Sentinel Island – The Last Island Homestead

We motored our sailboat northwest toward the narrow channel between Sentinel and Spieden islands, hoping to spot a few of the exotic animals grazing on the golden grass of the latter island before sunset. Suddenly, we realized we were losing power and our forward momentum dropped to nil. Drifting backward like a cork in the current toward Green Point’s strong riptides off the southeastern tip of Spieden Island, we scrambled to launch the inflatable dinghy with its 15-hp. outboard engine from the stern davits.


Photo credit: Washington State Dept. of Ecology

Tying it alongside our sailboat, my husband gunned its motor while I steered the larger boat toward the shallow, east entrance to Roche Harbor, normally impassable at anything but high tide, and squeezed our stricken vessel into a slip in the marina. Calm seas and weather, a nearly slack high tide, and experience towing our boat enabled us to prevent a potential calamity at sea. A week later, we sailed home with fewer dollars and a new transmission. We are thankful God kept us safe.


The BIG Problem


The SMALL Solution

Sentinel Island is a 15-acre island owned by the Nature Conservancy. Passengers aboard the Washington State ferries travelling to and from Victoria on Vancouver Island from Anacortes pass by this gumdrop-shaped island on the northern side of Spieden Channel.


Cactus, Spieden, and Sentinel Islands (L to R)

Interesting seabirds like black oyster catchers, cormorants, eagles, glaucous-winged gulls, and pigeon guillemots can be seen nesting on nearby Sentinel Rock, Center Reef, and Barren Island. These rocky gems form part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, so going ashore isn’t permitted. Instead, bring a good pair of binoculars and a camera telephoto lens to see and photograph the birds.


Pigeon Guillemots

Sentinel Island, the final island in the San Juan Islands to be homesteaded, was settled in 1919 by Farrar and June Burn. In her autobiography Living High, June tells about their experience. “There was Sentinel Island, like a green gumdrop, fir trees lifting their beautiful crowns into the sky, sedum-covered bluffs sheering straight down into the rich, green-blue water.” Ashore were “delicious little plateaus where we later found grass up to our knees and wild peas, tiger lilies, camas and fritillaria in their seasons.”


Wild Sweet Pea


Tiger Lily





Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

But wanderlust drew them to accept teaching positions with the Alaska School Service. After selling their sixteen-foot rowboat with its single fishing line for $25.00 to a blacksmith from Roche Harbor, the couple packed two trunks with bedding, cooking pots, clothing, and a typewriter. They lived among the Eskimos at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska during the 1920-21 school year.

The following year, the couple relocated to Sentinel Island where June would give birth to their two sons. The couple moved to nearby Johns Island to raise their boys, exploring the rest of the islands in the San Juanderer. They didn’t stay long. In 1928, the Burn family embarked on a camping trip around the United States. When they returned to the Pacific Northwest five years later, they resettled at Sundown Farm on Fishery Point on Waldron Island. After further travel, Farrar and June returned home between 1957-62. Now advanced in years, they chose to retire on Sentinel Island in 1967, but physically could not manage the lifestyle. Instead, they bought a farm near Fort Smith, Arkansas — Farrar’s hometown. June passed away in 1969 and Farrar in 1975. The Burn family donated Sentinel Island in 1979 to the Nature Conservancy.


Photo credit.

The above photos of our 30-year-old transmission and anchorage in Desolation Sound remind me that if the failure had occurred two years earlier, we would’ve been many miles from a repair facility. And if we’d not replaced our rowing dinghy with an inflatable, we may not have been able to rescue ourselves.

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 – NKJV)

Thank you for reading!



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4 Responses to Sentinel Island – The Last Island Homestead

  1. Very interesting, Deb! Definitely a different lifestyle than what I’m used to!

  2. dave says:

    what a great wealth of insight into all the many different islands. thank you so much!

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