Melting snow for the toilet, saving Annas, and other winter fun

A well-chilled hummingbird returns to my feeder shortly after fresh, warm sugar-water replaced the solid block of ice last week.

IT’S 50 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT OUTSIDE, MY TOILET FLUSHES WITHOUT HAND-PRIMING and my hummingbird feeder isn’t freezing solid every few hours.

These are luxuries one comes to appreciate.

Last we visited, my neighbors’ pipes were iced up but all was well at the Nuthatch. However, on the coldest days I watched through my kitchen window as our overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds were frustrated in efforts to find nourishment from the feeder that had turned to solid ice. My soft heart breaking, twice a day I brought in the feeder and replaced the ice with fresh, warm sugar-water.

But on the day before New Year’s Eve, the hummingbirds weren’t the only ones frozen out. After a wind-chilled week when outdoor temperatures topped out between 15 and 25 degrees, Center Island’s community water system succumbed to the shivers. Buried pipes and various other parts of our reverse-osmosis supply system froze up. In the space of a couple hours the output from my kitchen and bathroom faucets turned from a trickle to nothing.

Our water guru, Sean, confirmed via an email blast that the outage was island-wide. He offered an apologetic explanation that boiled down to this: The solution was up to the weather gods, not the water guru. We just needed warmth. Patience would be key.

Taking the “toilet tank is half full” view, there was good news: I had long ago stored two 5-gallon plastic jugs, filled with emergency water, on my back porch. I brought them inside to thaw. And somehow water was still flowing at our community clubhouse, about a half-mile from me. That blessing was mixed: As a caution against exhausting the water supply the caretaker had closed the shower and laundry room.

We also had a few inches of snow on the ground, which wasn’t melting. A good source of more emergency water, even if it needed to be boiled, I told myself. The blood of my homesteading pioneer ancestors surged through my veins.

But my South Dakota grandparents’ weary genetic material failed to remind me that when you fill a giant pasta pot with snow from the deck and melt it atop the woodstove, you end up with only about 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Speckled with dirt and floating fir needles, it was good only for toilet flushing.

With a toilet that uses 1.6 gallons per flush, that didn’t accomplish anything fast. After a few melted potfuls I, uh, flushed away that strategy.

The long and short of it was that after four days of no showering, infrequent flushing and more than one trek across the island to refill my water jugs amid frigid winds gusting to 50 mph, I texted the water taxi, packed up Galley Cat and bugged out last Monday like a MASH unit fleeing advancing troops.

Here’s where good friends are a wonderful thing.

Lynn, a former Seattle Times colleague, and her husband, David, had earlier invited me to their Lopez Island vacation home for a brunch. With a little hint-dropping on my part and typical generosity from Lynn and David, that turned into an overnight visit, including two delightful hikes (the sun came out!) on beautiful Iceberg Point, with panoramic views of the wintry Olympics and thrashing waves off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The gamboling accompaniment of their highly energetic Springer spaniel pup added joy.

The next day I drove Ranger Rick, my reliable teenaged pickup, to the far end of Lopez, parked in the 72-hour lot and toddled aboard the state ferry to Friday Harbor (fare-free for interisland walk-ons). I carried Galley in a soft-sided carrier slung over my shoulder, with all my cat supplies, clothes and other gear packed in a Rubbermaid tote strapped to a hand truck for easy rolling on and off the ferry. The kitty cat and I planned a couple nights with Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson, partners in my upcoming voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska. We would further plan our 10-week itinerary, which begins Memorial Day weekend.

We buckled down and did a lot of studying of charts and guidebooks, filling out a detailed spreadsheet of where we hoped to visit. We also found time for hikes, a fun board game, good food and an evening binge-watch about Vikings invading medieval Britain.

Looking down from a wintry hike up Young Hill, in San Juan Island National Historical Park, as snow began to fall Wednesday on San Juan Island.

I had planned to return home Thursday. The National Weather Service predicted up to an inch of snow Wednesday night for Friday Harbor but with rapid warming and rain the next day. Didn’t sound like a problem.

We awakened Thursday to 5 inches of wet snow. Beautiful but not travel-friendly. My hosts kindly put me up another night.

Galley and I have been back at the Nuthatch since Friday. Glad to have hot showers and a flushing toilet. Still drinking bottled water until Sean gives the all-clear on the latest water-sample test, but that’s a mere hiccup among this feast of creature comforts.

Maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of our good fortunes once in a while, whether we’re hummingbird or human. Stay warm, friends.

