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Blood Agates, Smoke Wood and Kelp Horns

There were all sorts of kids growing up on Vashon in the 50’s, most good, some bad.  There was a kindred spirit in us, as joined, to the instant recognition of an off-islander.  City people coming to Vashon seemed to have an attitude of the “city slicker” versus the “country bumpkin” that we found annoying.  They thought they were better than us and we resented that.  They didn’t belong to the Boy Scouts, the Shoe Busters (our square dance club) or the Trail Riders (our riding club), they were from off island and not worthy of our pastimes such as walking the beach, looking for treasures that had come in with the tide.   

Beach combing was held in high respect for the values we found there.  Agates were a favorite find and I know a beach where many can be found yet.  Blood agates are reddish in parts and translucent when held up to the sun, very prized and sought after.  The milky looking agates were definitely of a lesser grade.  You had to be trained to recognize a prize agate when holding it up to the sun.  If you couldn’t see the light thru the stone, then it was thrown away as being too poor to keep.  Our parents were our teachers; especially Dad, who would lie on his side on the beach and rake his hand thru the gravel for hours showing us kids how to spot the agates, whether they were large or small.  The older and more experienced kids did better than the young ones in recognizing a prize agate.

  The values on the beach are in the eyes of the beholder unless it has to do with food.  Our Grandfather would shuck a raw clam and eat it on the beach with the juice running down his chin.  The Indians had a different way and poked their geoducks onto long sticks and smoked them over a fire.

If you google “smoke wood”, it won’t come up.  Maybe it is a local phenomenon.

If you were to look in the drift for small sticks with little holes in the end, you might be on the way to finding smoke wood.  You have to look high and low on the tide line where the beach stays dry most of the time.  There is no name for a bush whose branches fall into the harbor and become drift wood.  We called it “smoke wood”.  The salt soaks into the wood and eats out the lignin and leaves little holes you can draw thru, like a straw.  A short stick becomes a cigarette when lit and puffed on.  Most everybody smoked in the 50’s.  We were only allowed to smoke on the beach and couldn’t bring our smoke wood into the house because it stunk so much.  They told us it would stunt our growth.  We did it anyway.
Not all the girls smoked, but when they did, it was a dainty little stick, unlike the wooden stogies the boys smoked.
If we came on a lot of smoke wood sticks, I would carefully cut the ends of the sticks off square, so the wood would smoke evenly, then put 10 sticks together and tie them with a rubber band.  Taking the smoke wood to school, I would sell it for 10 cents a pack and make good money.

Riding logs or blowing kelp horns were other distractions we found at the beach.   Finding a fresh bunch of kelp was important to making a good kelp horn. We would cut off the top of the bulbous end of the kelp to make the horn and cut it again about three feet down the tube, round out the inside of the small end of the kelp as in a trumpet mouthpiece, and purse your lips and blow it like a bugle.  The longer and bigger the kelp, the lower the note.  It was very musical, and we loved all the noise we could make.

My brother Mike and our neighbor Kit and I were avid log riders especially when a freighter was coming thru Colvos Passage. The best log for riding wasn’t completely round, thus making it less tippy.  The paddle was a thick stick, preferably thicker on one end to grab more water.  Kit Bradley was a scrawny little guy with big ears that stuck out and when he got tanned in the summer, he looked like a monkey and he climbed trees like a monkey.

It was a cloudy day on Colvos Passage a half mile South of Cove.  There were no whitecaps but the two foot waves would cause a lot of resistance to a person paddling a log.  Luck was with you if you could find a plank that was long enough and thick enough to hold  your weight.  Kit was a good ways offshore when we saw a big freighter coming down the passage.  Mike yelled: “Kit come back, it’s too dangerous”.  Kit couldn’t hear us and the freighter kept coming.  We were worried...
He wasn’t going to hit Kit, but was coming close.  The captain hadn’t even blown his horn when the waves from the stern wash caught Kit and threw the log around in a circle.  Kit hung like a monkey to the log as it careened thru a series of 6foot waves.  He had broken his paddle so it took a long time to make it back to shore.  We weren’t really worried...
The rewards of the beach were many, depending on what came in with the tide.  After WWII the navy and merchant marine ships were dumping all the surplus army gear and ammo over the side before they could enter the shipyard at Bremerton, jeeps included.  Most of it didn’t float, but if a pistol belt had an empty canteen attached to it, it could make it to shore on the tide.  The one I found held a canteen, medicine pouch and an empty holster.   When I opened up the medicine pouch, there was a package marked MORPHINE.  Anyhow, I put it over my shoulder and took it home to show Mom what I had found.  She didn’t like it one bit and took the morphine away from me.  I wasn’t supposed to know what morphine was; when I had seen it used in one of my WWII comic books.

Mike was in the bow of the 10 foot rowboat yelling at Dad: “We are sinking; we are sinking”.  Dad replied: “Get the coffee can and start bailing”.   Big waves were crashing over the bow and the water was running to the stern, so I did the bailing while Dad rowed.  We were in the tidal rips off Piner Point, headed for Pt. Robinson.  The old rowboat was my grandfather’s and painted grey.

Dad’s plan had been to row around Maury Island and haul the boat over to the inner harbor at Portage, where our Grandfather’s house was.

It was good cutthroating close to the shore and we picked up a couple nice fish for dinner.  Cut-throat have a red patch under their jaw and thus the name.  They are a kind of trout and we used gang spoons and a worm to catch them.  Our Grandmother never learned to use a pole and reel.  She used a handline  made from cuttyhunk, wound on a square frame of wood.  Her Jack Lloyd was a string of silver flashers with little red beads that resembled fish eggs.  Night crawlers made the best bait, but we couldn’t always get them.  We didn’t like using gang spoons because they took the fight out of the fish.  A more sporting way was to use a flatfish, a small wooden plug, painted to look like a shrimp, and carved to make it jerk to both sides; thus giving the fish a fighting chance.   

The rowing was tough, even for Dad who was balding and not a small man, having been a boxer in his college days, like his Father before him.  We came to Pt. Robinson and built a fire on the beach.  Dad rolled potatoes in tin foil and threw them in the coals.  The cutthroat we cleaned and fried over the fire.  Never did trout taste so good.

Rolling up in our sleeping bags, we drifted off with the sound of the rollers crashing on the beach.  The gravel hissed as it was dragged by the waves.

“Help, Help, a bear is chasing me” yelled my brother Mike as he hopped down the beach toward the Salish Sea, still in his sleeping bag.  It was 4:00 AM.  Dad grabbed him before he made it to the water, he tried to convince Mike that there was no bear, it had only been a bad dream.  It started raining the next morning, so we packed up our wet things and started rowing back the way we had come.