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Driftwood can be a sailor’s enemy or a delight for the senses

Few things are dreaded more by those who go to sea than things that go bump in the night. Snoozing whales, ice in higher latitudes, cargo containers that were lost overboard and drift half-submerged toward great ocean gyres, where they have a party with millions of tons of other floating garbage.

A driftwood bench that looks out over Swifts Bay features what looks like the head of a dinosaur.

Whether an encounter with such flotsam is harmless or horrid depends on the force of the impact and the sort of damage it does to a vessel. Extreme racing yachts, with their increasing number of appendages — canting keels, twin rudders, daggerboards extending in every direction — often finish second in that bout and must withdraw from competition.

In the Pacific Northwest, where the ocean is hemmed in by a thickly forested landmass, there’s something else in the water: logs and smaller pieces of wood that were washed down from the mountains by rivers and waterfalls or came off giant log rafts en route to Vancouver, Seattle or Tacoma. Among the more insidious specialties here are deadheads, which have nothing to do with Jerry Garcia. They are vertically floating logs that are a nightmare to detect and need to be avoided at all cost, lest they ruin the prop, the rudder, the keel or worse. Night-vision gear and protection for the prop are part of the astute mariner’s arsenal. Old, full-keeled cruising vessels can avoid trouble by riding up and over a drifting tree trunk instead of hitting it straight on.

Yet once driftwood no longer drifts, it can be transformed from a navigation hazard to artistic matter, which has happened in Port Stanley on Lopez Island, Washington, where residents assemble delectable displays from the cedar or madrone that washes up on the beach. What their hands have wrought is free and easy for everyone to enjoy on the grassy strip that separates the only road from the shores of Swifts Bay. Some pieces are practical in character, such as a little bench that’s decorated with the wooden skull of a dinosaur, or a log tepee. Others — a dog’s head, a duck, a frolicking seal, a giant lizard adorned with animal vertebrae — are more whimsical in their semblance of the mundane.

Over the years, I’ve passed these shapes on my way from somewhere to nowhere in particular. I never stopped but always grinned inwardly at the childlike fantasy of the originators. Last summer, though, Zen won. I stopped. I took a breath and, after exhaling and chanting my om, gave myself the gift of enchantment by pondering the countenance of these structures, mulling the origin of the wood they’re made of and admiring the imaginative powers that went into their creation. Sitting there in the soft light of the evening sun, looking out over the placid waters and listening to wavelets tickling the sandy beach, it didn’t take long for the revelation to sink in. Driftwood, which I’ve always known as a sailor’s scourge, is no different from drugs, chocolate or climbing El Capitan without a rope: One man’s dread is another’s delight.

It certainly is a delight to Charlotte Ann Rempfer, a transplant from the Midwest and part-time resident of Port Stanley who lives in a blue cabin across the street from the sculpture garden with her husband, Jerry. Judging from what I saw on her garden fence, wood from the sea is more than an idle pastime. “I’m a bit uncomfortable calling it art,” she says, somewhat embarrassed.

She also thinks she hasn’t been giving her work the necessary attention, so some pieces are in need of TLC. OK, people with an artistic bent often have an obsessive streak, but there are pressing questions to be asked — for example, what’s the magic sauce for turning odd pieces of wood into sculpture? “You need to see beyond the object [and recognize] the grain, the color, the movement,” Rempfer, who is 65, explains. There’s a unique story behind every piece, but in the beginning there was the tepee, when her children, Kate and Dane, were in grade school more than 20 years ago.

Soothing Powers

Rempfer says working with driftwood gives her a sense of tranquility and joy.

What started as a fun project for kids also helped her cope with tragedy. In 1998 Dane was killed in a traffic accident at age 15. “I dropped out for 10 years, didn’t do much of anything except trying to survive,” Rempfer says, remembering the acute pain that only parents convicted to survive their offspring know. Her world shifted, but by and by she learned to turn grief into creative energy, which helped take some weight off her shoulders.

