The flying boat of Center Island

Center Islander Chris Maas carves a turn aboard his custom-built hydrofoil catamaran.

YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’LL SEE from a little island nobody’s heard of, in a quiet month when few are around.

I was walking up our dock the other day and looked around and there was Chris Maas flying by on his hydrofoil.

Chris, co-owner with spouse Monique of Center Island’s only farm, is our resident Mr. Science. Or Mr. Greenjeans. Or both. He’s an inventor and a farmer and a sailor who can build or fix just about anything.

But quiet, and unassuming. Which is why I didn’t know he had converted a catamaran sailboat to an electrically powered hydrofoil until, well, I saw him buzzing by. Quietly.

Among other things, Chris was the world champion in canoe sailing, in the “Development Canoes” event (did you know there was a world championship in canoe sailing?), in competition held in Australia in 2008, for which he has a Wikipedia entry. Last year he launched a gorgeous wooden sailboat he built in his workshop. I happened to visit the day he was varnishing the gleaming tiller he’d fabricated out of a stave salvaged from an ancient cistern on his farm.

The hydrofoil is something he crafted in his workshop just for fun. It’s powered by an outboard motor that he adapted to run on electricity. Lifted by underwater wings similar to an aircraft’s wings, the spidery craft skims the waters of Reads Bay, off Center Island, making barely a hum.

His latest outing was to test a modification that would help the boat smoothly navigate the wakes of other passing boats.

The modification was a flop, Chris told me. So Center Island’s world champion has more tinkering to do, keeping busy in his workshop as the days get colder and quieter, on an island nobody’s heard of, where none of us really mind.

The outboard motor powering the hydrofoil is modified to run on battery power. It is lifted by underwater wings like an airplane’s.

October in my viewfinder

A Great Blue Heron takes wing from a raft of bull kelp off Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island. This was my view from shore as I sat on a rock munching my lunch over the weekend.

IT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE MONTHS in the San Juans, often sun-dappled, when it’s not all rain-washed and fresh. Mornings are often still dry enough for my aerobic bike ride, three dashing laps around the Center Island airfield. Or, when the shores and straits are misty, drippy and fog-horned, I might pull on my rain parka and the Pendleton hat that Indiana Jones would have coveted and I circle the island on foot, often toting my camera. On “dump days,” I might take a hike on neighboring Lopez Island.

I’m often surprised by my finds. Here are a few images from this past weekend. It’s a season to savor.

I saw more pumpkins than people on a recent rainy-morning walk around Center Island.

Center Islanders come up with novel ways to mark their property. Here’s a vessel that would fit right in at Shark Reef.

A windswept cemetery is good fodder for an October photo shoot. This graveyard is on Lopez Island, adjacent to pretty Center Church, built in 1887. The cemetery holds some of the island’s earliest settlers.

Nothing says October like a farmer trying to sell pumcchini

Our friend Monique Maas hawks her crossbred gourds on Center Island.

BETWEEN WIND-TUNNEL GALES and rains enough to quench a mighty forest’s thirst, we had a lovely cool October day this week, and as I strolled in the lemony sunshine I met our resident farmer, Monique, with a basket of interesting gourds she was adding to her farmstand.

They were a sort of noncommittal, Creamsicle orange. They weren’t round like pumpkins. They were sort of stretched out like zucchini. They were pumcchini.

Yes, when you grow pumpkins and zucchini in the same garden, bees visit both and the occasional mixed-up offspring results. The gourds aren’t really good for eating, Monique said. And if you carved one as a Jack-o-lantern, it would quickly fall on its face.

But they’re decorative in a basket on your kitchen table, Monique said. She put $1 pricetags on each. That’s a bargain for produce that is Center Island Grown.

Falling hard for autumn on the island

OK, something went haywire during the photo download, but I kind of like the Van Gogh-like quality of this image of the big horses at Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm as they nibble grass in the equinox sunshine.


After the recent plague of smoke, this first day of autumn turned out glorious and almost perfect on Center Island. Cool and fresh, with a mix of sun and cloud. Summer crowds gone, the island was quiet and peaceful.

Fresh breezes cleared out the wildfire smoke a couple days ago, sending it farther inland. It’s one pestilence I don’t mind sharing with the rest of the country. Let everybody worry about climate crises and maybe they’ll choose to change. After this year of COVID and smoke, a friend aptly wondered, “What’s next? Locusts and boils?”

Galley Cat and the Nuthatch cabin’s welcome toad frame a pumpkin I picked up from Horse Drawn Farm.

On my own for a couple of days while Barbara stays with her sister in the city, I buzzed across Lopez Sound in WeLike yesterday for a run to the dump and a stop at the farmstand. Today was a busy day of chores. Swept fallen leaves off the deck. Got the boat battened down for tomorrow, when we expect our first September storm, with heavy rain and high winds. Just what I wished for a week ago.

It’s OK. My sweetie is coming home on the morning water taxi, and it might just be the day for our first autumn fire in the woodstove. Maybe I’ll brew a batch of pumpkin ale.

