“I want to be here to the day I die.”
Don Simonson is a walking history of Camano Beaches. But he loves Cavelero Beach, the beach that he grew up at, with a fierce, stubborn passion
He was born in the Hospital in Stanwood in 1937. The hospital used to be where coming off the Island into Stanwood you come to a stoplight and the Bank of America building is to your left. It was part of a brick building that took up the whole block, one solid mass of buildings, all connected.
The first building being the Post office and Hospital, then a variety store, 2 hotels, and finally the Stanwood drug store owned by Don’s dad and uncle. His dad ran the store and his uncle, a registered pharmacist who had graduated from the University of Washington, was the pharmicist. The Hospital where Don was born was on the second floor. Just west of that massive building was Carl Bang’s meat market (now Bob’s Produce mini mart).
“If you looked across the street to the east, where the Stanwood café is, that was Nelson’s bicycle shop. Across the street from that was an automobile dealership, once owned by my Uncle Kelly Simonson” Don told me.
“So you guys were like the Stanwood Mafia” I teased Don. He growled, “This is serious history here.”
Don’s relatives came from Denmark. His dad, who you could see Don admired and loved, was born in 1897 in Calgary, Alberta. He had Immigrated across Canada.
Don’s dad came to Camano in 1906. When his Grandparents had immigrated from Denmark they had relatives from Edmonds and his parent’s settled to start with in Edmonds. When Don’s dad was 9 years old, his parents put him on the train to Stanwood to stay with his grandma on his mother’s side who was a Christenson. They had a farm out on Driftwood shores, in the fields there.
“They came and picked dad up in a horse and buggy in 1906, and he spent the summer on the farm on Camano with lots of milk cows. He would go up with his Grandma and get the cows up in the woods. The would pick blackberries. It was a wonderful summer,” Don told me.
Back then Driftwood Shores was literally the end of the wagon road. No road beyond Driftwood Shores.
Don told me that Dominic Cavelero owned all the property at Cavelero. He had logged it way back when. The logs came down the crick by the country club clubhouse. Dominic had punched a road down the road to where the Cavalero Park now sits. At that time Cavalero was all swamp. You could barely get a car down the road to the beach. So Dominic built a wooden platform for a car so you could turn around.
In 1933 Don’s dad built the 3rd house on the north side of Cavelero Park. It was during the Great Depression, and lots of guys needed work. His dad hired them for 25 cents an hour. It was a lot of work because it is a big house. An Indian bachelor named “Shappy” helped a lot too.
Don’s dad, who turns out to be very enterprising and ambitious, had built a garage and had a big garden on top of the hill. There were 86 steps coming down to the house from the garage. The house was wired for 12 volt DC. Don’s dad had a light plant, a single horse gas engine, that he charged 12 volt batteries with. His mom had an old wringer washing machine. “Dad would fire up the light plant, to charge the batteries so mom could run the washing machine,” Don told me.
They heated the house with wood; when they finally came out with the stove oil heaters, his dad put one of those in. In those days there was no refrigeration, no electricity; the only electricity was when dad would fire up the washing machine. They had land lamps to read by in the evening and a radio that his dad ran off batteries.
Don had full run of the beach. He grew up on Cavelero. “It was my mother and I. Dad was in town working.” Don and his mom fished for cutthroat and dollies on the shoreline right in front of their house or off their 12 foot flat bottom cedar skiff. They didn’t have rods; they used cotton hand lines with FST Spoons. Don explained to me that they put the cotton line on a little wooden handle, so you could wrap the cotton trap line around it. They had leader material so they could attach the leader material with the swivel between the cotton line. And they’d troll along the beach.
Don raked smelt off the beach. He caught so many that his dad would have to take the rake from Don to get him to stop.
But mostly he was by himself on the beach, from the time when he could walk. He learned to swim from his mom because “dad couldn’t swim a stroke.”
Cavalero was his playground.
But not just Cavalero. The Simonson family would visit the Iverson family for dinner at Iverson’s beach, and they would come for dinner at Cavalero, and the same with Nelson family. He camped with his friend Roger Iverson at Barnum’s Point. Don remembers Bob Barnum showing them how to make fires. He remembers fishing the channel between Barnum Point and Driftwood Shores for cutthroat and dollies.
During WWII Don watched the Navy fighter planes practice dive bombing right in front of their home on Cavelero. The year was 1942. An air base had been established in Arlington that served as a navy training fighter base for the south pacific. To give their pilots practice training they constructed a great big wooden pyramid between Cavelero and Barnum Point to be a bomb target. His dad won the contract to paint the pyramid white. He used the 12 skiff with the Montgomery Ward 1.8 horsepower motor to get to the target and do the work. Since he couldn’t swim he made a lifeline.