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even

Madrona in the snow: Looking from Center Island toward Decatur Island during my morning walk.

OH, WE’RE HAVIN’ A HEAT WAVE, a tropical heat wave… Well, it got up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit today on Center Island. After a couple of days this week when the red stuff in the outdoor thermometer didn’t budge above 15, that’s saying something. Not much, but something.

Christmas arrived in the San Juans along with a blast of Siberian cold, snow and wind that hasn’t quite ended.

With all that in the forecast last week, daughter Lillian and I canceled our long-planned Christmas rendezvous with friends at the Washington coast. Instead, Lil and her friend Bianca, a former college roommate with whom she remains close, joined me at the Nuthatch for a quiet and cozy celebration with plenty of good food, mulled wine, games, puzzles and favorite old movies. We went caroling at the island farm (“Good King Wenceslas” was our forte) and had a snowball fight on the airfield.

Lillian, left, and friend Bianca on a snowy Feast of Stephen, also known as December 26.

We didn’t wake up to a white Christmas, but by evening the flakes were falling fast, allowing us to enjoy the magic of dimming lights inside the cabin and turning on outside lights above the front wall of windows to experience a mesmerizing eyeful of what I call “Snow Theater.”

Thoughtful friends and family remembered me with many cards and gifts. It was a good Christmas, but as many surmised, it wasn’t easy without my sweet wife and Lillian’s dear mum. Christmas was Barbara’s favorite time of year. We did our best to honor the standard she set and replicate the joy she brought to it. Of course it wasn’t the same, but it was the best way to show our love.

Tracks in the snow told who’d been there before me, whether two-legged or four.

Monday I braved snowy highways to return Lillian and Bianca to Seattle. I returned via water taxi to my island on Tuesday to learn that many neighbors had frozen pipes. (Mine are OK.)

This morning dawned quiet and sunny. Winds were light, the air remained frigid and the snow wasn’t melting. A perfect morning to bundle up for an invigorating tramp around the island with my camera. It was fun to try to read prints in the snow. Was that a deer crossing the road? A fox treading the path behind my knoll?

The continuing cold has helped quash a planned visit by friends for the New Year’s holiday. So Galley Cat and I will be partying alone as we welcome 2022. For me, the year to come holds the adventure of a 10-week voyage with some other chums on a 37-foot powerboat up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and the hope that we might all be able to resume safe travels to faraway places, one of my joys in life. For Galley, there’s probably hope for more runs up the knoll. Maybe better-quality kitty tuna. Her needs are simple. I think we can work on that.

Whatever your wishes, here’s hoping.

Optimistically baking my way through a challenging day

Babies at the altar: Brian and Barbara with Father Patrick Carroll on December 15, 1979.

AT THE SAME HOUR as I write this, 42 years ago today Barbara and I and a flock of family and friends trooped into St. Joseph’s Church on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Outside, snow fell lightly. Inside, by an altar decorated with red poinsettias, my sweetheart and I said our wedding vows.

We’d been best friends for years by that point. Lovers for a while. At the time, I didn’t think twice about the “till death do us part” clause in what we said before that assemblage. But here we are.

I assumed today would be one of my more difficult days of 2021, but when I awakened this morning, rather than desolation I felt optimistic about quietly commemorating December 15, 1979, a date that’s engraved in gold on the inside of the wedding ring that I can’t imagine taking off.

Yes, it’s just me and the cat here in our island cabin today. It’s not what I’d choose. But I greeted this morning with a feeling of gratitude more than grief. I will always cherish the good luck that brought me and Barbara together. Divorce statistics demonstrate how many people struggle to find their soulmate. Many never do.

Our friendship and marriage brought so many good things to both of our lives, the best being our delightful daughter, Lillian.

One of my favorite latter-day photos of us, touring Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle in 2017.

I got out of bed this morning with the intent of doing some Christmas baking, something new for me. That was Barbara’s department, because she enjoyed it and was so good at it.

But it wouldn’t be Christmas without Yule Cake, a recipe we’ve kept for years in a binder of my mother’s favorite recipes. This recipe is in Mom’s own swirling handwriting, with a note at the top, “I’ve made several of these every Christmas for nearly 50 years.” Who knows when she wrote that. Eleanor Mary Elizabeth Cantwell died at age 88 in 2006. Barbara maintained the Yule Cake tradition since then. And now it’s up to me.

