‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’

Mount Baker, framed by misty Cascade foothills, wears a fresh mantle of snow as seen from Lopez Sound on January 9. Views like this are balm to the soul when it comes time to turn off the Tweets.

I GREW UP WITH THAT THOREAU QUOTE on a poster on my bedroom wall, with a lovely photo from Eliot Porter’s Sierra Club book bearing that title.

For me, the sentiment comes to mind after a week of political drama and hooliganism in the other Washington. Barbara and I are thankful for the nurturing beauty of the nature around us while our smart phones bring us constant updates on whether our nation’s democracy will survive the month.

On Saturday we had a break from wicked winter winds in the San Juans, so I fired up the old boat and buzzed across Lopez Sound on a dump run. (In true tree-hugger fashion, I had one 18-gallon container of trash and about half a pickup full of recycling.)

Along the way, I photographed these images of Mount Baker, as seen from the water, and of a pair of Trumpeter Swans, among a dozen or so swimming on a cattail marsh off of Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay Road.

These are the kind of comforts I gather when the rest of the world is so troubled. Thought I’d share them.

Trumpeter Swans, North America’s largest waterfowl, are frequent winter visitors to this marsh on Lopez Island.

 

Happy new year, and long live the Kinglets

A salt-shaker-sized Golden-crowned Kinglet is caught between hops on the wet gravel and mud of grandiosely named Chinook Way, Center Island’s one-lane main thoroughfare. These birds’ plumage offers a cheerful break from the gray of winter. A big one might weigh a third of an ounce.

I THINK I FINALLY GOT MY KINGLET PHOTO.

Last winter, my loyal reader might recall, I was stymied in getting just the photo I wanted of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, the tiny dumpling of a bird that seems to vacation on Center Island this time of year. My neighbor John, the Mad Birder, has declared it his favorite bird on our rock. While this no doubt has to do in part with the fact that the Nuthatch was, ahem, already spoken for, I concede that Kinglets, with their distinctive yellow-orange Mohawk, are pretty adorable.

This New Year’s Day, when everybody agrees that the new year can only be better than the last, I set out amid gale-force winds to trek across the island to the community dock to run the bilge pumps and check the fenders and mooring lines on our 64-year-old runabout, WeLike.

As I walked, I once again (“for the umpteenth time” would be an understatement) cursed myself for not bringing my camera when I should have. The kinglets were out.

Now, loyal reader, you may have just seen my missive that mentioned the principled and highly respected outdoor writer Barry Lopez, who chose in mid-career to stop photographing wildlife because he felt that telephoto lenses put his quarry at a disadvantage. While I’m in awe of Mr. Lopez, I’m not ready to give up my camera. A good wildlife photo is a piece of art that reflects the photographer’s love and admiration of the subject and can inspire others to love and admire that subject as well.

But in deference to Barry, I’ll tell you about these birds, too.

I first discovered them for myself a couple winters ago when Barbara and I were out stretching our legs along the wet and muddy gravel roads of our island. Suddenly we encountered a small flock of tiny hopping birds in the gravel in front of us. As we moved ahead, they hopped ahead at the same pace, though occasionally we’d laughingly dodge a straggler who seemed oblivious of our marching boots. For all we could tell, it appeared the birds were feeding on tiny bits of gravel, which made us laugh in confusion. Their bright topknot, gaily contrasting with the gray and mud-brown landscape around us, immediately clued me in. These must be Golden-crowned Kinglets.

In mid-hop, a Kinglet obligingly shows off his gaudy head plumage.

The Mad Birder theorized that their appetite wasn’t for gravel — though birds do consume grit to fuel their gizzards — but more for mites found among the gravel and mud.

Their high-energy hopping is what makes photographing them so difficult. It’s sometimes easy enough to get close to them as they peck at the roadway, but it’s maddeningly tough to catch them unblurred in a camera viewfinder, I’ve found. They just keep hopping. Quite quickly.

