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  • Written by Susan Vernon


“Stick to me like a wet shirt.” With those words, Dr. Eugene Kozloff began the first natural history lecture series for the San Juan Nature Institute 21 years ago. Koz, as he is affectionately known by a multitude of admirers and colleagues, was about to embark with a small group of eager islanders on a three-day foray into the rich biological realm of the San Juan Islands.

He took teaching very seriously and wanted to make the best use of everyone’s time – including his own – while in the field. “Stick to me …” meant pay attention and the reward would be seeing and learning about the wondrous diversity of wildlife that abounds in the archipelago.

It was June 1995. The San Juan Nature Institute was just getting off the ground. Koz would set the standard of excellence for the organization that continues to this day. He taught us. He challenged us. He enlightened us. And when we strayed from the path or lost our concentration, he always brought us back to the teaching. It was hard work but it was great fun, too. We smiled and laughed along the way and learned an enormous amount about the flora and fauna here.

On the eve of this extraordinary man’s 95th birthday, I thought it might be fun to relive those three days with Koz in the field. I went into my archives and pulled out old checklists and a stack of penciled field notes – badly faded after so many years – to remind myself of what we saw.

It all started when Carla Stroh and I discussed with Koz conducting the first field classes for the Institute. We wanted to make a statement about the seriousness of our mission and there was no one finer to do that than this professor emeritus of the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs, author of several classic texts on the natural history of the Pacific Northwest, and renowned researcher among many other major accomplishments. Everyone knew Koz and respected him enormously.

Koz was happy to oblige and quickly developed an extensive itinerary to make the best of those three days in early June – still primetime for wildflowers – when he would take the class to San Juan, Lopez and Orcas Islands. We would botanize, bird, learn about landforms, talk about early naturalists, and generally seek to understand how the diverse habitats we would explore were all connected in this rich patchwork of ecosystems.

Word spread quickly about this special event and the inaugural series was soon sold out. Among the islanders who joined us for this adventure were Amanda Azous, Bill Engle, Mike Kaill, Carla Wright, Mona Meeker, John and Sally Brookbank and Katherine Mottola.

June came. The weather cooperated. We were on our way.

Day 1 – San Juan Island

We committed to the wet shirt principle, as Koz instructed, after an introductory classroom session. And for three days we stayed with it – more or less. Armed with enthusiasm, curiosity, checklists, field guides – including his classic Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest - binoculars, boots, and backpacks we trammeled the forests, wetlands, shorelines, open spaces, and even a mountain on our quest to find and identify flora and fauna and seek to understand the interconnectedness of these habitats.

We started on San Juan Island at the Friday Harbor Labs and got a lesson on Northwest conifers. One of the main goals of Koz’s initial teaching was to give newcomers the basic tools of identification – especially of flora. Once that was accomplished we could move on to more sophisticated subjects.

First he guided us to a Douglas fir and we noted the needles with pointed tips and cones with three-forked bracts. Then he found a grand fir for comparison. The needles had rounded tips. “See how flat the needles are; the cones grow upright on the branches,” Koz explained. Next, we observed the drooping boughs and delicate foliage of western hemlock. Finally, western red cedar with its scale-like, shingled leaves and rusty- brown bark that tears away from the massive trunk in sinewy strips. The Coast Salish used the bark for clothing and hats among other items. Along the forest trail, we got a history lesson about Carl Linnaeus and his beloved twinflower (Linnaea borealis) blooming in the duff in the shade of the giant trees and an understory of sword fern, Oregon grape and salal. Koz suggested we watch for red admiral butterflies in the nearby stinging nettles.

Our abbreviated conifer tutorial complete, we hit the road for the south end of the island. Our first stop was South Beach and the disheveled backshore with blooming morning glories, seashore lupine, and sand verbena. Then to Cattle Point keying on a grove of Scouler’s willows. Near the shore, we found quaking aspen – uncommon then. We listened to the wind rattle through its heart-shaped leaves. Next, we stopped to see a Douglas maple growing beside the Jakle’s Lagoon trail along with foamflower and coralroot. We stayed long enough to acknowledge mosses and lichens, too. Common names like old man’s beard, reindeer, and haircap were intriguing. The day ended at a grove of Sitka spruce at Cape San Juan. Koz showed us five species of ferns growing in close proximity in this damp environment. We found our way to the spot by following the wafer thin cones of the spruce littering the forest floor.

We saw much more than I have listed above at each site. It was non-stop botanizing and that pace would continue throughout the series. Our field notebooks were beginning to fill up. It had been a very productive first day.

Day 2 – Lopez

We caught the early ferry to Lopez and used the time to study Koz’s checklists of plants and animals we would see that day along the shore, in wildflower meadows, and at the lake.

After a quick first stop at Agate Beach where we looked at the maritime lichens Caloplaca and Verrucaria on the rocks, we moved on to the wildflowers at Iceberg Point from two species of camas (Camassia quamash and C. leichtlinii) to death camas, the brodiaeas, Hooker’s onion, Pacific sanicle and a lesson on the importance of fescue as the foundation to this floral community. Back in the cars we hurtled across the quiet Lopez landscape to the saltmarsh habitat at Mud Bay with its entirely different complex of plant species from Salicornia and salt grass to seaside arrowgrass, searocket, orache and Jaumea carnosa.  We learned about salt marsh dodder and examined a shell midden. Koz gently turned over drift to see what lay beneath and we identified snails, sow bugs, pill bugs and garter snakes to add to our species lists. At Hummel Lake to saw a swallowtail butterfly in the willows. We finished the day at Spencer Spit with birds. Great blue herons fished in the shallows and voiced their annoyance at our presence and herringbone-striped gadwalls floated off shore. Was this the spot where Carla Stroh marveled at the saffron pins on the greater yellowlegs? It was a weary but exhilarated band of students that headed back to Friday Harbor at the end of a fabulous second day of discovery.