Many cringe at the idea of tooth-achingly sugary Christmas fruitcake, but that’s because they’ve never had this Yule Cake. Yes, it has some sweet fruit — orange peel, cherries, raisins and dates — but it’s more a nut cake. Baked in a large loaf pan for two full hours at 300 degrees, this cake contains 1 1/2 cups each of whole Brazil nuts and whole walnuts. With only 3/4 cup flour, moistened by three beaten eggs, there’s barely enough cake to hold all those nuts together. But sliced into small squares, nothing goes better with a cup of hot coffee on a cold winter morning. Later in the day, a bit of stinky Stilton cheese and a snifter of port are Yule Cake’s perfect complements.

The oven timer is about to ring. We’ll see if it worked. It’s my celebration of the Cantwell women on this cold middle day of December with a sky that looks like snow. Just as it did 42 years ago.

Out of the oven, my first attempt at Yule Cake looks pretty good. Let’s hope it’s edible.

Yule Cake recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups Brazil nut meats, whole
  • 1 1/2 cups walnut halves, unchopped
  • 7 ounces pitted dates, whole or sliced in half
  • 2/3 cup candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1/2 cup whole red maraschino cherries, drained
  • 1/2 cup whole green maraschino cherries, drained
  • 1/2 cup seedless raisins
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar, or sugar substitute
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Grease the bottom and sides of a large loaf pan and line it with parchment paper. Lightly grease the paper.

Place nuts and fruit in a large mixing bowl. Measure all dry ingredients into a sifter and sift over the fruit and nuts. Mix well.

Beat eggs until light and frothy. Add vanilla. Blend into fruit and nut mixture. Batter will be stiff. Spoon mixture into pan and spread evenly.

Bake at 300 F. for 1 3/4 to 2 hours (105 to 120 minutes). Cool on rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan and paper.

Hint: If shelling your own Brazil nuts, freeze them first for easier cracking. Easier: Trader Joe’s sells shelled Brazil nuts.

I can’t write ‘Tis the Season.’ Rose O’Donnell would kill me.

The giant wreath, made from fir boughs fallen in recent windstorms, went up on front of the Nuthatch today.

THAT SAID, I MADE MY WREATH TODAY, the five-foot circle of fir boughs that traditionally hangs across the Nuthatch’s front wall of windows on these darkest days of the year.

So I’ve declared it officially Christmastime. And Hanukkah. Solstice season. Or whatever jolliness you choose to celebrate in the gloom of winter.

Rose O’Donnell was the hard-boiled chief of the features copy desk, my boss when I first went to work at The Seattle Times, and if a lowly copy editor such as myself in those days used the all-time cliché headline “‘Tis the Season” on a holiday-related story, you risked having your pay docked, your pets turned out into the street, and your stocking filled with coal. Or at least having a pica pole thrown at you.

I raise a mug of eggnog to Rose’s meticulous standards, and announce without further fanfare that my wreath is up, along with the swag by the front door.

Just a week ago Lillian and I were celebrating Thanksgiving at a little camping cabin at Camano Island State Park, where we gobbled some really good burgers (garnished with sage, blue cheese, caramelized onions and mushrooms, mmmm) fried up on our camp stove. We decided this year that we should do something different for the holidays, because without Barbara nothing would be the same anyway. Our Thanksgiving venture was quietly delightful.

On a hike along the bluff at Camano Island State Park on Thanksgiving, Lillian points to the beach. Just in case you hadn’t noticed it.

For Christmas, Lillian and I are going away again, to cottages on the Washington coast with friends. I’m not having a Christmas tree at the Nuthatch; that was my sweetie’s favorite effort of the year, elaborately decorating a fragrant fir in our living room. She would bake up a storm, and pile the gifts high. I can’t do it on my own, not this year.

But my daughter and I have good Yuletide plans, and other treasured friends are coming to my cabin for a masked soiree on New Year’s Eve. It’s undeniably a tough holiday season, but I’m doing my best to keep spirits up. And remembering my sweetheart, who so loved Christmas.

Hold dear ones close and stay warm this winter, my friends.

At least it wasn’t a skunk

A fire blazes once more in the Nuthatch cabin’s woodstove Saturday night after a marathon cleanup effort.

THE SKITTERING IN MY CHIMNEY stopped midday Thursday. Friday night was cold. I lit a fire. The cabin filled with smoke.

It wasn’t good.

Whatever got into my chimney, and apparently went to its maker there, was now blocking it. Not a tiny bird, I guessed. A squirrel? A hundred bats? Damn.

