Solitude and good company

Friends Dave and Jill Kern met the barn cat when we visited Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm last week.

I HAVEN’T LIVED ALONE since I had my crummy little apartment connected to the beauty parlor on 10th Street in Mount Vernon. It became a much nicer apartment when Barbara moved in after we married in December 1979. We were there together for only a few months before our first cat, Bing, adopted us by coming to our door and meowing as if the building was on fire, then marching right in like he owned the place. Suddenly we had a Maine Coon kitten. We became cat people by default.

But we were soon willing to face eviction for Bing, since the crummy apartment’s landlord didn’t allow pets (could they make the place crummier?). Called on the (threadbare) carpet, we moved to a larger, newer apartment a mile or so away. I would describe it as, um, crappy.

We loved the Skagit Valley, and my young spouse worked two jobs to supplement the pittance I made as news editor of the local weekly. But ultimately our relative poverty and the quality of our apartment living had a lot to do with my decision to go to graduate school, hoping to improve our lot in life.

So 40 years ago this autumn Barbara and I moved to Chicago, a place she would badmouth with gusto until just about her dying day. Much of that had to do with my leaving her there on her own winter quarter when I went away to take part in Medill School of Journalism’s Washington, D.C., program. She couldn’t accompany me; her job at the Northwestern University library was paying our bills. She called it her PHT (Putting Him Through) degree.

Of course, Chicago produced a record-cold winter, and she had to trudge to work with a six-foot woolen scarf wrapped entirely around her head. For years, it made for a funny story to share with friends over a glass or three of good wine. But she never forgave me.

Throughout our 41 years of marriage, that was the longest period that we were separated. Until last April. It’s been six months since she died in the Nuthatch Cabin’s front room.

Now it’s October. I live on a small, isolated island. Wind and rain have chased most neighbors to the mainland for the winter.

Solitude doesn’t suit me the way it does some. After living with my best friend for 41 years, I guess that makes sense. “How are you doing?” people ask. I know they mean “without her.”

The answer is, I’m coping, more or less. I get out of bed every day. I exercise. I read, I write, I cook. I run to the top of the rocky knoll with Galley Cat, who is my little ginger-colored bundle of joy (who only occasionally bites if I pet her too hard).

So I’m not entirely alone. I say good morning every day to Barbara’s photo, the sexy, come-hither image she mailed me when I was 18 and gone to Florida for college. On the back of the black-and-white print that she made in her own darkroom is penciled “Hey, Sailor!” Her distinctive, curlicued script can bring me a smile or a tear, depending on the mood.

I’m not alone, though. I’ve got the feline housemate, who is a bit of a bed pig. I have the birds who are mobbing the feeder this time of year, perhaps presaging the La Niña winter we’re being warned about. Nuthatches and Chickadees go back and forth as fast as their flappy little wings will carry them, caching hundreds of sunflower seeds in the wrinkly bark of my big Doug firs. Or there is the oversized Hairy Woodpecker swinging from the suet cages like a fat teenager trying out the playground’s baby swings.

A Northern Flicker came to visit, dressed in his finery.

A pretty Northern Flicker joined the crowd the other day. We get them once in a while. They always remind me of an English lord in a morning coat and spotted silk vest.

I Skype nightly with my loving daughter. And friends and loved ones visit. Last week old friends Dave and Jill Kern, whom Barbara and I knew in our Vancouver, Wash., days, came up and stayed a couple nights on Lopez Island. We toured Lopez together and I brought them out on WeLike for grilled burgers at the cabin. Dave, a treasured colleague of mine at The Columbian newspaper, is in his 70s now. My favorite memory was his 40th birthday, when Barbara and I rented a big Lincoln and took Dave and Jill to dinner at Nick’s, a famed Italian bistro in Willamette Valley wine country, west of Portland. Since we then considered 40 to be essentially life’s end, on the homeward drive I played and replayed a cassette tape of rocker Barry McGuire’s fatalistic Cold War anthem, “Eve of Destruction.” It rocked the Town Car with the stereo turned on “stun.”