Day 3 – Mount Constitution

Koz had a long day planned for us on Orcas Island- a half a dozen habitats to explore from the stone tower at the 2400-foot peak to the bog at Summit Lake.

We saw lots of new flowering plants on the mountain from Scouler’s bluebell and bluebells of Scotland near the Tower to pipsissewa, Puget butterweed, bald-hip roses, and woodland strawberry on the downslopes. Along the trail evergreen yellow violets, tiger lilies, pink wintergreen and broad-leaved lupine beckoned the bees. The chickadees and nuthatches chattered and white-crowned sparrows sang their own praises among the lodgepole pines.

We lunched at the hemlock grove where we got a lesson in the parasitic mistletoe on the pines. Koz did not waste a moment of our day. In the parking lot, he gave us a show and tell with false boxwood and red huckleberry he had brought along in the car. Then it was back down mountain.

The sun shone brightly as we gathered along the shoreline at Summit Lake to a haunting refrain of Swainson’s thrush, the chatter of Townsend’s warblers, and the chant of olive-sided flycatchers. Koz pointed out an aura of yellow blooms: yellow pond lily, broad-leaved pond lily, common monkey flower, ultracularia (the bladderwort), and marsh cinquefoil.

And before us the beautiful bog. Our eager flock of budding naturalists gazed across the slightly rippled waters of this otherworldly retreat to the floating mass of sphagnum moss and shortly thereafter we were climbing aboard the spongy raft. Koz was protective of the plants on the substrate. We saw cottongrass. Yes, sedges do have edges, and the carnivorous round-leaved sundew, bog bilberry, wild cranberry, bog Labrador tea, western swamp laurel, and the pristine bog starflower. We left footprints in the jumble of vines, mosses and berries – visions in purple, pink and chartreuse glistening in the mountain air. Koz assured us the indentations would heal within a matter of hours with no harm done. Still, gentle nudge or not, being respectful of the plants was the priority. When we got back to shore, Koz found a rough-skinned newt in the shaded shallows and carefully cupped it in his hands while telling us about the fascinating life history of this gentle being. The class was mesmerized.

We stopped at a southwest-facing meadow on the way down the mountain. Koz was eager to show us one of his favorite wildflowers - farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena) that he hoped to find among the woolly sunflowers, harvest brodiaea, and field chickweed. While standing on the steep slope overlooking the sparkling inland sea, he told us about botanist David Lyall, a member of the British Boundary Survey team based on the HMS Plumper who, in 1858, discovered a little white poppy Meconella oregana somewhere on Orcas Island – perhaps on this very site. We scoured the fescue-strewn hillside for its tiny white blooms to no avail, but the Clarkia was more than enough excitement for we knew it had special meaning to our teacher and friend.

By the end of this third day, we were spent -- in a good way – and headed back to the Orcas ferry landing. Our minds were on overload with images of breathtaking wildlife and fascinating stories to go along with our discoveries. The memories of those three days in the field with Koz would stay with us for a lifetime. Our group had formed a unique comaraderie born out of shared experiences, our love of the islands, and our admiration for our mentor. Koz autographed copies of his books while we waited for the ferry. Those guides would remain treasured possessions and reminders of our time together.

And so the San Juan Nature Institute was off and running in the very best tradition of natural history and science education. It had been a master class for each of us no matter the previous level of our acquaintance with the natural world. For some, the basics were more than enough to get them started on their quests to learn about the islands. For others, hearing Koz expound on the intricacies of a specific plant community provided insights that would improve their understanding of how this biologically diverse ecosystem worked. Each of us came home with new knowledge, awareness of our surroundings, and appreciation for the richness of this realm.

The best part of the class was, of course, just being with Koz: that twinkle in his eyes; the gentle laugh; the humble manner; his vast knowledge of nearly everything we saw; and the seriousness with which he took his teaching. For me, the biggest life lesson of all was witnessing Koz’s generosity of spirit. He was eager to share what he knew with each of us in a very personal and meaningful way.

Writing this column has been great fun and brought back memories of a golden age of nature study in the islands with the most masterful of teachers. It is also a reminder of all the trails yet to be walked, flora and fauna to be studied, and wild places to be protected. It is all part of Koz’s teaching - and of his legacy.

Happy birthday, Koz, and thank you!

Note: The San Juan Nature Institute will be celebrating its 21 anniversary on September 26th and honoring Dr. Kozloff on his 95th birthday. For more information about the event phone 360.378.3646 or visit sjnature.org.

SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK / KOZ AT 95 / © 2015 by Susan Vernon. All rights reserved. Photo of Koz courtesy of the San Juan Nature Institute.

Susan Vernon is the author of Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands. She may be reached at: susanvernon@sanjuanislander.com

Last modified onSunday, 19 March 2017 12:53