Saturday was a marathon day of chimney surgery at the Nuthatch. I decided to attack the problem from the inside flue, dreading what I might find.

First I removed every treasured artifact from the mantel. The wedding photos. The ship in a bottle that my brother-in-law Roly constructed. The framed pearl from my father-in-law’s Hood Canal oyster beach. The New Guinea penis gourd from my sister-in-law Ann. All the good stuff.

Moved the wicker chairs to the far side of the room. Draped the furniture with sheets. Tacked a tarp to the wall around the woodstove and spread another across the floor. Soot can go everywhere.

Then I pulled on a white head-to-toe Tyvek painting suit, grabbed my toolchest, a respirator mask and safety glasses from the shed, strapped on my headlamp and commenced peering at the chimney’s every seam and joint to figure out how to open it up.

There were no screws holding the three sections together, just tapered ends fitting snugly into one another. I tried lifting up. I tried pushing down. No budging.

So I did what every home-maintenance wizard does. I checked YouTube.

No luck. All the online chimneys featured screws you could remove, or sliding extensions. Not what I had.

Stymied in my plan to disassemble the flue, I decided to poke and prod from inside the stove. Breathing like an astronaut, with the respirator covering my face, I discovered that the baffles at the top of the fire chamber were backed by bricks that moved when I poked them. Aha!

Fine black soot spilled from above as I moved the bricks. I was able to lift one out and open a clear passage to the chimney. More soot cascaded down. And my headlamp’s beam fell on a small gray lump wedged in one of the baffles. A lump with feathers. A sooty, lifeless sparrow.

I reached in with a gloved hand and gently pulled the limp bird from its trap. It wasn’t big. I don’t see how that small body alone would have blocked the smoke. But maybe its death struggles, all that skittering, had dislodged enough soot to clog the baffles.

With a sense of melancholy relief, I shook the soot and ash from atop each fire brick, replaced them carefully and shoveled the debris from the floor of the stove.

It took hours to get my front room stripped of its protective garments and reassembled as it was. I mixed cinnamon, cloves and orange extract in water and simmered it on the stove all afternoon to purge the cabin’s smoky smell. I buried the bird outside among soggy fallen maple leaves next to the stump looked over by Trudy, the cement garden bunny that came with us from our Bremerton home.

No squirrel, no skunk. No cloud of bats. Just a lonely sparrow who made a bad choice and complicated my Saturday. Sad to think of how its life ended. Rest in peace, you poor, dumb little bird.

The creature in my chimney

The Nuthatch’s galvanized metal chimney soars high into the air. Could any critter climb it?

FOR THREE DAYS, I’VE NOT BUILT A FIRE in my woodstove. For three days, something’s been living in my chimney.

It’s not good.

I was up in the loft on Tuesday, napping maybe, when first I heard it. A sort of metallic skittering noise. Without looking, I blamed Galley Cat, who was down in the front room. I lamely hollered a protest that she should stop scratching whatever new furnishing she’d found on which to sharpen her claws.

But when I was downstairs fixing dinner the noise came again. Galley, at my feet, gave me one of those sideways looks reserved for the righteously indignant. “Not me, see?”

No, I quickly ascertained. The skittering noise was clearly coming from inside the metal chimney rising above my woodstove.

“What the hell?” I muttered. Mice, I first wondered? I’m in a cabin in the woods. I wage battles to keep mice out. I’ve been victorious in that effort for many months now. I have a whole drawer full of anti-mice devices and mice-fighting aids, some not as nice as others. When something goes skitter in the night, mice leap to my mind.

But no, this was coming from inside a distinctly smooth and vertical metal cylinder, part of a closed system whose only opening is some 25 feet in the air, high above my roof. Mice can climb walls, but can they climb smooth metal surfaces? Would they want to? Seems unlikely.

A bird must have flown down the chimney, I decided. Probably some hapless little chickadee that happened to land at the top and perhaps found that the conical cap gave shelter from the wind and rain. Maybe the chimney was still warm from a recent fire. Might have been inviting.

Surely the top of that chimney is screened, though, I told myself. Yes, my cynical other self responded, it was probably screened 20 years ago, but rust and heat have their way with metal, you know?

The skittering noise came and went over the next three days. I reasoned that the little bird had fallen in to the chimney’s narrowest lower section. About eight feet of pipe, some 8 inches in diameter, rises above the stove before transiting the ceiling. The poor thing likely had insufficient room to flap its wings to fly back up to the top.