After inspecting the boat, I hightailed it home for my camera and returned to stalk kinglets. As usual, I ended up with a generous supply of blurry exposures splashed with yellow and green, kind of the way the kitchen wall looks when the cover slips off the smoothie blender. When the birds were near, I fumbled to find my rapid-repeat shutter function. By the time I figured it out, they’d fled to the woods. But after persisting for another half hour and wandering back and forth across the island, I ended up with a couple of keeper photographs, though even the best has only a soft focus.

Maybe it’s their choice. Maybe it’s why they won’t stand still for the camera. Anybody with that kind of flashy hairdo has to have an ego. And, hey, don’t we all look our best in soft focus?

In spirit, may Barry Lopez fly like these eagles

I wasn’t going to write about this wildlife sighting because I didn’t have a camera with me at the time and couldn’t include photos with my posting. Then this morning I read the Washington Post obituary for nature-writer extraordinaire and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, a longtime Oregonian sometimes compared to Thoreau. Lopez died at age 75 on Christmas Day. The obit recalled how Lopez had chosen to stop photographing wildlife years ago after an encounter with a polar bear when he decided his camera’s telephoto lens gave him an unfair “advantage over the bear.” After that, he committed his wildlife encounters to memory and shared them only through his words. In honor of a man of ethics and art, I humbly offer this recollection, without photos:

Barry Lopez in 1989

AT LOPEZ ISLAND’S HUNTER BAY PUBLIC DOCK, I had just returned to WeLike from a brief time ashore on a cold Monday three days after Christmas. I was about to climb aboard our old runabout when a flash of white drew my eye over the water.

Sunshine had burned away winter’s gloom. Overhead, puffy clouds drifted like hot-air balloons, casting fleeting shadows on Lopez Sound and the distant blue-black ridges of Orcas Island.

What had caught my eye was sunlight glinting off the head and tail of a bald eagle.

The big bird was some 800 feet away, tightly circling over the water, looking down. Alone, I stepped to dock’s end to watch.

I was mesmerized as the eagle dipped almost to the surface, jerked to a stop, then flapped away into the air. Obviously hunting. A big fish near the surface? I wondered.

Again and again, it pirouetted and wheeled. After I’d watched for three minutes, maybe ten — I honestly don’t know — a lilting soprano call, perhaps best described as a gargling whistle, drew my head to another eagle emerging from nearby firs. The new bird appeared on broad wings to join the first, both wheeling in a corkscrew pattern over the same spot in the water.

Whatever was there was elusive. The eagles whirled and dodged but never stopped peering down. A dozen feet away inside my boat was a pair of binoculars, but I couldn’t peel myself away from the drama.

The second eagle finally departed back to the trees, but the first was not to give up on its prey. Once or twice it struck at the water but came up with empty talons.

Finally, after a longer period than I can tell you, a tiny wet head poked up from the ripples. A bird, not a fish. A small, slim head. Maybe a grebe? It quickly dipped underwater again, too fast for the eagle.

But by now the diving bird, starved of oxygen, must have exhausted itself eluding the patient hunter above. It soon reappeared. The eagle plunged, all in this time.

And it stayed in the water.

Because eagles are commonly seen flying with fish in their talons, some people think that’s all they eat. But in “dog-eat-dog” fashion, smaller birds make up a big part of a bald eagle’s diet. One problem: With its feathers drenched, and with a struggling prey that was perhaps a fifth of its own weight, this eagle couldn’t get airborne again.

From my distance I could see the eagle’s head bob up and down, likely starting to feed on its catch. Flopping its wings, it slowly moved toward a large rock called Crab Island, a couple hundred feet away.

As I returned to my boat, a woman from a nearby beach home strode down the dock. She, too, had been watching. She voiced concerned that the eagle was still in the water. Was it hurt?

I told her I’d seen the diving bird come up. “I’m pretty sure the eagle’s just eating his meal,” I assured her. And while eagles don’t have webbed feet built for swimming, bird guides will tell you they can manage a decent sort of breast stroke with their wings. This one was making good headway and soon made it to Crab Island.

For me, it was a captivating glimpse of the wild world, with watery winter sunshine spotlighting those snow-white feathers, burning the image into my memory.

For the diving bird, it was the desperate and frightening end of life. For the eagle, it was lunchtime. 

