Adventures in ditching the office and making a life on a small island nobody's heard of
Author: Brian J. Cantwell
A former travel and outdoors editor at The Seattle Times, I'm now exploring Washington's San Juan Islands on my classic runabout and trying not to smash my fingers with the hammer while I fix up my island cabin.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
For any serious Pacific Northwest boater, the Inside Passage is a temptation, if not a dream. When my dear wife passed away in April and I faced this uncharted future, one of my first “What Do I Do Now?” thoughts was to renovate our old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro, and take her to Alaska. It wouldn’t be the boat’s first time; when we bought the boat in 1989 from a Bainbridge Island plumber, the home port on the stern read Ketchikan. In subsequent years the boat’s been a veteran of the Baja Bash and many San Juan Islands explorations.
But it’s also been an innocent victim of deferred maintenance in recent years when I’ve had other things on my mind, and projects have a way of piling up. Bringing Sogni d’Oro back to ocean-cruising readiness could drive a 100,000-ton freighter through my 401k. While the 1,000-mile saltwater route from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay threads inside islands wherever possible, enjoying significant protection from the open sea most of the way, the voyage is no doddle. You need a stout boat properly equipped. Like me, Sogni d’Oro is getting older, and while not ready for permanent drydock, she’s a little tired.
So when my Friday Harbor friends Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson told me of their ambitions for an Inside Passage voyage in the summer of 2022 and asked if I’d like to sign on as crew on their chartered vessel, I didn’t have to think hard.
I first got to know Barbara Marrett through a book she co-authored about sailing the South Pacific, “Mahina Tiare: Pacific Passages,” which to this day occupies a bookshelf on Sogni d’Oro. Later in my travel writing career, we got acquainted through her job as communications director for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. Her partner, Bill, retired from a tech career and recently completed a term as a San Juan County councilman.
Barbara holds a 100-ton captain’s license, meaning she’s officially qualified to pilot vessels up to that size. While she likes sea voyages, she and Bill don’t especially enjoy organizing trips. As a travel writer, that sort of thing is my forte. I happily took on the task of finding a boat. (Toss the kid the candy-store keys!)
Barbara’s desired parameters: a boat with two staterooms, plus a cozy cabin with big windows for enjoying the scenery full of breaching whales, beach-roving bears and calving glaciers. That ruled out most sailboats, which mostly feature small portholes or narrow windows.
It took only a few days on the internet before I stumbled on a charter boat that ticked almost every box I could think of: reliable big diesel powerplant with 1,000-mile cruising range, modern navigation equipment, forced-air heat, a queen-sized berth as well as twin-sized bunks, a new RIB dinghy with 20-horse outboard easily launched from davits, two kayaks for exploring remote bays, 300 feet of anchor chain…and much more. The boat was Osprey, listed with San Juan Yachting Charters in Bellingham.
Built in 2006, Osprey originally served two doctors who used her as a mobile clinic visiting remote oceanfront communities in Alaska. The current owners, Nick and Anna Davidson, bought Osprey and completely refitted her for charter in 2018. They’ve expressed delight at our plans to return the boat to Alaska waters; they plan the same trip aboard her in 2023.
In a couple weeks, Bill, Barbara and I will meet them aboard Osprey in Friday Harbor and talk about our plans. They’ve asked us for a wish list of improvements they could make to the boat before we set out next May. I like the boat and I like these owners.
I’m already immersing myself in planning and prep, including reading acclaimed British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban’s “Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings,” the story of his sailing trip from Seattle, his adopted home, up the Inside Passage in the 1990s. “Alaska liked to advertise itself as ‘The Last Frontier,’ a slogan tinged with self-canceling whimsy since it appeared on vehicle registration plates, courtesy of the state licensing department,” