly on Blakely Island.

“The population density of deer is higher than it was historically, largely due to the eradication of predators and extensive logging, which opened up the forest canopy,” Long noted.

This has led to an imbalance in which preferred tree species like Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar struggle to regenerate, while less favored species like Western Hemlock thrive. Long and his students have spent nearly two decades at Blakely, a tenure that has also led to his extensive collection of deer skulls.

“It’s kind of a research project,” Long said. “Whenever my students find a deer skull, they bring it back to me, and we take basic data on it.” This collection, now numbering over 700 skulls, has provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of ecological changes on the deer population.

In discussing the broader ecological implications, Dr. Long highlighted the concept of trophic cascades.

“If you remove predators, the deer population increases, which then decreases the vegetation they feed on,” Long explained.

This imbalance affects plant regeneration and increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

“Hemlock, which deer don’t prefer, is more fire-prone than other species. With the climate getting hotter and drier, these hemlocks become tinder, creating a fire ladder that can turn ground fires into devastating canopy fires,” Long said.

Long’s work underscores the complex connections within ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences of human interventions. His research, deeply rooted in both scientific inquiry and a profound respect for nature, continues to shed light on the delicate balance required to maintain healthy and sustainable environments.

Diary of a scientist at Blakely: Dr. Bruce Congdon

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 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 at Seattle Paciific. 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 eyes of Dr. Congdon, someone who has been a career long and lifelong advocate for what he calls “Blakely Island Magic.”

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

“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” Congdon said.

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.

Things to do on Blakely

Check out this vlog style video on a quick rundown of things to do on Blakely. Most definitely come prepared for any weather. 

The sunny weekend that we were blessed with sheds light on the many Blakely activities focusing mainly on the outdoors. Getting the opportunity to travel with the professors and their families outside of any structured class allowed for great freedom in getting to explore, run wild, and ultimately allowed us time to explore Blakely and all its magic. 

 

Summer science 

SPU students share experience of living, taking classes on the island, the transformative nature of Blakely

Blakely Island in the summer is a unique experience, but unless students are part of the biology department, it can be hard to find information about what the experience is really like.  

Ashley Goss, a cellular and molecular biology major, is a senior at SPU who went to Blakey in the summer of 2023 to take Environmental Physiology with Dr. Wall-Scheffler. She broke down what a typical day on the island looked like for her class.  

“It is a five credit academic class, lab class included. We would start off the morning, have breakfast, and go to class in the laboratory classroom for a couple of hours. We would take quizzes based on the readings we had to do. And then about every day we would leave the classroom to go out into the environment to do some sort of interactive lab,” she said. 

Tidepool creatures found while doing lab work (Courtesy of Ashley Goss).  

Goss also spoke about the variety of different labs she and her classmates participated in.

“One day we went to tidal pools and we observed different species within the tidal pools, which correlated to one of the readings we had done about how intertidal regions are really hard for species to overcome and adapt to,” Goss said. 

But this was by no means the only lab they completed. Goss shared a story from the island about a lab gone wrong.  

“We did a lab with plants looking at stomatas. So, we got to go out and collect our own plant that we wanted to look at. We dispersed based on what we were looking at to come back to the lab to run it with nail polish,” Goss said. 

Students completing the fern project in the lab. (Courtesy of Ashley Goss).

“We collected ferns. And we went to the lab thinking, this is going to be so easy. But we spent seven hours in that lab because we could not get it to work. And then we found out that we just happened to pick a really bad species for it where the nail polish doesn’t adhere properly. It was really funny. But at the time we were so distraught,” Goss said. 

For those in other classes, the workload was less intense. Naide Perez, a senior majoring in social justice and cultural studies, took Environmental Biology back in 2022 with Dr. Ferrer. She spoke about the some of the field work that she and her classmates engaged in. 

Canoes from the water lab day (Helen Petersen).

“On the second day we went on a really long hike taking tree samples. The third day was when we took the water samples. When we went canoeing out on the different lakes and took samples to look for organisms and bacteria. That was the best experience by far,” she said. 

Perez also found value in working together with her classmates. 

“We had to do a project where we had to collect a bunch of different plants and identify them. Everybody was in the lab room trying to get their projects done. Especially since most of us weren’t STEM majors, everybody was like, well, this isn’t my field of expertise.  It just made it so much more easier to build those genuine connections. We relied on each other,” Perez said.  

Outside of classwork, students found time to make connections and get to know their peers.  

“We had an unscheduled movie night that we put together for ourselves. Everybody had put their defenses down and was willing to vibe. Some of us were working anxiously to get our projects done. And then others of us had it in the bag. But we were all in the same space enjoying a movie,” Perez said.

Beyond bonding and classwork, some students come away from the summer class experience changed on a deeper level. Ellie Jancola, a senior biology major, is one such person. Jancola has been to Blakely many times, for Conservation Biology and Environmental Physiology.  

“I see Blakely as a place of peace and restoration. It makes me want to go outside more. It makes me sad that I live in Seattle where the green is harder to find and air is not as fresh. But Blakely offers a separation from that and an escape from that. I really appreciate how empty it is,” Jancola said.

Even two years on from her Blakely experience, Perez still highly values the effect that her summer class had on her academically, as she found a new understanding of science while on the island.

“Science has always been a super hard subject for me to approach. It was nice having this different approach to it where you’re actually on the island doing things instead of in a controlled laboratory on campus, trying to simulate outdoor conditions. There’s no other way I would have wanted to learn about environmental science than through that trip,” Perez said.

Whether taking an upper-level science course or a general biology class, going for the second time or the first, taking a class on Blakely Island in the summer is an unforgettable experience which students come back from changed, academically as well as personally. 

‘Sawdust Beach’ restored to beautiful Thatcher Bay

2009 restoration project clears wood waste from nearshore area on Blakely Island

The old sawmill that sat above Thatcher Bay (Photo: SPU Archive)
Thatcher Bay in May of 2024, 10 years after the restoration (Photo: Uriah Aguon)

Home away from home

Brian and Deborah Rodda service SPU, treat their souls

Blakely Island Dining Hall (Photo: Uriah Aguon)
Brian Rodda inside the field station’s workshop (Photo: Uriah Aguon)
Deborah Rodda in the dining hall’s kitchen (Photo: Uriah Aguon)

Rising canopies, shifting habitats, and declining deer