From “Saltwater People”
❖ “Light on the Island” ❖ by Helene Glidden, a Northwest classic from 1951
|Chart from The Light on the Island by Helene Glidden,
Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1951.
“If ever a book was calculated to recite the wonders of living in the San Juan Islands it is The Light on the Island, quite a different volume from any other yet written about the group. It is confined to one of the least visited spots, Patos Island, the farthest American outpost on Georgia Strait.
Helene Glidden, former Seattle resident, was the author and the child, Angie, in this story of a lightkeeper’s family, who went to the island in the early part of the 20th c. when communication with the mainland at first was only by rowboat. Four of the thirteen La Brege children died there. The others had many narrow escapes from death.
Patos Island at that period afforded many adventures no longer possible. For instance the children trapped enough river otter so that Mama and several of the others had fur coats.
It was from the Indians that the small La Brege children learned to gather and eat giant, red, sea urchins. The children collected beautiful agates, shells, and birds’ eggs. They harvested kelp for Father’s garden. Once the mother was dragged into a boat by a stranded octopus, another time her sister Estelle was attacked by an eagle.
Adventure follows adventure in quick succession, Angie drifts to sea in the island lifeboat, a fisherman takes pot shots at the youngsters, a bearded fugitive hides on the island, furnishing a mystery, and Theodore Roosevelt comes to pay a visit of several days.
|Patos Island Light Station
Undated, early photo from the S.P.H.S. ©
The natural surroundings of the place supply some of the most enjoyable episodes. One wonders if it still is possible to find basket starfish at Patos, and if there are ever windy winter nights like the one when a flock of wild canaries got off course and struck the lighthouse tower. The children gathered several of the injured birds, dumped them in the woodshed and barn, fed and nursed them for two days, until the hardiest ones took off again in favorable weather.
Was there ever another seal like ‘Paddy’, one of a pair the children befriended? Paddy became so troublesome tagging the family around the house, hanging onto skirts and whining that he was taken out in the channel periodically and dumped overboard. Each time he came home and each time he was carried further away. Finally Mother put him on board a lighthouse tender bound for Astoria. A month later Paddy returned. When Mother announced she was going to have a nervous breakdown if something wasn’t done with that seal Father took Paddy down to the water’s edge. There was a shot and Paddy never bothered Mama again. The children after that were ordered to stay away from the seal rocks.
The book has the humor of Life with Father and I Remember Mama, with a dash of salt thrown in. It’s a real San Juan family album.”
Seattle Times, October 1951
Glidden, Helene Durgan. The Light on the Island; New York, published by Coward-McCann, Inc., 1951.
A 50th anniversary edition, with photos added, was published by San Juan Publishing in 2001.