Submitted by Robin Donnelly for the Old Military Road Trail Committee
Thanks to the cooperation of the Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust we now have a beautiful new and historic public land to explore.
On Sept. 26, National Public Lands Day, five years of negotiations and planning came to fruition when the 285-acre Zylstra Lake Preserve on San Juan Island officially opened part of its roughly 3-mile loop to the public.
The trail, which runs approximately 1 mile along the eastern side of the lake, is closed from October to April to protect migrating waterfowl. Dogs on leashes are allowed on the 1.6-mile trail (3 miles total out and back) until Nov. 1 and allowed again in April for the full loop. Leave no Trace, pack in and pack out.
Fall, even at this crisp crust of the season, is a great time to hike. As leaves colorfully flair and drop, a whole new landscape appears. On a gorgeous sunny fall Sunday, we enjoyed the Zylstra Lake trail opening along with many other eager walkers. Begin at the parking just off San Juan Valley Road. A trail map there gives a good overview of the area you will be traveling.
These rich lands, easily accessible from the Military Road and its offshoots, also appealed to early homesteaders for raising grains, planting orchards, or grazing cattle, hogs and sheep. One such homesteader was James Archambault.
Archambault, on whose 160 acres you are now treading, married Mary Delaunais, a Cowlich native in 1863. They had 14 children. Native wives of early settlers played an essential role in the settling of the islands and for the survival of these early families.
To homestead, settlers needed to “prove up” their land. They had to live on their claim within six months and settle and cultivate it for 14 months before they could qualify to purchase it for a small price, or sans cash, show various improvements after five years. The Archambaults built a house and barn and cultivated oats and an orchard.
Now you have entered what was the homesteading claim of Catherine Vermouth. Beginning with the Homestead Act in 1862 any head of household or single individual, including women, over 21 years could file for 160 acres. Catherine was the daughter of a Kanaka (Hawaiian), John Bull, who was a shepherd with the Hudson Bay’s Belle Vue Sheep Farm from 1854-1860 and Fu-hue-wut Mary Skqulap, a Lummi/Clallam. Catherine and her secondnd Kanaka husband’s “proving up” consisted of a log house, barn, chicken house, fencing, orchard, and 40 acres in crops. (Boyd Pratt/Zylstra Lake Cultural assessment)
Over the years these homesteads were bought, sold and divided many times until Fred and Rena Zylstra and Ernest and Dodie Gann bought up most of what had become known as San Juan Valley Farms, Inc.
Who the heck was Zylstra? Fred Zylstra arrived in the United States from Holland in 1919 at 17 years old. He and his wife, Rena, whom he married in 1923, moved often around Western Washington until in 1945 they founded Northwest Kitchencraft and then Rena Ware, and a fortune in stainless steel cookware was made. They bought this property in 1960 and named the enterprise Wooden Shoe Farm. In 1963, they created this 48-acre lake to improve irrigation, especially needed during our dry summers. The dam provided water for pure-bred Herefords, a cash crop of holly and about 400 acres of San Juan Valley farmland. At the time the lake was touted “the largest private manmade lake in Washington.” (Boyd Pratt)
We are so lucky to have this new preserve available to the public. Working together the Land Bank and Preservation Trust have an important job they do so well and also rely on our help and input. Besides providing a diverse habitat, Zylstra Lake is still used for irrigation, needs that have to be balanced with sending enough uncontaminated water through the remainder of the False Creek Watershed, out into nearby False Bay and into the Haro and Juan de Fuca Straits. False Bay creek may also be a missing migratory link for cut throat trout and salmon, an exciting prospect.