Company is good, along with fun memories. Solitude, I’m forced to cope with.

I am who I am: 5 quick poems

Center Island deer have worked their way into my consciousness. See the poem below.

I’M ENVIOUS of something my friend Daniel has done in retirement. For many months, he has participated in a writing class sponsored by the senior center in Olympia. The instructor has challenged his class with countless assignments in which they delve into their past. As Daniel has shared many of those pieces I’ve learned much more than I’ve ever known about my longtime friend, a long-ago college roommate as well as best man at my wedding. And I’ve watched his writing talents soar.

A recent assignment was a little different. The writers were instructed to compose five quick poems, at least eight lines apiece and no more than 10, with each line beginning “I am…” and completing with a metaphor. Writing time limit: 10 minutes per poem.

It sounded like an intriguing challenge. I decided to try it, and I kind of surprised myself. The time limit strips you bare, prohibiting careful introspection.

Here’s what I came up with. Some of the themes: my feelings of loss, in both personal life and career; aging and widower-hood; my love of nature; my feeling of facing a blank slate, with the scary option to reinvent myself. Other stuff you can figure out.


I AM A WANDERING DEER, munching the tenderest leaves I can reach.

I am the sire teaching his fawn the ways of the wood.

I am the bereft mate, left when hunters shot without regard.

I am the angry buck, clashing antlers with bullies from across the island.

I am a tamed follower of trodden paths.

I am an aimless animal who lunges through ferns.

I am nature’s howl.

I am a wild thing who dances in the moonlight, forever.


I AM A FULLY RIGGED SAILBOAT on a wild beam reach.

I am the lazy seal watching it go by.

I am the eel grass, nourishing life.

I am the papa orca harried by tourist boats.

I am the baby orca leaping for joy as cameras click.

I am phytoplankton, glowing in the dark only if you look.

I am a pretty reef, dangerous if you hit me.

I am a finely balanced compass, never lost at sea.


I AM A WIDE-EYED CHILD sitting by a wall.

I am Father Time scribbling in a notebook.

I am the storyteller with a rapt audience.

I am the screenwriter washing cars and pumping gas.

I am the air traveler boasting of his million miles.

I am the tour guide who knows all the corny jokes.

I am Marco Polo, lost in Mongolia.

I am the streaky old pen, running out of ink.


I AM THE TRAIN you rode yesterday, when getting there mattered.

I am a whiff of wood smoke, lost on the wind.

I am the rain you wished we had, but now there’s no umbrella.

I am the salt without the pepper, and remember when we had oregano?

I am an old favorite dish, and you’ll have me again. Soon.

I am the fresh green broccoli turning yellow in the fridge.

I am the trousers that used to fit.

I am washed, folded and put away, and now what do you do with the dryer sheet?


I AM A NEW CHEVY just off the production line, and forget the old Dodge.

I am the odometer set at 000000.

I am the new-car smell.

I am the first bend in the road up into the mountains you love.

I am the hybrid, with fewer stops at the pump.

I am the blank travel log you just tucked into the glove box.

I am the hot wheels flying off a cliff, and kids do not try this at home.

I am the miles to go before you sleep.

A daughter’s birthday with Eggs Benedict, herons and beer

A Great Blue Heron wades through grasses along the Padilla Bay Shore Trail in the Skagit Valley.

ONE OF MY ISLAND HOME’S GREAT ASSETS isn’t in the San Juans at all. It’s the nearby Skagit Valley, which one crosses to get here. It’s a beautiful agricultural valley bisected by one of the West’s great rivers and edged by snowy mountains. Its saltwater sloughs, scenic bays and verdant farming fields attract migratory geese and swans, along with countless Great Blue Herons and soaring raptors that make the valley home.

With a day off from work to celebrate, daughter Lillian chose to meet me there Monday to mark her 30th birthday.

