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What? A Sea Otter in inside waters?!

What? A Sea Otter in inside waters?!

By Nancy Olsen, Trail Tales Coordinator

Sea Otter swim - Pete HaaseHave you seen one of the Fidalgo Bay RIVER OTTERS along the shores of the Tommy Thompson trail? It wouldn't be a big surprise to see the shiny dark furred figure scamper over the rocks or glide through the water foraging away for its meal. But it would be a big surprise to see a SEA OTTER along the shores of Fidalgo Bay or anywhere else inside the Straits of Juan de Fuca. However – a couple volunteers were lucky enough to watch a SEA OTTER busy being a sea otter at Lime Kiln Point on San Juan Island 2 weeks ago. You might do a double-take when you photo at right taken by Pete Haase (Beach Watcher, MRC Forage Fish Lead) when he was at Lime Kiln with friend and fellow Beach Watcher, Salish Sea Steward, Trail Tales docent and MRC Beach Naturalist "Dr" Bob Weathers. These pictures looked to me at first to be a RIVER OTTER because I have never known a SEA OTTER to be out of the water and I didn't know they would ever be seen in from the coastal waters. But it is a SEA OTTER and sure enough, a few occasionally are seen in the San Juan Islands.

Because of this unusual visitor and because our Trail Tales "mascot" on the logo is a RIVER OTTER, I thought you might be interested in some of the other facts about SEA OTTERS and RIVER OTTERS that I learned from investigating photos. Regarding the history and range of sea otters: Prior to the 1800's, SEA OTTERS numbered between 100,000 and 300,000 along the Pacific coast and likely many places in the Salish Sea. However the intensive harvesting for their valuable pelts that began in the 1740's, brought their numbers to near extinction in less than 100 years. There were no SEA OTTERS in Washington for more than 50 years until 1969, when 59 sea otters were reintroduced to the Washington coast from Alaska. Still the population remained small with a few communities scattered on the outer coast, and in 1981, the sea otter was listed as a state endangered species. Washington's sea otter population is surveyed annually in July through a combination of aerial and ground counts along the entire outer coast and eastward into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The July 2012 survey produced a total count of 1,105 sea otters. The single largest concentration (562) of sea otters was at Destruction Island. No otters were sighted in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Source: These excerpts from 3 sources reflect the rare sightings of SEA OTTERS inside the straits of Juan de Fuca in recent times:

At the present time, Washington sea otters occupy almost exclusively rocky habitat along the Olympic Peninsula coast and western Strait of Juan de Fuca. *(1)

 A few individual sea otters are occasionally seen in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, as well as along the Oregon coast. As of 2010, the Washington sea otter population totals just over 1,000 otters.*(2)

Reported sightings of sea otters in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound almost always turn out to be North American river otters, which are commonly seen along the seashore. However, biologists have confirmed isolated sightings of sea otters in these areas since the mid-1990s. Professional marine mammal biologists verified a single sea otter observed near Cattle Point, San Juan Island in October 1996.*(3)

*Sources (1) (2) (3)

Sea Otter - Jim MayaAlthough I was unable to find information about the population that at least occasionally hangs out in the San Juan Islands, the photo (at right) from Jim Maya who is a boat captain for whale watch tours in the islands is an indication that the one otter that Pete Haase and Bob Weathers saw 2 weeks ago has at least a few buddies out there!

Sea Otters vs River Otters In case you are like many people who don't readily see the difference between Sea Otters and River otters, visit this Seattle Aquarium presentation to learn how to tell the difference. 


Cleaning up Anacortes' Shell Tank Farm

Cleaning up Anacortes' Shell Tank Farm

The Former Shell Oil Tank Farm, currently located between 13th and 14th Streets east of Commercial Avenue was originally a portion of the Fidalgo Bay tide flats, which were filled to the current grade between 1925 and 1929. The property was acquired by the Port of Anacortes (Port) in 1929 and subsequently leased to the Shell Oil Company in 1930 for use as a bulk fuel storage and distribution facility that primarily handled gasoline and diesel range fuels until it was decommissioned in 1987and all tanks, piping, and structures were removed.

Starting in mid-October 2014, as part of the Puget Sound Initiative, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Port will be completing a remedial excavation to remove approximately 4,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil within the readily accessible portion of the Site. Confirmation soil samples will be collected during the excavation activities to verify the successful removal of contamination.During backfilling activities, an oxygen releasing material will be placed at the extents of the excavation to stimulate naturally occurring microbes to enhance biological degradation of organic contaminants potentially remaining in place beneath the sidewalk and asphalt surfaces of 14th Street and the Q Avenue. Excavated areas of the Site will backfilled with imported clean soil.