Could I free it somehow? I peered inside the stove and saw a series of perforated metal baffles between the fire chamber and the chimney. No access. An examination of the pipe above the stove revealed no obvious way to open it up. And, in any case, the specter of a frightened, frantic, soot-caked songbird swooping around inside my home wasn’t high on my “fun” list.

I stepped outside to see how the chimney was attached to the roof. A circle of at least two dozen bolts circled its base. I’ve been meaning to replace that upper chimney, which had been damaged by a fallen tree a decade ago, its cap dented and a supporting strut bent. But it would require opening the metal roof as with a can opener, a task suited only to a summer week without rain, not the middle of the wettest November on record.

Though we were experiencing our coldest nights of the season, I resolved not to build a fire until well after the noise had stopped, meaning either that the bird had escaped or, sadly, expired. Letting it die on its own, and at its own hand, if you will, was surely ethically better than subjecting it to death by smoke inhalation or, worse yet, roasting?

My brother called from sunny Arizona. As I related my problem, he asked if it might not be a squirrel building a nest in there. I shuddered at the thought. A dead bird wouldn’t smell much, or block the flue. But a squirrel?

I tried to put that fear aside, however. I’ve seen squirrels climb straight up tree trunks, but surely even they couldn’t climb the exterior chimney’s sheer galvanized surface. It’s way up in the air, well out of jumping distance. Building codes generally require that chimneys be two feet higher than any part of the roof that is within 10 feet of the chimney. On my high, sharply sloping roof, that makes for a very tall chimney.

In ensuing days, as I’ve sat in my big wicker chair watching a video or working a crossword, not six feet from the woodstove and that recurrent skittering, I’ve had plenty of time to get paranoid about it. Whatever is in there, why have I heard no cries of anguish? No twittering, no squeaking. It’s not nest-building season, but what if something is building a nest in there? It hasn’t complained because it has been happily coming and going from the top of my chimney, thinking, “All right! How cozy is this?

The thought seized my fevered brain. I leaped up and dashed outside in my robe this morning and stood for 10 minutes craning my neck to peer at the chimney’s peak to see if any industrious critter was popping in and out.

Nope.

This afternoon, the skittering seems to be on the wane. I feel bad about it. But I’m just hoping that whatever expires in there is small enough that it won’t stop me from building a warming fire when I need it. We’re talking about life and death in the wild woods.

Please don’t let it be a raccoon.

I was only ever a Cub Scout, but ‘Be Prepared’ is my new motto

Mr. Toad, named for the road-terror hero of “Wind in the Willows,” ferried rounds of fir from a wind-downed tree on Tuesday.

SOMEBODY COINED THE TERM ‘CAR-WASH RAIN’ and the description was apt. Drumbeats on the roof. Sheets of water down the windows. It was like being in a dimly lit tunnel from which you could barely see out. Like a drive-through car wash.

But this wash and waxing wasn’t over in three minutes. The “atmospheric river,” or Pineapple Express, or whatever label the KOMO Weather Woman affixed on the latest low-pressure tantrum to blast Washingtonians with its Super Soaker, started the drenching Sunday afternoon and didn’t let up for the better part of 24 hours by my clock.

I’m a little fuzzy on the timing because for the latter part of that storm most of the Nuthatch’s clocks weren’t working.

Oh, I forgot to mention the Monday winds, gusting to 60 mph, that blew down trees and doused electricity to our island and several others in the San Juans.

Shortly after my power went out and clocks went dark at 1:23 p.m., Orcas Power and Light Cooperative, which electrifies all the San Juans, emailed me to let me know my power had gone out at 1:23 p.m. I thought it very efficient of them. Maybe I hadn’t noticed all the lights go off, the Internet go down, the heater fan stop and fridge go silent. Of course, I didn’t get the email until after my Internet came back on hours later.

Actually, I was the first Center Islander to report the power failure to OPALCO’s outage line. The phone is the first thing I reach for when things go dark. They can’t fix it if they don’t know about it, right? While our island’s utility wires are underground, our power comes via an underwater cable that originates in Anacortes and first crosses Decatur Island, where lines are on poles and subject to falling trees.

After phoning, my second move was to refill my indoor firewood rack and kindle a blaze in the woodstove. With my electric heat pump no longer magically pulling warmth from the howling winds outside, the cabin would quickly chill.

My next thought: Last time the power failed, in a storm last January, it stayed off for 18 hours. Long enough for the fridge to warm and the freezer full of food to start thawing.