We started the day with deliciously vulgar breakfasts at our favorite La Conner cafe, the Calico Cupboard, perched on the edge of Swinomish Channel. Lillian’s platter of Eggs Benedict swam with smoked salmon circling a giant island of hash browns made from Skagit potatoes. My Morning Glory Omelette’s three eggs were a happy vessel for crisp bacon, avocado, tomato, baby spinach, and cheddar cheese, topped by sour cream and green onion. Lil eventually had to cry “uncle” to that Greenland-sized mass of taters, but I was a proud member of the Clean Plate Club.

After our late breakfast, we toddled (or, maybe, waddled) in and out of La Conner’s shops, easy targets for merchants of kitchen gadgets (she really needed that cheese slicer) and the latest books appealing to 30-year-old readers of fantasy fiction. We enjoyed poking our noses into the new nautically-themed boutique that now occupies what was the one-room town library where Barbara was the sole librarian in the early 1980s.

After a pleasant wander along the town’s delightful new (in the past decade) waterfront walkway looking across to a tribal park’s pavilions fashioned to resemble woven-cedar hats, we motored northward and parked the car for a breakfast-burning 2-mile hike on the Padilla Bay Shore Trail. Beneath a blustery autumn sky split between patches of gingham blue and darkly scudding clouds, we watched wading herons hunt for their own brunch along the muddy banks of meandering sloughs.

Back in the car, we followed Bay View-Edison Road to its terminus: the village of Edison (est. 1869, pop. 147), which holds up bravely under a massive overdose of charm.

I’m not sure what it is that makes the place so appealing. Maybe that there are only about five businesses that manage to keep their doors open, and you’d better be prepared to pay cash because credit cards are too newfangled. Or that “downtown” is only about three-quarters of a block. Now with a decidedly Rural Bohemian vibe, it has the air of being stuck interminably in the 1920s (a decade when its high school produced famed journalist Edward R. Murrow). Probably key to its commercial survival today is that it is world headquarters to Breadfarm, which might be my favorite bakery on the planet (and I’m not the only loyalist).

After Lil bought a black-olive ciabatta loaf to take home, we reviewed the “fun things to do” list I’d compiled for the day (travel editor, remember? it’s what I do). We looked at our watches, noted that the day was marching on and decided we didn’t feel like rushing up Chuckanut Drive (which doesn’t deserve to be rushed) to a Bellingham pub I liked (Aslan Brewing, which seemed appropriate because Lillian and I have been reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to each other).

As we hesitated, we noticed a sign pointing to the end of Edison’s main drag. It included the words “brewery” and “pizza.” Perfect! A bird in the hand.

The Birthday Girl with a loaf from Breadfarm, the planet’s best bakery.

Indeed, looking out over lazy Edison Slough, I could spy yet another heron from our cozy window table at Terramar Brewing, where Lillian and I sipped some tasty brews 20 minutes later. Lil (her Guinness-devoted mother’s daughter, for sure) had a pint of Red-Eye Porter “with notes of fresh-ground coffee and bittersweet chocolate,” while I quaffed a glass of Old Number Six, described as a Blonde Steam Beer with a rounded malt profile.

Those generous breakfasts were still with us, so instead of pizza we snacked on a starter portion of roasted Shishito peppers, spiced with anchovy and garlic. Boo wah! (Burp.)

To end the day, we headed for a picnic table edging Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes where we would celebrate with massive chocolate cupcakes I had baked and a Thermos of hot tea. But as soon as we stepped out of the car a cool breeze reminded us with whirling gusto that it was almost friggin’ October.

So we parked with a view of the boats and gobbled cupcakes in the car. As far as I can remember, these might be the first cupcakes I’ve ever baked, so I had no idea how much batter to spoon into each cupcake paper. And my Barbara, who didn’t believe in doing things in a small way, kept only an oversized cupcake pan in the cupboard. So not only were they big cupcakes, they had overflowed the tin. They were Cake-zillas.

But topped with chocolate icing and maraschino cherries, they were pretty tasty.

