Sometimes you have to work for a merry Christmas. Let me tell you.

This was the view from the Nuthatch cabin’s front window the morning of December 20. The railing was snow-free only because ravenous birds mobbing the feeder had knocked it clear.

ALEXANDER, THE GRUMPY BOY from a well-known 1972 children’s book, would likely agree:

This has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad December in the San Juan Islands.

A week ago Monday night, it snowed and snowed, then snowed some more. Enough to snowshoe on. Skis would have been great. Tromping around the island, as my boots sank deep, I got twice the normal exercise.

Then it froze and froze, then froze harder. The snow never melted. My firewood pile sank quickly.

Daughter Lillian, who lives in Seattle, and I had long ago planned Christmas at a little camping-cabin at Camano Island State Park, a pretty spot halfway between us, reachable by a bridge from the mainland. The trip required only an hour of driving for each of us.

Our Christmas cabin on Camano Island.

Happily — even Alexander would have been optimistic — the National Weather Service assured us that a warming trend would arrive two days before Christmas. Presumably, rain would wash away the snow and ease any travel worries. Our plans were golden. I’d catch a water taxi on the late morning of Christmas Eve and Lil and I would meet up in time for the 4 p.m. check-in time, ready to whirl our way around the little cabin, trimming it with lights, baubles and bows.

Though snowy and cold, the week was going well. I’d hosted a pleasant happy hour for neighbors on the solstice. Then, Thursday at 1:09 p.m., my water-taxi service texted to tell me that they expected to cancel every trip on Christmas Eve. The forecast called for winds exceeding 50 mph, rendering the voyage unsafe. Even Santa might get blown off course.

Rebook your trip for Friday, the Paraclete Charters folks urged.

Panic ensued. Staging a portable Christmas with many of the favorite family decorations and dishes — the Santa-and-reindeer light string, the Christmas Spode, etc. — entailed hours of careful packing. I’d been counting on a full day of prep on Friday.

I would also now need a place to stay Friday night on the mainland.

Shamelessly, I phoned my next-door neighbor, the Mad Birder, and “invited myself ” to crash with my sleeping bag on his sofa at the La Conner home he shares with his wife, Carol. They had boated over to Center Island the previous week, to stay through Christmas at their cabin.

The Mad Birder, generous by nature, put up little resistance. He also agreed to look in on Galley Cat, who would be home alone for a couple nights. (Someone else had nabbed the one Camano cabin that allowed pets.) By late afternoon, it seemed that I (with help from the M.B.) had risen to the challenges the islands were throwing at me this Yuletide. I would get the Paraclete’s final Friday sailing, by which time the snow would have mostly melted away. So the plan went.

Then, at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, just as I was thinking about dinner prep, the lights went out.

My meal that night was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Your correspondent with Christmas dinner in the works: stovetop Shepherd’s Pie, with Brussels sprouts, spiced with fresh air.

Usually these outages are localized and fairly quickly resolved. But a call to our power cooperative informed me that the outage was countywide, caused by a system failure on the mainland. Uh-oh. That meant fixing it was up to Puget Sound Energy and Bonneville Power Administration, rather than our quick-responding, owner-operated Orcas Power & Light Cooperative (OPALCO). Our islands don’t always top the priority list for Puget Sound Energy, owned primarily by Canadian investors.

A recorded message said the power might be out at least four hours. Outside temperatures were in the low 20s. It would be a very cold night. After I’d risen every hour on the hour to stoke a fire in the woodstove, my lights came back on 13 hours later, at 6 a.m. Friday. I could cook again, but I was bleary eyed at the start of a very long day.

Friday didn’t warm up nearly as much as forecast. By the time I needed to head for the dock with my food, gifts, decorations, camping gear and warm clothing, eight inches of snow remained on the ground. The gravel roads were still coated in compact snow and ice. No traction for my golf cart or a community pickup truck, so I loaded baggage into my pushcart and trudged slowly across the island, 3/4 of a mile through freezing rain and light snow. Two trips, the last one in the dark. I really didn’t want to cancel Christmas with my daughter.

