The Lure of Lummi
Edible adventures from sea to shore
BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTO BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
“So what is there to do on the island?” I hear a visitor ask the woman in front of me at her driver’s-side window. We’re waiting in line for the tiny, open-air car ferry to transport us to Lummi Island, just a five-minute ride from the small mainland terminal.
Her answer: Not much.
As the cars pour off the arriving boat, residents leaving the island wave at their neighbors returning. A family with two young children cycles off after the cars.
A few minutes later, I’m making my way towards Nettles Farm Bed and Breakfast, where I will spend the night. A cool, salty breeze blows through the open car windows as I drive along Legoe Bay. The speed limit here is 25, but it’s hard to push the gas pedal that much, with the view opening up towards the San Juan Islands, the broad shoulder of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island front and center. Humble beach cottages decorated with sun-bleached buoys sport picture windows that face the islands and a driftwood-strewn beach.
Lummi Island is best known as the home of the venerable and vaunted Willows Inn, the restaurant where head chef Blaine Wetzel has funneled his training from Copenhagen’s hyper-local Noma restaurant, widely considered to be the best in the world. Friends repeatedly asked if I was headed to Lummi for the purpose of dining at The Willows Inn, a bucket-list item for most foodies that carries a $175 price tag for the prix fixe dinner.
My focus instead is on less expensive pursuits. And it turns out that with an eye towards balancing relaxation with adventure, there’s plenty to do on and enjoy about Lummi Island.
Soon after stepping out of the car at Nettles Farm, I’m greeted by the wagging tail and fluffy paws of Stella, a Lagotto Romagnolo, which is a rare Italian breed trained to hunt truffles. Her owner is the farm’s proprietor, Riley Starks, who is training Stella to identify the thousands of truffles growing on the five-acre property.
Starks has run Nettles Farm since 1992, and it’s just up the hill from another property he used to own: The Willows Inn. He can claim responsibility for bringing Wetzel on, though Starks says he had never heard of Noma before he hired the chef. Together, the two built the Willows into one of the best restaurants in the country, if not the world. Though Starks sold The Willows Inn and resort to Wetzel in 2012, the restaurant’s staff often harvests dinner ingredients from Nettles Farm.
Starks shows me the suite I’m renting, and it’s a beauty, with towering wisteria vines draped over the porch and a chef ’s kitchen with a high-end pizza oven at its center. Starks sells pizza dough and various seasonal ingredients to guests, and stocks the suite with the makings of a fantastic breakfast: his farm’s fresh eggs, steel-cut oats, yogurt, his homemade blackberry jam, a jar of honey from his apiary, coffee he’s roasted, Hempler’s bacon, and a few thick slices of bread. Guests can also harvest herbs, berries, and more, just a few steps away.
Starks is known for two other things: chicken and fish. He raises heirloom-bred chickens for a few mainland restaurants and occasionally conducts u-slaughter classes, where participants learn the art of humanely killing their dinner. At the time of my visit, with his stock running a little low, Starks says the classes are on temporary hiatus.
Starks has also fished for decades, long before he was a farmer. “Right after college graduation, I bought a fishing boat,” he says. Starks is part of the Lummi Island Wild Co-op, a group of reefnet fishers who use the traditional method of salmon fishing, adopted from the Lummi Nation.
Today’s boats are more modern than the historical vessels, but the method is the same: the fishers stand on towers a fixed to the boats, scanning the water for schools of salmon, a net suspended between two boats When a school is spotted swimming over the net, the nets are brought up quickly to reduce the stress inflicted on the salmon. Bycatch, the term for other animals unintentionally netted, is limited with this practice, and crews spend time tossing unwanted species back into the water. Altogether, the process is said to yield the highest quality salmon in an environmentally-friendly method.
I bid Stella and the chickens farewell and head to the only restaurant open for dinner on the island — besides The Willows Inn. Beach Store Cafe overlooks the island’s ferry terminal, and dinner on the front porch is served with a side of vista. I sit down to a pizza with thick-cut bacon, caramelized onions, and green apples. An epic view of Mount Baker — its tarns and ridges and glacial crevasses set in sharp relief in the fading sunlight — steals the show.
After a deep sleep (“All of my beds are very expensive,” Starks tells me), I fuel up for a day of kayaking and learning to forage seaweed.
“Most of my flip-overs are 15- to 19-year-old boys,” teases Kristi Kucera, Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures guide and owner as she gracefully demonstrates to our small group of women how to step into the kayak. “So I think we’re good here.”
I’m not so sure, I think as I clamber into my kayak, which, to my inexperience, feels like it is going to tip me into the crashing surf at any moment. The goal of the day, apart from not capsizing my craft, is to explore Lummi Island’s western coast, learning to identify and sustainably harvest edible seaweeds.
We launch in view of the reefnets, sitting ashore idling in the off season, and follow Kucera towards the island’s more mountainous, uninhabited southern reaches.
After a few minutes, I’m feeling mildly competent with my paddle and rudder pedals, and we’re moving at a relaxed pace, as Kucera points out a bald eagle picking a low-tide lunch and a couple of rhinoceros auklets, seabirds related to puffins. We make our way toward a cluster of rocks just off shore, and the sea moves from deep, undulating breaths to flatter water.
Beneath the whale-belly-white hulls of our boats, a forest of rainbow kelp flutters with iridescence, sheltering an occasional crab. Kucera gently lifts a giant olive-green blade of sugar wrack kelp, showing us how to gently cut a small section off for harvesting without harming the plant’s holdfast — a root-like structure that anchors it to the sea floor — and any new growth or spores.
We don’t have the proper licensing to harvest seaweed, so this trip is more of an educational experience. Over the course of a few hours, we learn a few best practices: harvest across a wide area rather than clear-cutting patches, and never collect more than legal limits or what we can reasonably use, because seaweed has a short shelf life.
Kucera also tells us to choose an area that is flushed by vigorous tides rather than stagnate with pollutants or near a river that might carry pollutants from civilization. To that end, Lummi, she explains, is a perfect harvesting ground.
Before long, we’re identifying a range of edible seaweeds: nori, sea lettuce, fucus, and Turkish towel — those words never failing to elicit giggles from one expedition member. Kucera gives us suggestions for their uses and sends us home with recipes for Turkish towel chocolate pudding and bull kelp salsa. A harbor seal pops its head up a few yards away to investigate us, and an otter periscopes its head just above the waterline, closer to shore.
When we beach for lunch, Kucera, who has a harvesting license, makes us a pot of tea using fucus, a seaweed with the shape of oak leaves and small, bulbous air bladders that house an aloe-like gel. The plant is loaded with iodine and acts as an appetite suppressant. She dunks a hunk of the plant into hot water, which turns it spinach green. The result is a mild tea with just a hint of smokiness and sea.
We head back towards Legoe Bay after lunch, the wind mercifully at our backs. Any remaining trace of nervousness is gone, and I’ve eased into the paddling, no longer concentrating on every movement but instead calmly attuned to the vast edible landscape unfolding around me.
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors. She also acts as Edible Seattle’s social media manager.