Hard to believe she’s already 30. My daughter is a wonderful young woman. She gets most of the credit for that. But Barbara and I did good.

There and back again: Walla Walla wanderings and a heartwarming return

Feeding hungry goats (and a couple of hopeful pigs) at Walla Walla’s Frog Hollow Farm. From left, Kevin, Stevie, Patti and Lillian.

SOMETIMES THE BEST WAY TO APPRECIATE my small island is to get off it for a few days.

Spending four recent days with daughter Lillian visiting friends in Walla Walla was a wonderful getaway.

Our longtime sailing friend, Patti Lennartson, her daughter, Stevie, and Stevie’s partner, Kevin, were our hosts in the land of dry wine and sweet onions.

It included a visit to delightful Frog Hollow Farm, bordering the Walla Walla River southwest of town, where acres of organic produce is offered on a you-pick basis, including their specialty, row after row of heirloom tomatoes of many shapes and colors, from red to orange to purple. The you-pick price: a wallet-pleasing $1.50 a pound for anything in the field.

A well-sipped mojito, and pre-dinner produce from Frog Hollow.

We left with bagfuls of tomatoes, butternut and delicata squash, eggplant, kale, and fresh herbs. Most of it went into our dinner that evening, all grilled outside and served alongside fresh wild-caught coho salmon. Our pre-dinner happy hour featured tortilla chips and homemade guacamole washed down with mojitos custom-made by Kevin, a former bartender, using fresh-picked mint from the farm.

Once again, when spending time with good friends, we failed to starve.

On the road home, with sunshine and moderate temperatures, Lil and I chose to take the scenic route over 5,430-foot Chinook Pass, inspired by my old friend and newspaper colleague Gregg Herrington’s recent AAA magazine article touting the appeals of the various Cascade passes.

Lillian at Tipsoo Lake, Chinook Pass.

Mid-September traffic was happily sparse. We munched a picnic lunch at uncrowded Tipsoo Lake in Mount Rainier National Park, then walked around the lake as the mountain played peekaboo through clouds. Along the way, we nibbled sweet blue huckleberries and hyperventilated over the intoxicating perfume of the alpine firs, one of the iconic joys of the Pacific Northwest.

Home again at the Nuthatch, I pulled the bedspread off my bed and replaced it with a quilt sent home with me by friend Patti, former president of the Walla Walla Valley Quilt Guild. Years ago, my mother had bestowed on my late wife, Barbara, a stack of colorful quilt squares that her mother, my Grandmother Sadie Archer, had sewn but never put together into a quilt before her untimely death caused by a heart condition in the early 1920s.

Barbara was not an experienced quilter. Patti was. So good friend Patti ultimately took on the project, hoping to present a finished quilt to Barbara before cancer took my dear wife’s life. Like many hopes, that one didn’t quite come true.

But now I’m the recipient of this beautiful piece of handwork, based on 100-year-old quilt squares sewn by a grandmother I never knew: a school teacher who on her own, as a single woman, homesteaded a parcel of South Dakota prairie before marrying my grandfather. It’s a perfect addition to the loft of the Nuthatch, already furnished with an antique rocking chair and a rustic lowboy dresser that belonged to Grandma Sadie.

Galley Cat enjoys the new bedspread sewn with 100-year-old quilt squares. In the background, Grandmother Sadie’s rocker and dresser.

I sense with certainty that, in spirit, my mother and wife both are looking on with big smiles. In these rapidly cooling first days of autumn, that quilt sewn by a friend’s loving hand warms my return to the island.

Embracing the hush after summer’s rush

The deck garden at Nuthatch Cabin is finally blossoming at full throttle just in time for fall. Late blooming is part of living in the island woods, where sunshine is filtered and marine breezes keep us cool.

IT IS SUDDENLY VERY QUIET on Center Island.

This is not a bad thing.

Two days after Labor Day, big yellow maple leaves are drifting to the ground. Apples on the gnarled tree by the clubhouse are blushing red. My deck garden is at its blooming peak.

