BACK TO THE REEF, and the rock also known as Center Island.
I needed a writing hiatus for a few weeks after returning from the Alaska adventure. It’s been a period of readjustment to the landlubberly life, and to daily existence shared primarily with Galley Cat, with whom I’ve enjoyed a joyful reunion with many shared runs up and down our rocky knoll.
It took a week or so until I was waking in the morning without the inclination to jump out of my bunk, get coffee water heating on the Force 10 stove and climb down in the hold to complete the morning engine checks so we could weigh anchor.
My past three weeks of land-based confinement has hardly been solitary, though. After a couple of days reuniting with my brother Tom, who was my cabin watcher/cat sitter for 10 weeks, I was invited to lunch on Lopez Island with old friend and Seattle Times colleague Lynn Thompson and her family.
Shortly afterward, The Mad Birder and his wife, Carol, invited me next door with three other neighbors to share a bounty of Dungeness crab, freshly hauled from Lopez Sound. That led to another party two days later after neighbor Steve, a restaurant chef from Nevada, took the crab shells back to his holiday cabin to create a stock from which he whipped up a splendid vat of paella, colorfully aswim with fresh San Juan Channel shrimp, Read’s Bay crab and Center Island Farm vegetables. I was among the dozen or so neighbors who got to partake of that locavore lovefest on a sunset-view deck thanks to Steve and his wife, Dawn, the organizing force behind their family-owned eatery.
As cabin-owners come and go on our rock, you never know who will be your next neighbor. Right now, we’re enjoying an amiable mix of compatible friends along our dead-end spur of Chinook Way, the grandiose name of the gravel cow-path winding through our thickets of salal and Nootka rose. Three of us are sailboat owners (four, when you count the neighboring farm). Among others is a family with three energetic boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, who added an element of fun to the block party. The kids’ mom told me they are fans of a YouTube channel called “Outdoor Boys,” and the youngest had recently learned of the edibility of seaweed. So as we prepared to sit down to paella on Steve and Dawn’s deck, this adventurous 5-year-old, expertly wielding a pair of chopsticks, doggedly ate his way through a bowl of some sort of kelp. I like that spirit.
Over good food and drink, we all pondered our island existence. Because our cabins face west overlooking Lopez Sound, with the frequent reward of a sinking sun setting the saltwater sparkling brighter than a Tiffany’s display case, we decided our neighborhood’s new nickname should be “Sunset Strip.” There was serious talk of carving a sign.
A couple days later longtime friends Ken and Kate from Portland joined me for three nights at the Nuthatch, giving me a chance to barbecue, one of the things that makes life worth living (in case you didn’t know). Hickory-smoked vegan burgers with Lebanese spice one night. The next: thick-cut pork chops with a crust of fresh island rosemary, minced garlic and romano cheese, grilled with apple-wood smoke.
All that camaraderie and good food was lovely. But stress and emotion wasn’t absent from my return to the island. On my calendar, these days led up to last Sunday, August 21, when we committed my dear Barbara’s cremated remains to the Salish Sea. It wasn’t an easy day to plan for.
Sucia Island, a 90-minute boat ride to the north, was the location. For some 20 years, my family and I would spend a couple weeks of every August poking around the San Juans in our cozy old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro. On those sojourns, Sucia Island State Park, near the Canadian border, became perhaps our favorite place in the world. In our wills, Barbara and I both requested that our remains be cast on waters around Sucia.
For a day trip with a dozen family members and friends, I chartered the Paraclete, the water taxi that I routinely use for passage to and from Anacortes. It was a day of good karma; just before arriving at Sucia, we encountered a pod of orca. For my sister-in-law Jane, who spent much of her childhood around the San Juans, this was the first time she finally saw an orca in the wild.
The Sucia visit included a one-mile hike to a new memorial bench honoring Barbara. The bench installation took more than a year to bring to fruition. The effort’s success can largely be credited to the persistent persuasive powers of my friend Daniel Farber, a retired official with Washington State Parks, along with dozens of friends and family who donated to a GoFundMe campaign. The bench’s bronze plaque reads: “For Barbara, who loved this island, from Brian, who always sat beside her.” I’m sorry it doesn’t acknowledge the many others who played a role in the bench’s creation. Barbara and I chose the wording some time ago, paraphrasing a line from a favorite old movie, to be adapted for whomever went first.
Barbara loved to picnic, so we all brought sack lunches and sat on the bench or on the rocky hillside sloping down to the water. Barbara’s sister Julie made a couple loaves worth of sandwiches; ham-and-pickle and chicken salad, according to family tradition. Her brother Mark brought a toothsome potato salad. For the first time in my life, I made deviled eggs, another family favorite.
After lunch, we reboarded the boat and motored a short ways offshore while snacking on chocolate-coated cream puffs, one of Barbara’s favorite desserts, baked by daughter Lillian. We toasted the memory of a dear wife, mother and sister as we scattered her ashes into the sea along with armloads of summer flowers, many provided by our friend Monique from Center Island Farm.
It was a bittersweet but wonderful day. A regrettable follow-up: At least three people who made the trip came down with COVID within days. Sigh. Their symptoms are mild, thanks to vaccinations. I’m feeling fine, so far. One way or another, it seems likely that we’ll all catch this stupid bug eventually.
The Mad Birder summed up the day.
“Regardless of the consequences, Sunday was beautiful, and … the bench is soooooo perfect.”
Lillian and I have resolved to revisit that bench every summer. Barbara will be sitting beside us in spirit, I’m certain.