So I stepped out to the shed and hauled out the gas-powered portable generator that got its first tryout in January. While I had already given it a pre-winter test run a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t refilled the gas tank. The good news: I knew I had a spare 5-gallon jug of gasoline. The other news: Said gas jug was aboard my boat, on the other side of the island.

Now, one thing I’ve learned in my long years on this planet and in my few years on this island is that it’s not a great idea to go out in a raging windstorm. The quick lesson on that comes from the loud thunks every few minutes on my metal roof as branches fall. Usually they are small branches. Sometimes they are not small. And they come down fast.

But I had Mr. Toad, the Cantwell golf cart, sporting a brand-new, $1,000 set of six 6-volt batteries installed just days earlier. (Timing can be everything.) Mr. Toad features a hardtop roof, strong enough to protect the noggin from most plummeting limbs. Happily, the pouring rain had ceased and sunshine was lighting up the wildly waving trees. What Mr. Toad lacks is doors. In rain, the going can be wet.

In the calm after the storm, the Nuthatch’s firewood rack gets refilled with wind-downed fir.

The wind-buffeted sojourn was without incident. Once I’d topped off the generator’s tank, the daylight was fading. I wouldn’t fire up the noisy, smelly generator just yet; the fridge would be fine for a while yet. But the lights had been out for hours and OPALCO’s recorded info line offered no estimated time of repair. My next thought was: What did I not want to be looking for in the dark? I dug out my battery-powered mountaineering headlamp, lost in the depths of my knapsack when last I’d wanted it. Then I distributed emergency candles strategically around the cabin, placed a lighter nearby, and retrieved my propane camping stove from the shelf high above the washing machine. (Note to self: The bamboo clothes hamper is not designed to support a 170 pound human, if that cracking sound was any indication.)

Things were getting decidedly dim in the cabin by 4:30. I pulled some bratwurst from the freezer to thaw, since I couldn’t rely on the microwave for defrosting. Then, having done all I could to prepare for the night, I decided to take my pre-dinner nap earlier than usual. (It’s called being retired. One of the better perks.) I had a good book to read, but I wanted to keep that for the potentially long evening, free of Netflix, music, the New York Times app and other electricity-dependent entertainment.

It was pitch dark outside when I awoke. Through its smoke-smudged glass, the woodstove’s low fire cast just a flicker of light on the cabin walls. I added fresh wood. Back in the kitchen, with candles lit and the ceiling flooded with light from a lithium-powered emergency automobile beacon (another treasure discovered while spelunking in my knapsack), I was just gathering items for dinner prep and about to ignite the campstove when the fridge suddenly hummed. And lights flashed on.

OPALCO, ever efficient, emailed me that my power was restored at 5:35:19 p.m. Well done, repair crews. Just in time for dinner. I was back in the 21st century. In 10 minutes, candles and stove were stowed and the microwave was doing its thing.

Today, the payoff for all that angst: A big Douglas fir had blown down across my road a few lots away from mine. The island’s caretaker cut it into big segments and cleared the way. Knowing I was on the lookout for firewood, he alerted me. (My woodshed is full, but my outdoor rack was empty.) By 10 this calm and sunny morning, I was there with my chainsaw. By early afternoon my drying rack was full of 10- to 16-inch rounds. It will keep me busy all winter splitting wood, my favorite therapy. By March, the fir might be burnable. Or at least I’ll have a jump on next fall.

Like a Boy Scout, I’m getting better at being prepared. It’s what you do when you live on a remote little island nobody’s heard of, amid nature red in tooth and claw. Or when it blows like stink.

Winning the Mildred, and other highlights of the season

Halloween brought a respite from storms, as Mount Baker towered over Skagit Valley blueberry fields ablush with autumn color.

GETTING OFF OF THE ROCK means even more to me these days when it includes an actual social event, with real people who are all vaccinated and not wearing masks.

Well, there were a few masks at the social event of which I speak, but not the kind you’re thinking.

Halloween was a treat last Sunday, as it always should be, and moreso this year because it brought the almost-post-COVID return of the annual Burns Family Halloween Party, a highlight of the social year for me and my late wife’s family since, oh, probably the late 1970s. The pandemic caused its cancellation in 2020.

Mary and her monster. Note the clay heart in Lillian’s hand, and the jumper cables hanging from my pocket.