Sometimes you don’t need a doctor to tell you when to say “ahhh.”

A smoky, somber San Juans September

A Great Blue Heron hunting for its breakfast was a lonely figure in the smothering mix of fog and smoke off Center Island on Tuesday.

SEPTEMBER IN THE SAN JUANS is passing in fog and a cloud of smoke.

Our islands have been spared the tragic, record-breaking wildfires that have plagued the West, but we’re not immune to the veil of choking smoke carried on southerly winds from Oregon and California. Barbara and I have been mostly sheltering inside for days on end, with no view beyond the trees in front of our cabin. Some days we hear the ferries blowing their foghorns, but there’s no fog, just smoke. Other days heavy fog combines with smoke, reducing visibility to yards.

Foggy dew beads up on a spider web on the Center Island dock railing.

Autumn is quickly approaching, but it’s all a blur. Like most of 2020 in our collective consciousness. Our hearts go out to people who’ve lost their homes and businesses. Friends in Talent, Ore., had to evacuate. Flames spared their home, but two blocks away looks “like Hiroshima,” they tell us.

We’ve had a few hours of light rain in the past 72 hours, giving the sky a rinse, but we’re not out of it yet. Keep fingers crossed for a good, old-fashioned Northwest September rainstorm, the kind that used to make back-to-school time such a damp and dreary thing when I was 12. It sounds pretty good right now. For all of us.

Our front steps are legal and our golf cart is an artistic statement. Whew.

We took our front steps for granted, until the base rotted away. And then we found they weren’t up to code anyway. Now all is fixed, with a good stone foundation.

IT’S BEEN A BUSY late-summer building season at the Nuthatch.

Finally, our front steps are up to code, now seven normal-size steps where once there were four GIANT steps. (Anyone playing “Mother May I” would have had to ask special permission to get up to our front door.)

We are also now the proud owners of Center Island’s only art cart. We finally caved and acquired an electric golf cart, the preferred-by-many method for getting around on our island, where you aren’t allowed to drive privately owned internal-combustion-powered vehicles on the one-lane community roads.

Daughter Lillian decorates the art cart. The finned cargo box was my creation.

The front steps replacement was a giant project for me. (Bob Vila’s job is safe.) I was helped along a bit by our generous island friend Dan Lewis, a union carpenter in his former life. But yours truly did much of the pounding, sawing, finishing and polishing. And everything is now legal, from the grippable handrails to the upright balusters that a four-inch ball can’t be pushed through (that’s in the state building code).

We’ve been among the sole holdouts who preferred to walk or bike around the island, but old legs keep getting older and it was time for a backup mode of transportation. So when an island neighbor was upgrading to shiny and new recently, we snapped up their old-but-still-functional (like us) E-Z-Go golf cart.

The first thing the cart needed was a cargo box for carrying groceries and supplies. I crafted one from cedar planks and repurposed bits of the old staircase, giving the cargo compartment a finned profile like the family station wagon of my childhood. But why stop there? Since seeing art cars displayed at Seattle’s Fremont Fair, daughter Lillian has always wanted to create one. So we offered her our golf cart as a blank canvas. Over Labor Day weekend, she gathered swordferns and leaves of salal, Oregon grape, and maple, daubed them with paint and printed the cart with nature’s images. Because the squat little vehicle’s basic color is dark green, and “Wind in the Willows” is one of our favorite read-aloud books, we’ve dubbed it Mr. Toad.

Lillian adds ferns to Mr. Toad’s, uh, forehead.

Other than that, the Nuthatch has endured deck repairs, railing repairs, gutter repairs and construction of attractive cedar screens around the not-so-attractive rain barrel and electric heat pump. It’s all part of this pioneering island life.

Winter will be a nice break. All I have to do then is chop firewood.

Our deck garden overfloweth

IMG_3070The nasturtiums have gone wild, tumbling down the ledge in front of the Nuthatch cabin this summer.

IMG_7955ON MY OWN at the cabin while Barbara’s gone for a few days, I step outside of a morning with my first toast and coffee to lounge, bathrobe-clad, in the old wooden Adirondack chair and listen to the birds. A wafting coolness hints of too-early autumn as cotton-puff clouds float aimlessly in the blue sky. I notice a hummingbird working the nasturtiums. I went overboard with them this year and they are cascading through the deck rail and down the cliff with trumpets of mandarin orange and sunflower yellow. I’m pleased with the effect. From the tall firs all around me, nuthatches serenade me with their own trumpets, though much more adenoidal.

Take a moment one of these mornings and enjoy your August. 1-anchor

How do we connect in our watery world? Hail a friendly taxi

IMG_20200803_162628811Kevin, the Paraclete water taxi’s skipper, helps unload my lumber upon arrival at Center Island. The Paraclete is our primary link to Anacortes and the mainland.

CONNECTING WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD is not as easy for us islanders as for most people. In the midst of a pandemic that’s probably a good thing. But it also poses challenges when it comes time for, say, summer home repairs.

