“I had a beach. It was the ultimate playground.”
Bob Uhrich and I were classmates beginning in Ms. Hundley’s class in the 3rd Grade at Stanwood elementary. We graduated together from Stanwood High School in 1987. But it wasn’t until I sat in the kitchen of his childhood home with Bob and his mom, Sue, that I learned his Camano story.
It goes like this.
Sue and her husband Nick and boys Bob and Joe lived in the Green Lake area of Seattle. The way they found Camano was either great luck or God. Sue believes it was God. “This is where God takes over. We just went with the flow,” she says.
A couple named Peggy and Cal Hart moved next door to them. The Harts had been renting Peggy’s sorority sister’s family beach cabin at Maple Grove. But this year they weren’t able to. A next door neighbor at Maple Grove named Howard Grothe offered to rent his house to them. They did and invited the Uhrichs to visit them over a weekend. The Uhrichs had such a blast that they decided to rent it after the Hart’s time was up. So after the Harts rented it for 2 weeks, they rented it for the next 2 weeks, then their friends Sharon and Dave Bell rented it for 2 weeks. Between the three families there were a whole “gaggle of kids” there: Bob and Joe, Elaine and Jeanine Bell, and Erin and Robbie Hart (who resurface in Lisa Dean Myhre’s account of Rocky Point Beach). The three families rented the Grothe cabin in 2 week blocks for the next three years.
Even though he was just in kindergarten, Bob remembers how they spent summers at a small cabin in Maple Grove. The kids spent hours exploring the beach. They’d walk north to an old log sluice that still had its iron plates mounted on it. Mrs. Hart would have us find a flat piece of driftwood. She’d then give us a bottle of glue and we’d make sea-scape collages on the board with sand, shells and colorful rocks we collected. Almost every day we’d walk up to Huntington’s Grocery for candy. The owner, Carrie Wang, had the most wonderful penny-candy isle. She was so kind and would let us take as long as we like in making our candy decisions.
Then there was the tree house. This never-ending monstrosity of scrap wood, rope, bent nails, and beach logs took up a large part of our time. Summer kids and local kids gathered there and played. There was also a rope swing. The tree that held this 4 level kid dwelling grew out of a bank above the houses on the beach and was accessible via a rickety bridge another kid had engineered. Playing there was one of my fondest memories.
He remembers the constant visitors to the beach cabin on the weekends.
The Uhrich’s were hooked.
Maple Grove was once one of Camano’s many fishing resorts. But in the 1970’s it was beach houses and a County park, about 1 acre in size with 200 feet of tidelands and a boat launch. Bob was only in kindergarten but remembers those days on Maple Beach. “All the kids in the community, the summer kids and the local kids, worked on the never ending communal tree house that was constantly under construction,” Bob said. “We were always working on the tree house, or playing on the beach, rarely inside.”
When Nick began to work in the Middle East with Petrol Chemical and Sue and the boys could live anywhere she began to think about Camano. The deciding factor was a conversation that happened after a wonderful fall day that Sue, Joe and Bob had spent at the Camano Island State Park. They were heading back to Green Lake when one of the boys said “where are we going mom?” Sue said “we’re going home.” “But mom,” he replied, “home is Camano Island.”
For Sue, that was the deciding factor.
They made the move permanently to Camano Island in 1977, the summer before Bob began 3rd grade in Ms. Hundley’s class. They bought a home that had been built on a bluff between Utsalady to the south and Brown’s Point to the north. They have a sweeping view all the way from Utsalady Point across to Whidbey and Polnell Point, and Browns Point. .
I asked Bob what it was it like growing up there?
“I had a beach. It was the ultimate playground. When I would get in trouble my mom would ground me, sometimes for two weeks at a time. It was wonderful. The rule when you were grounded was you couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t talk on the phone, and you couldn’t leave the property. And the property was the house, the land it was on, and the beach – as far as I could walk left or right. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t go on the road. I was on the beach.”
One of Bob’s favorite past times at the beach was, and is, fishing.