Since its inception, it has been a highly competitive costume party, with a trophy awarded. The legend is that my sister-in-law Kathleen went to Goodwill decades ago and acquired an old bowling trophy that had been awarded to a woman named Mildred. Kathleen replaced the bowling figure with a little waxen witch on a broomstick. Thus was born the Mildred Award for Best Costume, which has been passed around among champions of the sartorially macabre for lo these many years.

Barbara and I took the competition seriously, and over the years came up with thematic costumes that paired together. I was Ichabod Crane and she was the Headless Horseman. I was Edgar Allan Poe, she was the Raven. To mark the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest, I was an ice-ax wielding Jim Whittaker and Barbara was a crazed-looking, prayer-flag-bedecked yeti. (Thanks to friend Suzy Burton, who has compiled this digital album of costumes from the party over the decades.)

It was tough this year without Barbara. But she was sweetly memorialized in the elaborately decorated Day of the Dead altar that my sister-in-law Margaret always creates as a comforting adjunct to the Halloween celebration. And daughter Lillian stepped up with a brilliant costume pairing idea: She went as “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, circa 1818, and I was Shelley’s monstrous, galumphing literary creation.

In keeping with the spooky holiday, Mary Shelley fit right in. Not only did she create one of history’s iconic creatures of every kid’s bad dreams, she was certifiably odd in her own way. After her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned at a young age in a boating accident, she is said to have carried his preserved heart with her wherever she went. So Lillian molded an authentic-looking human ticker from modeling clay and carried it around at the party.

Like the Addams Family, we were creepy. We were kooky. We were altogether ooky. We won the Mildred.

Halloween weekend offered a welcome sunny and calm break from the gales and rainstorms that have beset us of late. It was but a respite, however. As I write this in Nuthatch cabin, the towering firs and maples outside my wall of windows sway alarmingly in high winds. The lowering sun, just emerging from rainclouds, flickers through the teetering trees like a blinding locomotive headlight of cold, pastel yellow. Cast in stark shadow, waving branches bearing autumn’s last leaves dance enchantingly across my cabin wall.

It’s November in the Northwest. I enjoy clement weather, but when I think on it, to live without seasons would be, well, monstrous.

50 words for rain on the roof?

Fallen leaves marinate in the rainwater pooling on the Nuthatch’s deck rail this morning.

CAN YOU HAVE AN URBAN MYTH about the Arctic bush? When does it become a Rural Myth?

The myth I’m thinking of is the one about Eskimos or Inuits having 50 words for “snow.” Or is it 500? Is it, in fact, just a myth?

I swerved back and forth over this fogline of thought early this morning as I lay in bed after a long night of rain.

The Nuthatch has a metal roof. Practical and durable for a wet climate. Safer than wood shakes in the summer fire season. It happens that my bed in the loft is situated such that my head is right up against the inside of that roof, with only some knotty pine, a bit of insulation and a veneer of plywood and tar paper intervening. So when it rains, I hear it.

Here’s the jack o’lantern I carved on Wednesday, before the rains. Good news in the forecast: Sunday is supposed to be dry and warm. Happy Halloween!

Usually, it’s soothing. Last night, it was pretty damn loud.

As my Pacific Northwest neighbors know, we’re having a soggy week, and it’s not over yet. For the Seattle suburbs, the National Weather Service forecasts up to 2 inches of rain tonight. There’s a flood watch in effect. Even my rain-shadowy San Juans could get another inch in the next 18 hours, they say. Normally, this corner of the continent is the drizzle capital of North America.

Last night on Center Island I heard the rain start in the wee hours and continue until I arose around 7:15. For hours on end water seemed to spray from a great firehose in the sky.

As I lay in that limbo zone between groggy sleep and hoping that Galley Cat would finally get up first and make the coffee, I came up with this list of terms for rain on my roof, based on the sound effect.

POUNDING: This is a new one I invented last night. Been to the symphony? Know what tympani are? It wasn’t a good night’s rest. Thankfully rare, though with climate change, who knows.

DRUMMING: This term is more common, denoting steady precip. Familiar in poetry and song. Think “Little Drummer Boy” and “rum-pum-pum-pum.” We get it now and then.

PATTERING: Here’s where I’m lulled to pleasant sleep, with the satisfying feeling of being safe and warm inside my cozy cabin. The trees and moss outside are finally getting the moisture they need. Common here in spring and autumn when the forecast calls for those ubiquitous “showers.”

DRIPPING: See “Pattering,” just not so definitive. The preamble, perhaps. A nagging reminder to clean the gutters, which filled with fallen leaves and fir needles in Tuesday’s big wind storm.