I made such a trip yesterday with a load of lumber and supplies to rebuild the front steps of The Nuthatch cabin. The cabin is more than 20 years old now, and in Center Island’s marine climate that means its time to rebuild outdoor structures such as wooden decks and stairways that are subject to water infiltration, mossy growth and rot.

Me, masked up, aboard the Paraclete.

Living on a remote island makes you an expert list maker, because if you get all the shopping done and something you needed wasn’t on the list, it’s not a quick trip down the street to make up for the lack.

I spent hours at Home Depot and Lowe’s in Burlington and Mount Vernon yesterday, picking out all the lumber, nuts, bolts and screws needed for my project.

Another challenge came in fitting everything in to our car. We have a pickup truck, but we keep it on Lopez Island. For mainland transportation, we rely on our Honda Civic sedan, which we keep parked at Skyline Marina in Anacortes.

You might be surprised how much lumber can be carried in a Civic. The trick: The rear seatback can be folded down, connecting the trunk space with the passenger compartment. I always feel like a Vegas magician when people watch me load 8-foot planks into the trunk of my small car. (Threaded between the front seats, they reach just short of the gearshift. I lash them in place so a quick stop doesn’t pop the gearshift into reverse.)

At Skyline, the Paraclete’s home base, I loaded the supplies into a dock cart.  As usual, the boat’s skipper and crew member volunteered to help wheel the supplies down a ramp to the salty 45-foot, 34-passenger motor vessel that has been serving the San Juans’ “outer islands” such as ours for many years. The 35-minute trip across Rosario Strait and into Lopez Sound costs $38 per person, including cargo in most cases.

Of course, no list maker is perfect. Today, as I tore apart our old front steps, I discovered rot in some timbers that I thought would be reusable. So, tomorrow my neighbor John (The Mad Birder) will kindly give me a ride to Hunter Bay public dock on Lopez Island, where Lopez-based Sunset Building Supply will deliver enough lumber to complete the project.

Connections come in many forms and from many directions when you live on a remote island.  Like Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, we get by with a little help from our friends. 1-anchorIMG_20200803_161108701The view from the stern, looking eastward across Rosario Strait toward Burrows and Fidalgo islands, at right, with Bird Rocks at left.



A farm that adds freshness to life in the slow lane

P1300414They really do use horses at Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm. We spotted this leggy colt on a recent visit to the farm stand.

IMG_7955IT’S HIGH SEASON at Horse Drawn Farm, our favorite purveyor of fresh produce on Lopez Island.

And when we visited the farm stand recently, there was also a new horse — a handsome, well-muscled young colt, apparently the next generation of the draft horses that farmers Ken Akopiantz and Kathryn Thomas use to plow their fields. (The farm’s name is for real.)

And there were goats, which we hadn’t seen before, including one sitting on a rock.

I got to know this farm in 2014 when I wrote a piece for the Seattle Times Sunday magazine about Akopiantz’s role in banning GMO crops in San Juan County. Happily, little has changed there — except for the new horse. And the rock-sitting goat. Here’s a look. 1-anchor

P1300412King of the mountain? Or the rock, anyway.

P1300431The very pretty produce cooler at the farm stand in July.

P1300427Barbara buys Swiss chard at the serve-yourself checkout counter. Sweet-pea bouquets add a heavenly aroma to the experience.

P1300438You might share your shopping experience with a chicken at the Horse Drawn Farm stand.

P1300418The farm stand occupies a weathered old barn, reached by a .3-mile long gravel driveway off Port Stanley Road. It’s open daily in summer.

Spit, polish, fresh paint and new canvas for our spry 63-year-old

P1300467WeLike shows off her new canvas camper top, fresh paint and polish at the Hunter Bay public dock on Lopez Island.

IMG_7955ALL DRESSED UP, with someplace to go.

That’s the case with WeLike, our 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser, the little 20-foot runabout built (and restored) in LaConner, just 16 miles from our island home.

As promised, here are photos of the boat with her new canvas camper top, designed and created by Jim Smith of Harbor Canvas Designs in Coupeville. Jim gets 5 stars for quality work delivered as promised.

P1300480As soon as we got the boat back from Whidbey Island, we took her out of the water at Center Island and I spent 10 days painting and polishing, so she looks better than ever.  Considering that WeLike is just a year younger than I am, I know she needs regular TLC.

Now it’s time to play. Barbara and I hope to get up to Sucia Island, one of our favorite places in the San Juan Islands — and on Earth, for that matter — in a week or so for a couple nights of boat camping. The boat has a cozy cuddy cabin complete with memory-foam mattress, his-and-her reading lights, classic built-in wooden lockers, electric fan and a neatly hidden Porta-Potty. The cabin features a fold-out cooking counter, galley storage, a portable butane stove and a stainless-steel sink with pressurized water.

To our boater friends, may the wind be always at your back — and at WeLike’s, too, while I’m thinking about it. 1-anchor