When Bob and Joe were young, casting off the beach for whatever we could catch was a favorite past time. They still do it today. They didn’t have much for gear back then….a couple of old Eagle Claw poles and maybe a Mitchel 300 reel. They didn’t have much for lures either. The only heavy lure that would cast a decent distance was the old Acme Stee-Lee spoons. They bought these down at the Utsalady Store, but could only afford one or two at a time. While fishing we’d occasionally get snagged up on a rock. We’d carefully tie the line to a stick and stake it above the high-tide line. When the tide went out, we’d go back to the beach and try to find our lure. Good casting lures were pretty rare then. Sometimes they’d try to make our own lures out of snuff tin lids. “I don’t remember catching much with those, but we did try,” Bob said.
Bob’s first boat that was his very own washed up on the beach when he was about 11 years old. Boats do wash up on the beach occasionally. They pull them up above the high-tide line and eventually the owner comes along and retrieves their lost boat. This boat in particular was an eight foot fiberglass row boat with rounded bow and shallow draft. Bob’s dad told him to pull it up, and if no one comes by to pick it up after a year, he could keep it. It stayed on the beach all summer and into the fall with no one coming along to claim it. There were no postings about it at the store and no one mentioned missing this boat. By spring Bob had picked up a couple of oars for it at a garage sale. And at one year on the beach with no one claiming it, he hauled it up to the house. He and his dad repaired the fiberglass, put on a new transom board, and painted it. It was a great father/son project. Bob put it back down on the beach and used it for years, spending hours in that old boat trolling by rowing or casting spoons while he drifted. He even crabbed out of it. It was the perfect boat for a young kid.
The Uhrich’s have a whole flotilla of boats now and all the necessary fishing gear!
But they didn’t need a boat to fish from. Bob, Joe and their mom loved to fish off the beach. They were always tuned into the tide and weather, always hoping for the right mix of each. The best times to fish are on the evening high-tide, and the very best time to start casting is just as the tide turns, which was almost always the exact moment Bob’s mom rang the dinner bell. “Dinner is in the house, at the table, with everyone present. I swear she has this internal clock that matches dinner time with prime fishing time. If anyone wonders why Joe and I are such fast eaters, well there ya go.”
But for Bob it wasn’t just fishing. Bob and Joe and their friends built forts out of driftwoods, dug clams at low tide, looked for agates, and raked lots of smelt off the beach too. Their house was (and is) a magnet, a destination for extended family. They always had family over and friends came in and out all the time.
For Bob the beach is always changing. “The power of wind and tide is truly amazing. There was a hollow log that was 5 feet across and about 3o feet long that was on my parent’s beach for years. We hid a grill top in there and would use it to cook oysters on our beach fires (making a road trip up to Blau’s for a bag of oysters was a summer ritual). That log stayed there for about 15+ years….and then after a stormy high-tide….it was gone. Other big root balls and logs have come and gone. Some were appreciated for their location as good place to pull up your boat, or the perfect spot to sit next to a beach fire. Some would drift in and end up blocking the beach stairs or force you to find a way around them when the tide was high. It never mattered the size of the log, wind and tide would eventually take them away.”
I asked Sue what the beach meant to her.
“It’s our zoo, our aquarium, our aviary. We live right here in the middle of it. We have deer walking through our yard, otters, possums, blue jays, lots of eagles, herons, the little chicken hawks, and doves have just come in the last two years, besides all the other animals. And then there’s all the sea life in the water – otters and seals.”
“How do you feel about people walking on your private beach?” I asked. Sue told me she doesn’t let people walk down their stairs because that’s a liability issue. But a lot of people do walk the beach, just leave it in the same condition as you got it: “Leave it like you got it.”
Bob told me that I really had to walk down to the beach. He said that it was unique, that there were no houses down there, “you’re in another world. You have privacy,” he said. “Sure you have people who walk up and down the beach, but when you’re on the bluff you don’t know are on the beach, and when you’re on the beach you don’t know there are people above.”
We walked down the stairs leading to the beach. He showed me the crab pots he keeps, and the kayak, and the 12 foot stiff he uses to troll around and to crab with, and the smelting net, and the rock that he fishes for silvers and cutthroat off of. And we talked about what a privilege it was for us to grow up on this Island, this beautiful place.
At the top of the stairs Bob and I rested. I said “I’m getting old, I’m out of shape.” Bob said, “me too.” We looked up again at the water and the Islands. He said, I never get tired of the sunsets here.”
And I thought that Camano Island was not just a great place to grow up, but a great place to grow old together.