Ponderings on a sucky 2020: What we really miss is brunch

Season’s greetings from the Nuthatch, where we like BIG wreaths, and we’re looking forward to the end of 2020.

A WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It’s blowing like stink outside my window, with tree branches waving like a football referee after a particularly egregious foul. Sitting alone in the December dimness of my cozy writing hut on our rocky knoll, three days before the solstice, I’m contemplating 2020.
Worst year ever, many say. Of course, they didn’t live through the Great Depression. Or any world wars. Nevertheless, the worst many of us have experienced.
Yet, yesterday a fellow islander and I shared feelings of optimism. There’s more than one viable vaccine against the virus. There’s a new government on its way, with able minds and honest aspirations. We won’t pause right now to count the daunting hurdles before it. Let’s grasp at hope.
On our little island we count ourselves lucky for the protection isolation affords. But like others everywhere, we feel the strain of separation. Today my father would have turned 99. He died six years ago. I’m beginning to look back on living friends the way I look back on him. It’s not good.
A friend in Portland, with whose family we’ve shared many a beach getaway, emailed us that her workplace recently had a Zoom meeting in which they shared a little stress-relieving exercise, answering the question, “What would you do first if COVID magically disappeared tomorrow?” It sounded like a fun hypothetical, to take people out of their boxes (literally). But some ended up in tears. We’re all emotionally tender, we’re all missing the life we used to know. Many have lost friends and loved ones. To look beyond that to relief and relaxation touched a nerve.
It’s a topsy turvy world. This week New Yorkers who would normally curse an early snowstorm for bringing the city to a halt and making them late to work instead treasured the change outside their window. Most weren’t going anywhere anyway. Anything to make life more interesting again. But just to emphasize our inverted reality, school kids stuck on their computers at home didn’t get the pleasure of schools shutting. For them, it wasn’t a snow day, a reporter noted. It was just Thursday.
A friend asked recently: As a travel writer, how have I coped with this year of no travel? Certainly, I miss it. I love how seeing new places and meeting new people refreshes my mind. I love to write about that and maybe inspire others to go. I get itchy. Staying home is like knowing that it’s time to update my computer but reboots aren’t allowed.
Admittedly, missing travel is kind of a first-world problem. With the vaccines, I’ve started to dream about next fall. More than anything, though, I miss visits with friends and family. Those beach getaways. Game nights and cozy dinners.
After weighing the “what to do first” question, our Portland friend concluded that it wasn’t “fly to Paris.” Rather, she said she would invite friends to brunch. In fact, she extended the invitation.
We said we’d take her up on that. At the beach.

In a cozy December daze on our little rock

Not quite Rudolph, but that’s what I call the buck who likes to lounge in our front clearing this time of year.

DECEMBER IS A UNIQUE MONTH on our isolated island.

A grump could call this Tuesday morning dreary, with low clouds fogging the treetops and cold drizzle pooling on the cedar deck.

But I’m lounging in my big wicker chair inside our wall of windows and sipping a hot mocha. Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy “Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack plays softly on the stereo. Outside, Purple Finches, Nuthatches, Spotted Towhees and Downy Woodpeckers mob our feeders, and the last shivering blooms of our summer fuchsias add pink and red to the string of holiday lights draped from the railing. I spy to see if Rudolph is still lounging among the salal in our front clearing.

Well, he’s not actually a reindeer. And his antlers are not going to win him any trophies (just as well). But there’s something comforting about having the buck deer hang out, cushioned by the mosses. We’re happy to lend him the hospitality of The Nuthatch’s half-acre.

A stray ray of sunshine lights up the hardy fuchsia blooms that continue to add ornamentation to our deck planters.

Human neighbors are few here this time of year. We wave all the harder when we see them. Outdoor chores, when weather allows, are mostly limited to cutting more firewood to fend off the chill. The year’s shortest day is less than two weeks away.

Wintry winds mean we don’t use the boat much. We’re hunkered down with a full pantry, looking forward to our daughter’s five-night visit at Christmas. A pretty eight-foot fir sits in a bucket of water out back, ready to bring inside for decoration when Lillian arrives (after a COVID test).