OK, four isn’t fifty. It’s a work in progress. But the rainy season has only just begun.

It’s the bomb (cyclone)

That’s my street, where autumn leaves blazed into color late this year. Most will likely blow away in this storm.

I’M HUNKERED DOWN THIS OCTOBER SUNDAY in Wee Nooke, my tongue-in-cheekily named writing hut on the rocky knoll behind my cabin, and the cyclone has arrived.

A far edge of the cyclone, anyway.

I feel pretty safe and, with an under-the-desk electric radiator roasting my feet, cozy. My 6-by-6-foot cedar shack sits in a mossy clearing, clear of falling branches. But as I look out my windows the trees are definitely dancing, as Barbara always described it.

The media is full of headlines about this Bomb Cyclone, a term that evolved from “bombogenesis,” which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls “a phenomenon that occurs when a mid-latitude cyclone rapidly intensifies, dropping at least 24 millibars over 24 hours.” Headlines in some of the more sensationalist media are greatly overstating the severity, especially the American version of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun, which shouts “Seattle to be hit by BRUTAL (sic) subzero weather storm that will ‘rival a hurricane’.”

Yeah, right. Local news media say Seattle will experience relatively mild storm conditions. The idea that temperatures will be “subzero” is some bored headline writer’s fantasy. (It is the season for magic mushrooms in the woods.) Last I looked, the National Weather Service reported that Seattle’s temperature was 57 degrees F.

Tracking winds and weather is an obsession among us Center Islanders. No big surprise there, considering how reliant we are on boats or planes to get us anywhere but here. I love my classic 1957 runabout, but WeLike isn’t a rough-weather boat. I don’t leave the dock if there are whitecaps, which generally occur with winds of 13 mph or greater. (For the nautically obsessed, that’s Force 4 on the Beaufort Scale, on which Force 12 is called a hurricane.) In high winds and roiling currents, WeLike can rock and roll to rival Mick Jagger.

So how do we get our wind predictions? Practically everyone I know uses a smartphone app called Windy.

As a card-carrying Luddite (well, we would make cards if an electronic printer wasn’t required), I’ve rebelled against “apps” since the first techie child decided it was too much trouble to use the full word “application.” But with Windy, I’ve totally caved. In fact, I shell out $20 a year to get the upgraded hourly forecast rather than the free summary that is limited to measly three-hour periods. The localized forecasts’ accuracy is impressive.

This screenshot from Windy.com shows the whirling winds off the Washington coast on Sunday. The gray flag at upper right pinpoints Center Island, noting windspeed and direction.

Today, the Windy map shows a huge, scary spiral of counterclockwise winds off the Washington coast, centered 280 miles offshore and whirling toward British Columbia. Much of it is bypassing Seattle, but the San Juan Islands are picking up more of the storm’s fringes. As I write, we have steady winds of 25 to 30 mph out of the southeast, drawn by the offshore maelstrom.

The good news for Nuthatchers, me and Galley, is that we’re on the west-southwest quadrant of Center Island, so we’re not getting the brunt of those southeast winds.

And, frankly, winds of this magnitude are no big deal for us, in most respects. We’ll get this kind of windstorm four times in January. What sets this apart is that it’s only October. We should still be enjoying some sunny fall days.

The sobering factor to Windy’s forecast for the next 24 hours: Starting at 9 p.m. and continuing through the 6 p.m. hour tomorrow, my island is supposed to get nonstop winds exceeding 30 mph. Gusts will near 50. That’s a war of attrition on our tall trees. I won’t be surprised if some come down.

A saving grace: We’re getting little rain with the storm, whereas the outer coast expects dumping rain and flooding. And this early in the season, after a summer drought, our ground isn’t yet softened by saturation.

I’m as ready as can be. WeLike is out of the water, on a trailer, in as safe a spot as possible. I chopped a lot of firewood and kindling these past few days, so heat won’t be a worry (even if those subzero temperatures arrive). If power goes out for long, I have a generator, which I fired up two days ago for a pre-winter check, so I can keep my fridge going. And I did a major shopping expedition this week to Costco, Fred Meyer and Trader Joe’s. The pantry overfloweth.

So, bring it on, if we must. Wish us luck against falling firs. On behalf of me and my app-loving neighbors (and I ask your forgiveness), I leave you with this earworm, of which I owned the 45-rpm vinyl back in the day: The Association’s 1967 mellow-rock hit, “Everyone knows its Windy.”