Following the remedial excavation activities the Port will monitor groundwater to confirm that concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, and cadmium do not exceed groundwater cleanup levels. For more information, please contact Nick Acklam at the Washington State Department of Ecology – Toxics Cleanup Program: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (360)407-6913.

Shell tank color

Shell Tank Farm 1966 Aerial



Two Tommy Thompsons

Two Tommy Thompsons

By Regan Weeks

Here we are starting another Trail Tales season, introducing many locals to Anacortes stories along the Tommy Thompson Trail. One of my questions as a relative newbie to our island was "who was Tommy Thompson?" In finding the answer, I found double trouble. There were two Tommy Thompsons – father and son, and both have fascinating histories. Tommy Thompson (the father) was essentially the first American chemist to devote his major efforts to investigating the chemistry of sea water.

Born in 1888 on Staten Island, and trained as a chemist, he came to the University of Washington with his wife Harriet to pursue a graduate degree after serving in WWI. He stayed on to eventually become a full professor in 1929. He and Harriet had 3 children: Tommy Jr., born 10/3/1923; Jack, born 9/8/1925, and Harriet born 4/30/1931. During the late 1920s, Thompson became increasingly interested in the difficult problems associated with quantitative analysis of sea water, and spent summers working at the Puget Sound Biological Station on San Juan Island. In the days before large research grants were common, Thompson and his wife agreed to budget 10% of his salary to his research, which brought them both satisfaction. Some additional History: the San Juan Island Puget Sound Biological Station -now UW Friday Harbor Labs- was established in 1903 with the first classes in 1904. Students and teachers lived in tents, washing their own clothes and rowing and sailing to access interesting marine sites. It was a rough life, but students came from all over the world to attend for a few weeks in the summer.

By the mid 1920s the Station had 3 objectives: "First, to instruct grade school teachers in the fundamentals of biology so that they in turn may create and foster interest in biology in the children under them; second, to create an opportunity for those interested to receive instruction in advanced undergraduate studies pertaining to marine biology; third, to make laboratory space and equipment available for investigators who wish to work on marine biological problems." The facility became known as Friday Harbor Labs in 1951.) In 1931, based on a National Academy of Sciences recommendation, the first interdepartmental Oceanographic Department at the UW and the UW Oceanographic Laboratories at Friday Harbor were established. Thompson was selected as the first director, and was given a $250,000 grant by the Rockefeller Foundation in part for six months' travel to study oceanographic and marine laboratories throughout northern Europe. This visit helped shape the policies and procedures at the UW and probably also helped foster Thompson's hobby of stamp collecting. When Thompson became director, objectives at the UW Oceanographic Laboratories were completely refocused on research, and the one-time primary objective of offering summer classes for teachers was discontinued.

Thompson was director of the UW Oceanographic Department and Oceanography Laboratories for 20 years, from 1931 to 1951. Under Thompson's guidance a small research vessel, the Catalyst, was built for the Laboratories and was put into operation in 1932. Into her 75-foot length were packed accommodations for a crew of three and bunks for thirteen students and professors, together with a laboratory for chemical work and the special gear required for collecting samples at sea. The head was convertible and could serve as a bacteriological laboratory when needed. One of his students later wrote: "The final result was a trifle top-heavy, which accounted for the great amplitude of roll and prevalence of "mal de mer" (sea sickness) among the devoted passengers and crew." Tommy—sometimes called "The Admiral" under these circumstances—was a man of courage, the first to master his discomfort and to carry on in the face of adverse winds and waves. Seeing him in oilskins on the somewhat perilous platform hanging over the ship's side, superintending the collection of a water sample from the depths was to sense his persistent interest in the mystery of the sea." There was an operational hiatus during WWII, when Thompson, his 2 sons, and other professors joined the war effort and the UW Oceanographic Laboratories shut down to become a training facility for the U.S. Marine Corps. The facility returned to normal operations in 1947. The Catalyst was used by the Marines during the war and was not returned afterward. Remember mention of Thompson's stamp collecting hobby? During WWII, Tommy and Harriet Thompson were able to buy McConnell Island, one of the small Wasp Islands located between Orcas and Shaw Islands, in part by selling some of his valuable stamp collection.

