Jeanne Beaver feared the worst when she and her husband found a rusted, waterlogged ditty bag washed ashore near their remote island home in northern British Columbia.
Beaver wondered that December day if the owner had drowned and the bag had been carried by currents from a faraway shipwreck.
“Boats go down and lose their people,” Beaver, 63, said. “We thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”
Months later, Beaver was shocked again. After mailing off the only items of value left in the bag — a couple of Starbucks coffee cards — she got letters back from an Everett fisherman, his dentist and others eager to hear the story.
“I was just so elated it made my whole day,” Beaver said. “To me that was the very best. I thought, ‘Wow, is this ever neat.’”
The bag, which floated nearly 1,000 miles, held shaving gear, a toothbrush, medicine and other toiletries. It belonged to Norman “Skip” Anderson, captain of the 50-foot fishing boat Esperanza, which sank in August near the San Juan Islands.
Beaver knew Anderson’s name from the prescription pill bottles. But the only address she could find was that of a Bellingham dentist printed on a promotional floss package.
“We have a rather unusual request,” her letter began. “I wonder if you could contact Mr. Anderson.” The dentist, Dr. Chuck Farrell, 74, said he was dumbfounded when he got the letter.
“God bless her for taking the trouble to send that,” he said.
Farrell called Anderson and told him to come into the office straightaway. “He was dumbfounded also,” Farrell said.
At first, Anderson said he thought he had forgotten his sunglasses. When he got to the doctor’s office, Farrell told him he’d better sit down.
“They all came out, one of the patients, two of the assistants and the dentist,” Anderson said. “They’re all staring at me and I’m reading.”
The Beavers live on a floating cabin in Borrowman Bay on the northwestern tip of Aristazabal Island, an otherwise uninhabited outpost near southeast Alaska, the letter said.
Rick Beaver, 58, was beachcombing when he found the toiletry bag. Most of the things — toothpaste, shaving items, prescription pills — were ruined after four months in salt water, but the prepaid coffee cards might have some value, Beaver wrote.
“We sincerely hope it was not a tragic circumstance that led to the loss of these items,” she wrote.
Hundreds of miles from any post office, Beaver gave the letter, dated Dec. 5, to a fisherman and asked him to mail it when he made landfall.
The remains of the ditty bag arrived by mail at the dentist’s office in early January.
The bag started its roughly 1,000-mile voyage north aboard the Esperanza, a nearly 90-year-old seiner based out of the Port of Everett.
Last August, the boat was on a three-day salmon fishing trip when disaster struck, Anderson said.
It was day three, the catch was good, and Anderson was behind the wheel gently running between sets when the boat hit a rock near Haro Strait.
The Esperanza lurched and laid over on her side. Anderson and his three-man crew jumped to safety in the boat’s skiff.
“It was kind of surrealistic. You never think it’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “All of a sudden you go, ‘This is it.’ You’re really fearing for your life.”
Anderson scrambled to save his cell phone and wallet. His catch, gear and boat sank. Another fishing boat took the men to Friday Harbor, where they caught a ferry.
A salvage effort failed to pull the 70-ton boat out of the depths and a diver later explored the area and told Anderson the Esperanza was in pieces.
The ditty bag didn’t sink.
Most likely, the canvas bag drifted west out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer who studies items that drift in ocean currents and later are recovered.
Summer winds probably blew the bag south before fall winds pushed the bag north and currents carried it along the west coast of Vancouver Island, he said.
From there it washed up near the Beavers’ home.
“That’s quite a drift,” Ebbesmeyer said. “Usually stuff that falls off vessels is not traceable.”
With no electricity, TV, phone lines or Internet access, beachcombing is important to the Beavers.
They’ve furnished much of their 432-square-foot cabin with found items: dishes, bowls and glass fishing floats from Japan.
They’ve responded to messages in bottles from Oregon, Mexico and from someone about to sail into the Panama Canal.
“We’ve never ever heard from anyone back,” Jeanne Beaver said.
That was before they returned a couple of Starbucks cards to a fisherman who grew up Mukilteo.
Anderson, who now lives in Bellingham, has no plans to cash in the cards. He’s saving them as a keepsake from the Esperanza.
Dr. Farrell sent a note back to the Beavers along with a box of chocolates and promotional package of dental floss. Anderson sent a thank-you note, too.
Not that it’s easy to reach the couple. They live hundreds of miles from town and it takes them up to 12 days to sail from their floating home to more civilized parts.
They only check their mail at a post-office box about three times a year, Beaver said. It was quite a surprise to get the thank-you letters.
“It was a real thrill for us,” she said. “It so nice to meet new people and this is one way we can do it. Now that we’re retired, we don’t see a lot of people.”