THE PAT NEAL COLUMN: Dangerous waters

THE APPARENT LOSS of two fishermen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca last weekend reminds us all just how dangerous these waters really are.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, I’ve had to look at some of my own close calls and wonder why I’m here.

It was a time back in the dim years in the last century. We were just kids camping on the beach.

That is still no excuse. Excuses are not allowed on the Quileute River bar.

A friend was going on a cruise in his new boat. He planned a circumnavigation of James Island, site of the Native American fortress called Alekset.

I invited myself along on this monumental voyage to do a little duck hunting. We were tired of eating rabbits.

I don’t think I had a hunting license. It probably wasn’t hunting season — heck, it never is on a national wildlife refuge, national park or Indian reservation. Like I said, we were running on pure ignorance.

Looking back, I wish we had been apprehended by the authorities. It would have saved a whole lot of trouble.

The fact we were not arrested before leaving the dock is an indictment of the federal justice system.

The only cops we saw were ripping a sailboat apart looking for contraband. No one noticed two heavily armed juvenile delinquents sculling out of the harbor.

Oh, did I mention: The boat was a flat-bottomed, double-ended, home-made thing about the length of a sheet of plywood, say 8 feet or so.

It was powered by a set of oars or paddles that must have been about the diameter of broom sticks with some boards nailed to the ends.

It was a bright and sunny day. A low even swell came out of the southwest from the vast expanse of the open Pacific Ocean.

We dodged the swell by sneaking out through a narrow channel to the north of the island.

We paddled through the rocks that I would not take a motorboat through these days.

There was a strong current and a powerful up-welling of bubbling waters, a sign of some undersea rocks or monsters below.

We paddled stupidly onward to a small cave that opened to the sea. It looked like a lot of ducks were flying into the cave.

We had to investigate.

Once inside the cave, two things became quickly apparent.

The ducks were cormorants. Even if they had been ducks, duck hunting inside a cave is never a good idea. The ricochets off the rock walls could be harmful to your health.

Then there were the incoming swells, any one of which could have crushed us against the roof of the cave like a couple of bugs.

We pulled out of the cave just in time. The swells seemed to be rising.

There was a bit of wind trying to push us on shore. We continued south, passing a little bay where waves crashed against shear cliffs.

We rounded the point beneath the James Island Light and met the current of the Quileute River on what must have been an outgoing tide.

It pushed us to the southwest toward the Quileute Needles. It’s also a wildlife refuge, but we didn’t care at the time.

We were paddling for LaPush, riding the swells with a good tailwind. As we approached the beach the swells grew larger. The mist from the surf rose like smoke in the air.

A wave caught us. I heard the crack of a breaking oar as we hit the beach and dragged the boat ashore.

It was good to be alive.


Pat Neal is an author and fishing guide whose column appears on this page every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or at

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