The very funny fight for San Juan Island

Bunnell will read from new novel at Fourth Friday Readings

Bunnell will read from new novel

On July 24, Writers on the Spit will host the Fourth Friday Readings, featuring guest speaker and published author, Michael Bunnell, in the media room at The Lodge, 660 Evergreen Farm Way, Sequim. The event begins promptly at 6:30 p.m., but plan to arrive by 6 p.m.Bunnell is a pro at adapting the skills of one genre to another.

An hour of open mic readings follows Bunnell’s reading.

Interested writers may submit their names before the event begins, to be drawn for five-minute time slots.

For open mic guidelines contact


by Mark St.J. Couhig

For the Sequim Gazette

Forty years ago, give or take, Michael Bunnell had what he thought was a pretty good idea for a novel.

Bunnell, who spent some time on San Juan Island as a youth, was fascinated by the story of “The Pig War,” the momentary conflict between American and Canadian settlers on the island that almost led to war between two of the world’s great military powers.

And yes, it arose over a pig.

The story indeed has everything. Hard-headed hawks, last-minute dramatics and, of course, comic possibilities out the wazoo.

But then life got in the way, which was likely a good thing. Bunnell has spent a lifetime refining his writing skills, beginning with a stint as a reporter for the student newspaper at Yakima Valley College. That led to a further position as a columnist at the local weekly, the Yakima Sun, a column he wrote about the college experience. That was sweetly ironic. “I was too busy to actually sample college life,” he says with a smile. Fortunately, that column also led to bigger and better things, including a job at the sports desk at the weekly.

He enjoyed radio, too, beginning in high school as a volunteer news reader at a tiny local station. While in college he had a job as a disc jockey at a “grubby little FM radio station,” where they played the kind of music the big boys couldn’t because “it would have offended the sponsors.”

Since then, he says, he has been a columnist, a freelancer and even a stringer for the wire services.

And now, with “The Friendly Little War of Lyman Cutler,” he’s finally a novelist.

A little history

Cutler was a prospector — an unsuccessful one — who was captured by the siren call of the Fraser River Gold Rush. When that proved a bust, he moved to San Juan Island where he decided to try his hand at farming. At the time, the ownership of the island was in dispute, with both Great Britain and the U.S. coveting the property.

In 1859, Cutler sailed to Dungeness and bought some seed potatoes, then returned to San Juan Island where he planted a meager crop on land that was, unbeknownst to him, claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Difficulties arose when a company pig decided to dine on some of Cutler’s potatoes. Cutler insisted that Charles Griffin, who ran the company’s operations, should keep his pig out of his potatoes.

Griffin responded, saying Cutler should keep his potatoes out of the company’s pig.

Eventually, Cutler shot the pig.

In Bunnell’s telling, the event was more or less an accident — a momentary lapse of judgment. In real life, it was perhaps a bit more problematic. In either case, Cutler apologized and offered to pay for the pig.

But then the big boys got involved, with British authorities calling for the arrest of Cutler and the further removal of all Americans from the island. Bunnell said Vancouver Island Gov. James Douglas had simply had enough. “He had watched his country give away the Columbia River, what is now the state of Washington, and the Puget Sound, with all of its resources.”

“He wasn’t giving away anything else.”

The Americans on the island appealed to Brig. General William S. Harney, a noted hothead, who happily got involved. He ordered Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry, to the island. Led by Capt. George E. Pickett (who would soon become famous for his Civil War charge), the 64-man unit encamped on the island.

Douglas responded, but not in kind. He sent warships and marines to deal with the matter. Eventually the face-off included three British warships and 1,000 Marines threatening the pitiful few American troops, who refused to back down.

Tensions grew for weeks until, finally, and at the last minute, cooler heads prevailed.

The two nations agreed to hold the island jointly until an international commission could settle the dispute. Eleven years later, they did, handing over the island to the U.S.


A good story

Some years back Bunnell shopped a pig war script around Hollywood, thinking it would make a nice movie. One studio expressed interest in the project, but Bunnell and the execs didn’t see eye to eye. Eventually, he withdrew it.

Then in 2012, Bunnell signed the paperwork establishing a new publishing company, Skookum Bay Publishing.

To work out the first-time kinks, he decided to publish one of his own books first. That’s when he came up with the idea of “novelizing” his Lyman Cutler screenplay.

In fact Bunnell takes considerable pride in having retained many of the elements of a screenplay. It works, moving along at a spritely pace. And it has the requisite romances in play.

But it’s more than a screenplay — Bunnell is a master of descriptive prose, from Strait of Juan de Fuca fog banks to native Northwestern rose banks.


In Skookum Bay

Skookum Bay Publishing now has four additional books in the works — two of Bunnell’s and two from other authors whose work he admires.

Bunnell is clearly excited about the possibilities.

“I’d thought about publishing for many years. Not only for my own stuff, but for other writers. It had reached a point where you might have a manuscript all ready to go, and you’d take years finding an agent, and then the agent would take at least a year.”

“People would go to a vanity press, but the problem is that they don’t care if it’s a piece of junk.”

He said reviewers and editors won’t look at vanity press books.

His writers don’t pay him for his services, and Bunnell said he’s “not going to print anything that comes in the door.”

He said he’s encouraged by the fact that these days, “more of The New York Times best sellers started out by being printed by some small independent press in Iowa.”

He’s always looking for new clients for Skookum Bay Publishing and currently is seeking submissions for a planned collection of short stories by local authors.

“Lyman Cutler” is now available in Sequim at Good News Books and also is available through Amazon and It features cover art by Sequim artist Priscilla Messner-Patterson.

Mark Couhig is a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He’s now working on his second novel, which he describes as “currently, a huge mess.” Reach him at