Don would sit for hours watching the fighter pilots train, diving in and pulling out, dropping their water bombs with little charges in them, and sometimes wiggling their wings at him in greeting.
“I got good at watching them. I saw three planes go in. My mom was cooking dinner one evening for dad, and I’m watching them dive bombing and I say, ‘Mommy he’s going to crash.’ There were two kinds of plane, one with a solo pilot, and one with a pilot and a navigator/bomber. Two weeks later I was, on the beach playing. I see this thing along the shoreline and can’t figure out what it is. So I get mom, and she says ‘oh, oh.’ The navigator in the plane that had crashed had floated into shore. Mom and I walked to the K ranch. That was the closest telephone.”
They called the sheriff and the Navy, then old man Kristopherson drove us home.
Don continued his story telling.
“I remember this vividly. Here comes the Sheriff car followed by the Navy hearse down the road, out onto the wooden platform. The brought body bags, and put what was left into the body bag.”
Don told me that the navigator’s parents lived in Monterrey CA. Every year his parents came up from Monterrey and stayed with his dad and mom for 2-3 days and planted a wreath on the beach.
His mom was getting fed up with 86 stairs and a house that was too big. When Don got to Middle school, the only way to get home after after-school sports activities was to hitchhike; and his parents didn’t want that. So his dad rented the Howard house just east of the Ovenell Farm. Then he bought a house across the street from Twin City Foods. At that time Don’s Dad was a warehouse manager for Oly Lervick at Twin City Foods, managing the warehouse and cold room.
They were out at Cavelero every weekend.
In 1948 when Don’s dad bought the property he now lives on just south of Cavelero Park. It has 200 feet of waterfront and is 200 feet deep. Back then it was all swamp. His dad beachcombed for great big 12 by 12 timbers. He moved a cabin down the hill using 12 by 12 timbers and made Way to move it to where Don’s boat house now sits. He hired Don Moe in Stanwood with DC Cat to fill the property with beach rock over the stumps. Don’s eyes twinkled when he told me, “you couldn’t do that today. It didn’t change the beach one bit.” They filled over stumps and swamp and because of that trying to keep the house level was an impossibility.
It was 1952 when Don, his dad and mom moved into the little cottage with one bedroom. Don’s bedroom was in the garage behind the house. He was in high school at the time. Dominic had willed a piece of property to the County when he logged Cavalero Beach. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that they put the park in. “They filled it higher than dad’s property, so since then we’ve had a surface water problem,” Don grumbled.
Don graduated from Twin City HS in 1955. He went to Skagit Valley where he got his associates in engineering. Then he spent four years in the Air Force. In 1961 he was out of the Air Force and hired by IBM. He worked for IBM in Seattle for 32 years for IBM in Seattle. But his heart was always on Cavelero. He came up here every weekend. He was married and had two kids, Lisa and Todd. In high school I went with Lisa to her school’s prom. He and his wife divorced. Don’s mom passed away in the early 70’s. Don says with pride that his dad became the first building inspector on Camano Island. He did that into his 70’s and he lived to be 99. “He was a phenomenal man,” Don told me.
His dad lived in the cottage on Cavalero Beach until he was 96. Once a week Don would drive to the Island and give him baths and bring him food. Don’s lived in the old family cottage since 2008.
I asked him what he loves about this place, what this place means to him.
He said this.
“I want to be here till the day I die. It’s the view. Barnum’s point is a fixture, to wake up every morning and see the bluff, to see Three Sisters, Pilchuck and Mt. Baker, the the whole nine yards. There’s always something going on at the beach. You can see whales and seals, birds and orcas. A few years ago there was a big pod of Killer Whales in the Bay.”
Don doesn’t mind the yearly flooding at the high tides when big waves crash over the top of the bulkhead. He had the old bulkhead which was being washed away replaced. And has a plywood wall set up to keep the spray out of the yard. He told me that the 2nd week of March in 2016 he had 13 inches of water in the garage, 18 in the boathouse, and ½ an inch before the water got in the floor of the house, before the tide went out.
“I know this beach by heart. I’ve lived here all my life.” In a way, Don has become part of the beach himself or it has become part of him. And I hope he can stay at his little cottage on the Beach until the day God takes him home.
Note: It was an honor for me to interview Don. He is truly one of the treasures of Camano’s Beaches. Interestingly enough, I went to a prom with is daughter Lisa at her high school in the Seattle area.