RVThomasGThompsonAfter the war, the family built a stone and driftwood house, and Tommy Jr. put up a 9-inch gauge track around the island for a train. In one of the last summers that Thompson spent at the island, over 700 visitors were recorded in the guestbook, demonstrating his wide-ranging friendships. Three years after his death in 1961, the US Navy built and named a 209-foot research vessel after Thompson (R/V Thomas G Thompson), used by the UW. A newer 274-foot research vessel was built in 1990 which now bears his name. It is occasionally seen in the Dakota Creek shipyard for repairs or upgrades. Thompson won a number of academic awards including the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for his original contributions to the science of the ocean, election to the NAS, and the May 25, 1960 presentation of a Certificate for distinguished service to the people of Washington by Governor Albert Rosellini. This is only a short sketch of Tommy Thompson the world-renowned chemist. Additional information can be found in a 1973 National Academy of Sciences Biological Memoir in the bibliography.

So who was our Tommy Thompson, the son? Thomas G. Thompson, Jr., the eldest child of Thomas Sr. and Harriett Thompson, was interested in trains and steam engines from an early age. At 16, he worked shoveling sawdust at a steam-powered sawmill on San Juan Island; after high school he worked for the Northern Pacific Railway in Seattle. During WWII, he spent 2 years in Iran as an engineer on a state railroad. When the war ended, he went to school at the UW to become a mechanical engineer. By the mid-1950s Tommy moved to Anacortes and went to work at the newly opened Shell Oil Refinery to run and maintain the steam turbines and pumps. He and his family moved to a home on the north side of Campbell Lake and he bought several steam engines, restored others, and helped restore the Seattle City Light steam locomotive which ran between Sedro Woolley and Concrete.

Tommy Thompson was a man of steam engine vision, and from the 1960s right up to his death in 1999, he dreamed of a steam engine locomotive and rail cars operating here in Anacortes. He worked hard to develop the train himself and at the same time enthuse others. I liked a quote of Tommy's from the July 1992 Fidalgo Magazine: So many people miss out on wonderful experiences when they flop on the couch and watch TV when they get home from work. I would make a deal with myself every day to give 10 minutes to my interest and if I was bored or too tired after that time I would stop and go in the house. Usually my wife Anne would end up having to drag me to bed. In 1961, Tommy proposed to build and run a 16-inch gauge railway on vacated railway beds at his own expense from the State ferry dock to Sunset Beach in Washington Park, but this vision was shot down by property owners along the route. The setback didn't slow him down for long. It was in 1965 that Tommy heard about the closing of the Homestake Mining Company in Lead, SD. They were apparently getting rid of their mine equipment, and after visiting it on a family vacation, Tommy was able to buy a compressed air locomotive (#22, built in 1909 by the HK Porter Company) with a ton of spare parts, all to be delivered by rail. It would take a lot of work to transform an old mine locomotive into the swan that Tommy had in mind, and he built an oil-fired foundry in his back yard so he could do all his brass castings himself. Tommy figured that including the time to make the patterns, it took him about 1700 hours over a 5 year period to complete the Fourney (superstructure on top of the original #22 locomotive). The locomotive was originally fired with coal; Tommy rigged it to fire on a cleaner, cheaper, and sweeter-smelling fuel – Douglas fir bark.

Over the years, Tommy proposed several different short railway routes on unused railroad rights–of-way, but he could either not get property permissions or the plans did not gel. After the 1961 plan to run from the State ferry dock to Washington Park was shot down, Tommy proposed a route from the State ferry dock to downtown. A different route proposed in 1975 was down Q Avenue from 7th Street to the Thrifty Mart Shopping Center (1500 block between Commercial and Q avenues). In 1982, Tommy proposed a one mile railway to operate between J Avenue and Dakota Avenue; Burlington Northern and other property owners did not give permission to use the unused railroad right-of-way. In 1985, Tommy proposed a railway from the Depot to 3rd Street, then west to N Avenue; this plan also was not realized. As our Trail Tales group learned about the Anacortes Parks Foundation work to establish the Guemes Channel Trail, getting property permissions for public access can be a difficult task! The locomotive finally ran in Anacortes for the first time in 1979 during the August Arts & Crafts Festival. Temporary 18-inch gauge track (meaning they were laid 18 inches apart; standard track is more than 4 ½ feet wide) was laid on Commercial Avenue from 4th Street to the Port Dock, and rides were provided during the fair. They were a tremendous hit, and the train ran annually during the fair from 1979 through 1982.