Happily, roads in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley had almost completely thawed. I made it to La Conner with barely a hitch. The only place I got stuck was trying to pull into my friends’ driveway, still a solid mass of snow. Luckily, I’d brought a shovel.

Our Christmas dinner table at the Camano cabin included prize-packed crackers, a fixture inspired by my late wife Barbara’s Australian upbringing.

At 8 p.m., I sat down to the sack dinner I’d brought. In a phone call to let the Mad Birder know I’d made it, he insisted I raid his liquor cupboard for a tot of Glenfiddich. This time, it was I who put up little resistance. If there’s a heaven, that man is going there.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Lillian and I made our rendezvous at the Camano cabin. It was basic, but cozy, with lights, heat, a fridge, a microwave oven and comfy beds. I set up my propane camp stove on a picnic table under the covered porch. Bathrooms and hot showers were 100 feet away.

We made the place festive, gathering fallen fir boughs for a window-sill vase and a swag on the door. Lights went up in a window and over the door. If there had been a hall, we’d have decked it. Heirloom treasures made for a holiday dinner table fancier than that place had ever seen, I’ll wager. I was glad to have trundled the Cantwell holiday trappings through the snow.

Meanwhile, I discovered that the San Juans had lost power again that morning. My kind neighbors were again sitting in the dark. Happily, power came back on just in time for their Christmas Eve dinner.

Christmas Day, my daughter and I breakfasted on almond-flour blueberry pancakes. We hiked through rain-washed woods to wander the beautiful cobbled beach, returning to the Christmas cabin to lunch on Stilton and Cotswold Double Gloucester cheeses on crackers while piecing together a new jigsaw puzzle. We played new board games before and after a savory dinner of camp-stove shepherd’s pie, which Lillian totally aced.

Your correspondent, left, and daughter in their Christmas crowns.

My dessert, Bûche de Noël, baked at home just before the power failed, was, um, a mixed success. The sponge was basically a failure — chewy and tough rather than airy and light. But if you smothered mocha-flavored whipped cream on cardboard, it would still be heavenly.

So, after all, in the end, the terrible December got better. The horrible weather didn’t defeat us. Christmas turned out more good than no good. And even my very bad dessert was tasty.

Is there a moral to the story? I guess it’s this: Let’s nurture resilience and hope. Let’s meet the challenges. Let’s trundle through the storms, no matter what 2023 throws our way. Happy new year, friends. And remember to bring your shovel.

Winter winds had wreaked havoc in the woods at Camano Island. The fang-like splinters inspired Lillian to dub this the dragon tree.

9 thoughts on “Sometimes you have to work for a merry Christmas. Let me tell you.

  1. Beautifully written, Brian! What a story. I think you could turn this into a published Christmas essay somewhere.

    Happy new year!

    Love, Carol and Tom


  2. Glad your miserable Christmas turned out happy. Impressed you have the strength to get supplies through the snow in a cart, twice. But read on, Bucky. We arrived in Lino Lakes, MN, on Tuesday, Dec. 13. On Wednesday morning, daughter-in-law Emily tested positive for Covid. Michael and the nanny, Amanda, felt lousy. Amanda had quite a hack and did not isolate. So we did our best and had a fake Christmas. Jill and I tested positive when we got home Dec. 19. She recovered and was able to go to Julie and Kyle’s on Christmas Day. Not me. I still am congested and coughing, although a bit better each day. But do I have a good attitude. Of course not. Happy New Year, Brian. Disgusted Dave

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  3. Wow. I loved reading every word of this holiday adventure in resilience. Thank you, friend! I especially loved your line “If there’s a heaven, that man is going there.” All of us are now big fans of the MB. 🙂 Sending joy for the New Year! I think you’re “good” on the resilience front for a while…


  4. What a harrowing tale, Brian! I was worried about you in your rustic home during the freezing weather, so not surprised you had some difficult times. Looks like your Christmas with Lillian was lovely, though. I’m a big fan of the State Parks cabins, too.
    Wishing you all the best in the New Year!


  5. I’ve just read this one for the third time, and loved the New Year’s one as well. Wishing you an amazing and surprising New Year, Hilary


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