“It gave me the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted [and] brought with it an intensity that’s almost overwhelming,” she says. “To let go and do what I do brings tranquility, joy and calmness, and it lets me appreciate the beauty of nature.”

Working with wood can have therapeutic effects — in the November 2015 issue I wrote about war veterans building boats as a way to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder — or it can divert anxiety. Strolling on a beach and looking for uniquely shaped pieces often is an adventure in itself — picking them up, studying their features, imagining the journey and the ocean currents that brought them, thinking about how to use them, where to fit them in. No two pieces are alike in shape, color or surface. Some bits are sculpted smooth, polished by millions of waves that have been washing over them for years. Others are scuffed up from being smashed against rocks or finely textured by being dragged along a sandy beach. And what’s with those holes that can make some driftwood fragments resemble the seedpod of a lotus flower?

Midwest To The Pacific

Oddly, none of the displays in Port Stanley suggests a boat theme, despite the parade of vessels outside Rempfer’s kitchen window. Perhaps that’s because she hails from North Dakota, where farming, not boating, dominated people’s lives when she grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Yet she did have fun on the water — in Minnesota, The Land of 10,000 Lakes, which is where she honed her skills as a water skier. “My boating experience is limited,” she says, “fishing always, swimming and boogie-boarding in Mexico, dalliances with surfing and paddleboarding. A couple of sails in Glacier Bay, Alaska, kayaking in and around our bay and, of course, cruising in our 12-foot Livingston to check on our crab pots.”

Running my hand over a piece that resembles a hunting dog staring out on Swifts Bay, I wondered how all this wood gets here. It’s a long way from the Pacific, and coming through Haro Strait or the Strait of Georgia, it has to thread the needle among many islands before knocking on Rempfer’s door. “Most of the building material was, indeed, delivered by the ‘driftwood gods,’ ” she says.

Collecting driftwood in small quantities is permitted on some beaches in Washington. Rempfer knows her mean low and high tide lines, and she asks for permission if a tempting piece washes up on a neighbor’s property. My last question for her is about driftwood ethics: Does she use tools? On occasion. She fused some pieces with wood screws, but otherwise none of the wood was altered or treated.

A Story In Every Piece

Her oeuvre includes a marvelous piece she calls The Seal, which looks as if it has just surfaced for a breath of air, not languidly but soaring with panache. A separate piece of wood is used as a pedestal to prop it up and bring out the motion. The big duck, she says, is a work in progress. She added the head fairly recently to the base, which reminded her of a baseball glove and the years when her husband coached Dane and his friends in Little League.

The stroll down memory lane continues with that dinosaur-headed bench that she constructed with her father, a retired farmer in North Dakota. When he moved from his farm to Fargo, he took up woodworking to combat the ennui of idleness and keep his hands and mind busy. When he visited his daughter in Lopez, he needed a job, so he was put to work building the bench with the dinosaur head, which sits on a most formidable spot on the beach, an invitation to read, meditate or simply contemplate the scenery. It’s an unofficial landmark that has surfaced in tourist brochures.

But a big ballyhoo is the last thing the people of Port Stanley have in mind. That’s not why they spend time on Lopez. The structures they build with pride and skill showcase the beauty of wood and remind viewers of the critical role it has played for humans for millennia — as fuel or the medium to build a million things, including boats, some of them of stunning beauty.

As the sun dipped behind the wooded hills, I had a hard time tearing myself away from this humble hamlet on the northeast side of Lopez, a village that never made it big, despite some high-flying plans. If your travels ever take you there, be sure to swing by Port Stanley to contemplate the creative work by Rempfer and her peers. You won’t see what I saw because these objects shift and change as they weather or their creators rearrange them. But in their whimsy they give eloquent testimony that dreaded obstacles to us sailors also can fill our hearts with joy as pieces of art.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.