As I caught the water taxi from Anacortes back to the island yesterday after a Labor Day retreat on the Washington coast, I passed a couple of neighbors carting luggage up the dock as they departed for their winter abode in South Carolina. Another neighbor couple has a snowbird refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Not me. I love the autumn months here. Peaceful and pleasant. After countless happy families came on countless vacations to Center Island, featuring boats of every size jockeying local waters to catch toothsome crab and shrimp, suddenly there’s ample dock space. Crystal-clear days mix with morning showers that bring the forest moss back to its fulsome fullness, rivaling the 1970s emerald-green shag carpet I had in my Bellevue bedroom when I was 14. (I actually bought the rug with my paper-route money. Weird kid.)

As at mainland golf courses and swimming clubs, Labor Day is the last social occasion of the summer on Center Island. There’s always a salmon barbecue at the clubhouse. People play pickleball. Hermits that we’ve always been, Barbara and I customarily entertained visitors at our own cabin, on the island’s far side from the frivolity.

This year, daughter Lillian and I journeyed to the ocean beach for a delightful Labor Day rendezvous with old friends, Deborah Willoughby and her kids, Jay and Clara, from Vancouver, Wash. These “kids” all spent their early years together, when I worked at The Columbian newspaper along with Jay and Clara’s parents. This year, Lillian and Jay both turn 30.

On the foggy beach at Seaview, we were drawn to a hand-engineered driftwood version of, um, Stonehenge? But the murk made it hard to tell if it could be used to tell time. From left, Clara Willoughby, Lillian Cantwell and Deborah Willoughby.

We spent a couple nights at the funky-licious (not a term I’d normally employ when clean and sober, but I can’t think of a better descriptor for this place) Sou’wester Historic Lodge and Vintage Travel Trailer Resort, in Seaview on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula.

OK, how would you describe a place that rents nights in dozens of streamlined, slightly down-at-the-heels caravans that look like what Lucy and Desi pulled in “The Long, Long Trailer”? And shows short films in an old school bus, features a library of VHS movie tapes and vinyl LPs in the lodge lobby, offers do-it-yourself tea service in a bug-size trailer called the QT, and regularly hosts indie musicians and traveling artists? All within a short walk of the Pacific beach?

We prepared dinners on a 1950s push-button General Electric range. We played card games. We walked miles on the foggy beach. We ate brownies and sipped wine on the lodge’s slightly mossy balcony while listening to an outdoor concert by an earnest, lovelorn musician from Santa Cruz. We toasted Barbara, to whose memory the weekend was dedicated. She loved the beach.

Long Beach’s saucy celeb

The getaway concluded with arcade games, bakery pastries, saltwater taffy shopping, wildly zigging go-kart rides, and the requisite stop to pay homage to Jake the Alligator Man at Marsh’s Free Museum in the town of Long Beach. In the Olympics of American kitsch, we’re talking a 10, even from the Oklahoman judge.

Back home, this morning I awoke to the drool of drizzle on the Nuthatch’s metal roof. I trekked across the island and ran a load of wash at the clubhouse. This afternoon, the sun is blazing warm and I’m sipping peppermint tea and listening to Jack Johnson as a soft breeze tickles its way into the open windows of Wee Nooke, my writing hut on the rocky knoll. Galley Cat wanders in and out for a kitty treat every 10 minutes.

You take Carolina or Texas. It’s a quiet September in the San Juans, and I’m so there.

The San Juans pivot from Dog Days to delight

A Red-breasted Nuthatch grabs a sunflower seed from the feeder outside Nuthatch Cabin, where maple leaves are already turning yellow as the season progresses.

IT’S BEEN A PRETTY PERFECT AUTUMN DAY on Center Island, which feels odd considering it’s the middle of August.

If you’d asked me three days ago I’d have told you it was definitely the Dog Days, though Galley Cat doesn’t much cotton to that terminology. It was hot, seemingly airless and — thanks to wildfires in British Columbia — smoky. From my deck, the setting sun blazed crimson as it dipped below Lopez Island.