TommyThompsontrainDuring the 1980s, Tommy continued to work on his train, building three finely crafted passenger cars, each of which could hold 4 people. Details on the cars included buttoned and tufted red velvet upholstery, vases that held fresh flowers, cherry wood raised paneling, plush carpeting, and in addition, the parlor car was furnished with crystal lamps, a library, and an Italian marble fireplace! The cars were named Anacopper Road, Cap Sante, and Magic City. From 1986 to 1988, the Anacortes Railway ran from the W.T. Preston north to 5th Street on special occasions. From 1989 to 1999, Tommy, Anne, his sons and friends ran the Anacortes Railway from the Depot south to 9th Street, then west to Commercial Avenue during summer weekends and holidays. 9th Street was unpaved before the railway was built by Tommy and his kids with the help of community volunteers. There were matching turnarounds at each end of the route. One turnaround is in the sidewalk outside the Calico Café; this was paved over in 2012.

In the late 1990s, Tommy proposed to run his train from the Depot to March Point using the unused railway bed to Weaverling Spit, on the trestle over Fidalgo Bay.  It was a wonderful vision, but not to be.  On January 23, 1999, Tommy Thompson died of leukemia, and on May 1 of that year, his family ran the train for the last time. From 2000 to 2012, Tommy's train was stored in the Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle.  In 2012, Anne Thompson very generously gifted the train to the City of Anacortes.  The train played a starring role in the 2012 Anacortes Fourth of July Parade (on the back of a truck), and until an appropriate display venue is developed, the train is stored in the railway building in Anacortes.  For those of us who missed seeing Tommy's train in action, there is a YouTube video that shows the train and Tommy himself at the helm, uploaded by Tom Thompson (no relation).  You can view it here and a second short video.

The name Tommy Thompson is well known in Anacortes, and no wonder!  The father and son both made substantial contributions to our area. Tommy Thompson the father helped us understand and value our marine environment, and set the UW Friday Harbor Labs on the path it's on today.  Tommy Thompson the son promoted Anacortes' small town character, and by focusing public attention on the trestle over Fidalgo Bay, perhaps he also helped save the very walking trail that our Trail Tales group relies on for our interpretive walks.


Thomas Gordon Thompson 1888—1961, A Biographical Memoir by Alfred C. Redfield, Clifford A. Barnes and Francis A. Richards, Copyright 1973, national academy of sciences, washington d.c. (

New interest emerges in building railroad for downtown area, 12/17/1975, Anacortes American

Tommy Thompson and his Train, timeline compiled by Terry Slotemaker, 2013, Source Anacortes Museum Files

Anacortes Railway steams into season, July 1992, Fidalgo Magazine

"All Aboard!"  Thompson's dream turned into a railroad, July 1992, Fidalgo Magazine

Tommy Thompson's train coming back home to Anacortes, 6/27/2012, Anacortes American

Touring the Tesoro Refinery

Touring the Tesoro Refinery

On May 13th, Trail Tales volunteers and members of other leading conservation groups were hosted by Tesoro Refinery for a tour of the March Point Facility.  Initially intended to be a Trail Tales extended learning opportunity, Tesoro Lead Environmental Engineer Rebecca Spurling, and several other staff and managers offered to host as many as the chartered motor coach would accommodate for a "perimeter tour".  This enabled Trail Tales to invite members from Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen's Committee and the Marine Resources Committee representatives Salish Sea Stewards volunteers.

The tour began in Anacortes and included stops at various points on March Point with Tesoro project leads and managers and specialists providing information about operations at the refinery and pier and rail transfer facilities, marine/water protection, oil spill response and conservation efforts. At one stop, Toby Mahar, engineer from the Northwest Clean Air Agency regulatory staff explained air emissions monitoring and regulation that she is involved in at the refineries.

Tesoro also provided a picnic lunch for attendees which expanded the opportunity for community members and Tesoro staff to engage with each other informally.  Trail Tales volunteers now have a better understanding of the Tesoro refinery operations and environmental protection programs, which they can refer to when questions are raised during our walk programs. The tour lasted approximately 4 hours and all participants felt it had been very valuable and informative.

Fidalgo Shoreline Academy - A Huge Success!

Fidalgo Shoreline Academy - A Huge Success!
The 2014 Fidalgo Shoreline Academy was a big success on February 5th with 90 attendees, up 20 from last year!  We hope those of you who attended enjoyed the day and were inspired by the many educational presentations and walks.  Our keynote speaker, Dr. Deborah Kelley wowed the audience with an amazing presentation on deep sea volcanoes and vents with amazing photos and videos.  She even brought some samples of volcanic rock from the ocean floor for us to see and feel. 

Sorry you missed it or can't wait to learn more? You can learn more about the UW Interactive Oceans program that she is involved with and you can learn more about her research with Dr. John Delaney, our keynote speaker in 2012, on their research vessel the "Thomas Thompson" at the University of Washington's Interactive Oceans website.  We're hoping to line up a visit for Friends members and volunteers to their ship when it comes to port.  You can view the  video here.