The pandemic has made the family Christmas party a Zoom affair this year, and my treasured annual shopping outing with Lil to Seattle’s festive Pike Place Market is a no-go. But Barbara and I have good books to read, and the intrepid postman who comes by boat is delivering packages that we hide under the bed until Santa’s big day. A trek down the puddled gravel road to the mail shack is occasion for excitement.

Winter can be long on our little rock. But December is kind of special.

Tired, but not sick? You needn’t go far for a getaway

A camellia adds color to a cold December day in the J.A. Witt Winter Garden, part of Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum.

JOY IN LIFE IS ALL RELATIVE in these pandemic days. After many weeks of doing little to break my island routine other than making an occasional beeline up and down Interstate 5 for doctor appointments, I chanced upon a diversion that truly refreshed my soul.

And it only happened because of a scheduling glitch with a couple of doctor exams. The endocrinologist could see me at 10:20. But the ophthalmologist wasn’t available until 2. (And why is it, asks this guy who’s about to start Medicare in a few months, that all these MDs with “Seattle’s Top Docs” certificates on their walls appear to be about 12 years old? But I digress…)

Ilex verticillata, or winterberry, adds splashes of crimson in front of a swordfern.

Anyway, I had time to kill between appointments. I wasn’t about to leave my car hostage to the robber barons who run the medical building’s parking garage, so I had to drive somewhere. The clinic was at 7th and Madison. It was a straight shot down Madison Street to one of Seattle’s best places, the Washington Park Arboretum. Hadn’t been there in many months. I’d packed a lunch.

The deep-lavender berries of Callicarpa bodinieri, commonly known as beautyberry, add one of the wildest hues to the J.A. Witt Winter Garden.

Parked by the Japanese Garden. It was chilly, so I ate in the car. But it was a beautiful, blue-sky day, and not too cold for a brisk walk after lunch.

My memories of winter treks in the Arboretum included squelching along rain-sodden grassy passages where my shoes sank like I was hiking in deep snow without snowshoes. Since then, however, they’ve added a nicely paved and landscaped 2-mile loop path suitable to pedestrians and cyclists, and somehow I’d forgotten the interlinking web of gravel paths that wind up and down hills and over brooks, from the Rhododendron Glen, past Azalea Way, to the Woodland Garden.

The best visit this time of year: the J.A. Witt Winter Garden. Here’s a photo essay of blossoms and berries I saw there. You’ll see more as the season progresses, once the witch hazel adds its color and scent.

Whether your cabin fever involves a small island, or if you just live down the street, I highly recommend a trek in Seattle’s Arboretum next time your spirits need a lift.

Rhododendrons can bloom in December as well as May.

Ho-ho-ho with a dash of horrible: A new Portland Bookmobile murder mystery

     Friend Stevie Lennartson, a recent grad of Occidental College in Los Angeles, created the cover art for our latest mystery novel, as she has for the entire series.

HERE IT IS, THE IDES OF NOVEMBER already, and the tinsel and lights have been on sale at Fred Meyer for a solid six weeks, so it’s not too early to shamelessly promote our new Christmas-themed mystery novel.

Barbara and I, writing together under the pen name of B.B. Cantwell, took a little, um, seven-year hiatus after publishing our second book in the Portland Bookmobile Mysteries series inspired by her happy time as a bookmobile librarian for Multnomah County Library. In our last few years before retirement we just got kind of busy with other things.

It took a pandemic to get us back to mystery writing. Nothing better than a government-ordered quarantine to inspire a writer to hunker down like an oyster and grind out the literary pearls.

Barbara is the brilliant idea-person. I’m the guy who’s been a lifelong slave to deadlines and a keyboard. Together, we have fun with these stories. In librarian Hester Freelove McGarrigle and her main squeeze, Detective Nate Darrow of the Portland Police Bureau, we’ve created protagonists who are like imaginary friends, interacting in authentic Northwest settings. And yes, a pandemic is a perfect time for imaginary friends.