But today we’ve definitely had what my late Aussie-raised spouse used to call a cool change: Highs in the 60s rather than the upper 80s. There was a distinct rumor of (dare I speak its name?) fall as a goosebumpy breeze murmured through the leaves of the big Douglas maple that grows out of the rock on which Nuthatch Cabin perches.

Autumnal, also, because that maple’s leaves are already turning yellow and starting to drop, though that seems more a symptom of rain deprivation, I’d say from years of observation. Last summer, wet by San Juan standards, the tree stayed green until around the September equinox.

In any case, this day has felt pretty blissful. Gray and chilly at first, it was a good morning for staying inside and treating Sunday like a proper day of rest. In my case that meant having a scrambled egg on avocado toast with my second cup of coffee while watching the Christmas episode of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series “Grantchester” (a great binge watch if you’re into British vicar-turned-sleuth themes).

Later, telephoning a Walla Walla friend, I wished I could share some of the island freshness. There, wildfire smoke was causing abysmal air quality and the temperature was 102.

Glenn, the grumpy cat cookie jar we bought years ago on the Oregon Coast, covets the 42 oatmeal cookies I baked. He’ll get them soon enough.

The sun broke through here by midday and it was so nice I couldn’t help myself going out to scrape lichen off the deck I’m refinishing. I can say I redeemed my determination for a restful Sunday by setting the timer on my phone so that I didn’t work longer than 30 minutes.

Then, well, I did some work in the kitchen, but only because my incorrigible sweet tooth demanded that I bake a batch of my diabetes-friendly oatmeal cranberry/chocolate chip cookies (using Stevia sweetener, sugar-free chocolate and Skagit Valley-sourced whole-grain flour, so they’re really more of a health food than a confection, when you analyze it).

Now it’s late afternoon. I’m sitting in the Nuthatch’s living room next to the open slider with that delicious breeze wafting in as birds outside flit back and forth between the feeder and the deck’s bamboo water fountain. I’m sipping a tot of good New Zealand sauvignon blanc and listening to the fountain’s gurgle, the breeze’s soothing whispers and the sublime orchestral soundtrack to the old Robert Redford production of “A River Runs Through It.”

The only thing that would make it a hundred times better would be if I were sharing it with Barbara instead of just the cat.

But one of the nice things people said about my sweet wife was that she knew how to make herself happy while making others happy around her. I’m trying to take a lesson from that.

I still have bad days as well as good days. But life, like summer, goes on.

Look closely to find the deer who enjoyed this restful Sunday resting among the tall grasses, salal and wild roses in the front clearing outside the Nuthatch.

Living (and baking) off the fat of the land

The “before” picture: Raspberries from Hayton Farms on Fir Island, the fertile island nestled between the North and South forks of the Skagit River where it flows into the Salish Sea.

SURPRISINGLY, LIVING OFF THE FAT OF THE LAND, as George and Lennie aspired to in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” isn’t too hard on my small island in the summer. Having the fertile Skagit Valley as a neighbor doesn’t hurt.

Returning from a visit with friends in Portland and Olympia earlier this week, I stopped at two favorite purveyors of such “fat”: the Hayton Farms berry stand on Fir Island, where freshly picked organic berries of just about any variety are offered from June to August, and the Pleasant Ridge Farm stand, a short distance north of the North Fork of the Skagit River.

The “after” picture: Raspberry-Apple Crumble, destined for a family barbecue in Seattle.

I picked up a four-pack of fresh raspberries at Hayton Farms and a couple of summer squash and some kale at Pleasant Ridge, a self-serve farmstand that Barbara and I patronized for years. Besides offering bins of some of Skagit’s best sweet corn it has the added charming feature of a field of you-cut zinnias (50 cents a stem) behind the barn. Somehow I got into being a fanatical zinnia grower when I was about 10, and I’m always cheered by these simple, vividly colored blooms ranging from lemon yellow to rich claret.

The squash I supplemented with a pretty orange pepper from my neighbor Monique, proprietor of the Under Sail Produce Stand on Center Island. (The name derives from the old Hobie sail she and husband Chris have rigged up as a shelter for the stand.) Together the summer vegetables went into a tray bake I contributed to a Wednesday dinner with neighbors Carol and John “The Mad Birder” Farnsworth. It nicely complemented the Mad Birder’s salmon cakes and Carol’s pasta dish.

The raspberries are also for sharing. An hour ago I pulled a raspberry-apple crumble out of the oven, my intended contribution to a family barbecue tomorrow in Seattle. Back on the water taxi for me and Galley Cat in the morning.

The dessert is my second outing at baking berry crumbles, a simple treat that my brother Tom liked to create while he was visiting. Barbara was always the Nuthatch’s baker and head chef. I was glad for Tom’s inspiration.

So, the Nuthatch is perhaps a bit like George and Lennie’s dream of a little place where they could live “off the fatta the lan” and maybe keep rabbits (Lennie’s idea). But I don’t need rabbits. Galley Cat, who ducks in and out of my writing hut for another kitty treat every five minutes, even as I write this, keeps me busy enough. Bless her fuzzy little heart.

Galley Cat, my sole housemate these days, trots across the rocky knoll behind the Nuthatch cabin.

Caring, and sharing, by moonlight

An egg-shaped moon peers through fir branches on Center Island.

It’s 10 at night and I forgot to mail a letter, so I step out into the darkness and drive the electric cart the quarter-mile to the mail shack.

As I pull out of my bumpy tree-lined lane to the road skirting the island’s airfield, there’s the moon. A big, orange moon, just rising in the inky indigo sky. Not quite full. Still a bit egg shaped, like a child’s balloon escaping to the top of the circus tent.

The mail shack is on the far side of the grass landing strip. I park on the roadside and walk across by flashlight. Careful not to step in deer poop. Dropping my letter in the big green mailbag.

Returning, I stop to gaze upward. Still low in the sky, just nestling in the treetops, the moon silhouettes needled branches sticking up like a Mohawk haircut on a big Douglas fir. Scanning the broad sky, my eye finds two sand-grain points of light that are the night’s first stars. No breath of air stirs.  It’s silent and peaceful and beautiful beyond words.

Driving home, I leave the headlights dark and bump along by the light of the moon.

It has been a little while since I stopped to look around. Only after she was gone did I realize that I only ever really cared about such things so I could share them with her. “Oh, sweetie, you have to come see.” She’s why I would stop. She’s why I would look and listen.

Now I don’t have her to share it with. But I still have you.

Help build a bench, and keep Barbara happy

Sucia Island in the San Juans, as seen from atop Mount Constitution, is where we’ll place a park bench in memory of Barbara Cantwell.

IT’S A LITTLE MODERN for me, orchestrating an Internet crowdfunding campaign from my cozy wicker chair here in Nuthatch Cabin, but for Barbara, I can do it.

Today I launched my first GoFundMe fundraiser, to raise money for a park bench to be dedicated to my dear wife’s memory. The bench will be on Sucia Island, our favorite place in the San Juans.

Barbara, our daughter Lillian, and I have visited Sucia countless times over many years of island explorations aboard our sailboat, Sogni d’Oro. The entire island with its dramatic wind-sculpted shorelines is a marine state park, situated at the archipelago’s wild northeastern corner where the deep waters of Boundary Pass do a Mixmaster blend with the roiling currents of Georgia Strait. Sucia’s numerous deep coves and sheltered bays provide peaceful moorages for boaters seeking a haven from the elements — and from the worries of the outside world.

Barbara looks out at the saltwater views of the San Juans in 2018.

Barbara loved the place so much she asked that part of her cremated remains be cast on the waters there. She also asked that a new bench be built in her name, so that more hikers on the island’s scenic trails could pause along the way and enjoy the view as much as we did.