As you might guess from the theme, the series isn’t full of blood and guts, but thrives on quirky characters in an often quirky town (where we lived for 10 years, much of it on our sailboat, and where our daughter was born). The genre is “cozy mystery.” Yes, there are pet cats.

All that said, a Christmas-themed installment was a natural. As with the town of Cabot Cove from the TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” it can be hazardous to one’s health to hang around the Portland bookmobile. Even the season of ho-ho-ho can turn horrible. But this latest book, “Iced, with Sprinkles,” offers plenty of cozy moments, with elaborately decorated Christmas cookies, holiday story hours, parades of decorated yachts, and crusty old salts holding Yuletide potlucks in their Willamette River marina. Among other colorful characters, there’s a crusading newspaper columnist, a fanatical steelhead fisherman, and a couple of mad birders who don’t let winter stop them. Write what you know, you know?

Just remember, “iced” is another word for “murdered.”

“Iced, with Sprinkles” is available from Amazon as an e-book or a handsome paperback, just in time for gift giving — or to curl up with in front of a fire, preferably with a Christmas cookie (or two) and an eggnog with a slug of good rum. Ho-ho-ho.

P.S. Reviews from satisfied readers is what sells books on Amazon. We’d be delighted if you choose to post one.

 

Cleansing wonders on a morning ride

Few sights hold more delight on my November morning bike ride than sunlight piercing dark firs to spotlight a yellow maple’s autumn-limped leaves. Bright as flame leaping among the evergreens, but for once a pleasing conflagration.

Our grassy airfield glitters under a tarmac of yet unfrozen dew. Where another solar spotlight weaves through treetops, steam billows as if from a Yellowstone hot pool, minus only the azure highlights.

On this eve of a perilous election, an island neighbor walking tail-wagging dogs warms me with a smile as my tires crunch the gravel and I plunge pedals homeward.

Come what may tomorrow, this morning few sights hold more delight.

 

A serene Halloween

A sailboat ghosted its way in light air toward Shaw Island as cyclists and hikers converged on Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay Spit on this mild and sunny Halloween Saturday. In the distance: Orcas Island’s Turtleback Mountain.

THE WORLD IS SCARY ENOUGH LATELY, with the resurging pandemic, and Election Day less than 72 hours away, so Barbara and I didn’t mind a day of sunshine and serenity this Halloween.

We journeyed to Lopez Island for one of our favorite obligations: recycling and trash disposal. That might sound odd, but it’s an every-fortnight necessity that gets us off our little rock and into a pleasant world of people who wave when you drive by. (We wave on Center Island, too. But Lopez has a lot more folks to do the waving. It’s the Bright Lights.)

That done, we had a picnic lunch at our favorite bench overlooking the Fisherman Bay spit. Sweaters were in order, but the day was mild for the end of October. The pink Nootka roses I’ve enjoyed there in June were now ruby-colored rose hips on twigs brittled and browned by recent brisk nights.

A squirrel already ate part of the eye from my jack o’lantern. That makes it even spookier, don’t you think?

Yesterday I carved a jack o’lantern and tonight we’ve lit a candle in it on the deck outside our window. A cheery fire crackles in the woodstove and Barbara is puttering in the kitchen, preparing colcannon, a traditional Irish dish for Halloween. In place of potatoes for me, she’s using mashed rutabaga in deference to my recently diagnosed diabetes. (I exercise, I eat a mostly vegan diet, I’m skinnier than I’ve been in years, and still it happened.) Upon our return from Lopez this afternoon, we stopped at the mail shack and found a Halloween gift package from daughter Lillian, with a homemade card and several packets of sugar-free candies. A thoughtful girl.

With dinner, we’ll enjoy our annual screening of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Later, we’ll look outside for the full moon (a blue moon, in fact) while keeping a wary eye out for werewolves, of course.

Years ago, I drove a sporty red two-seater and we spent our time in the fast lane. These days I drive a 15-year-old pickup and a hand-decorated golf cart called Mr. Toad.  Life in the slow lane? I’m OK with that.

Happy Halloween. If you haven’t already, be sure to vote. (Not for the werewolf.)

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.