Building a quality bench that will stand the tests of salt air, weather and wind isn’t cheap, nor is transporting it to a remote island and installing it along a rocky trail far from any roads. The project could cost as much as $2,000. When friends and loved ones expressed an interest in helping to make it happen, a GoFundMe effort seemed to make sense. And here I am with the hat out. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you I need gas to get home.)

If you’re interested in giving, whether it be $5 or $50, you’ll find more details on the fundraising site accessed by the button below. I thank you. Lillian thanks you. And the Nuthatch Ghost (as we tend to wistfully call her these days) might thank you, too. (She’ll knock three times.)

EPILOGUE: As of Friday, July 9, we exceeded our GoFundMe goal through a touching display of generosity from people I love, people I’m happy to know, and a few I don’t know. Any additional donations will be channeled to Washington State Parks in Barbara’s name. Thank you.

Froghorns awaken us to summer’s heat

The same summer heat that generates morning fog brings blooms of foxglove, foreground, and creamy cascading flowers of oceanspray, in the background, as seen from Nuthatch cabin’s deck.

THE FROGHORNS WERE BLOWING this morning.

That’s right. No typo. My family started using that bit of linguistic frippery years ago as we laughed with (not at) our friend Giovanna, for whom English was a second language. She enjoyed telling the story of how she had informed friends back in Italy that her new Pacific Northwest home was often “froggy” on summer mornings.

From Nuthatch cabin, I can know without opening my eyes whether it’s froggy, er, foggy on a summer morning. Starting about dawn, ferries crossing nearby Rosario Strait will blow their horns every two minutes as required by maritime rules. From our island, it’s a haunting echo, a bit akin to a belching bullfrog, or a bull elk, maybe. It actually makes it easier to turn over and go back to sleep, knowing we’re fogged in.

It’s that time of year. Hot, sunny summer days often lead to the right conditions for morning fog. In fact, the warm month of August has long been known as “Fogust” in these islands. Barbara and I once waited aboard our sailboat anchored off Decatur Island until 6 p.m. before an August “morning fog” lifted from Rosario Strait, where the blinding white mist can run like a river.

With climate change, fog is coming earlier in the season. This weekend, our temperatures are forecast to reach the upper 80s, as warm as I’ve ever experienced it here, while the Seattle area will roast at over 100 degrees. This is when all of us on our little island thank our lucky stars. On a rock of fewer than 200 acres, nobody is far from the Salish Sea’s cooling influence.

With June sun, the towering foxgloves are in full bloom, along with the gorgeous cascades of tiny ivory flowers on the aptly named oceanspray shrub, one of my favorite native plants of the San Juans.

My brother Tom is happily staying for a few months from his home in southern Arizona, which has experienced shocking heat in recent weeks.

While he’s here, we’re having fun exploring the islands a bit. Last week, we took my old pickup, Ranger Rick, aboard the state ferry from Lopez to Orcas Island. The inter-island ferry routes rarely experience the huge lines you get on ferries to and from Anacortes, the conduit to the mainland. The round-trip fare to take a vehicle from Lopez to Orcas is about $30 in the peak season, not too painful for a mini-vacation.

The June sky reflects on Mountain Lake, in Orcas Island’s Moran State Park.

We hiked the shore of pristine Mountain Lake, where we could see foot-long trout swimming in the clear water, drove to the top of Mount Constitution, spent a pleasant hour shopping at Orcas Island Pottery, wandered the public areas of Rosario mansion and ate a tasty dinner (with table service!) at Mijita’s Mexican Kitchen.

Tomorrow we’ll take the ferry to Friday Harbor as walk-on passengers (fare-free on inter-island routes; it feels deliciously like we’re getting away with something). I’ll meet with my boating friends and get a first tour with the owners of Osprey, the Nordic Tug on which we’ll cruise to Alaska next summer. Tom will explore the town’s many shops and eateries.

Enjoy your summer, and keep cool if you can.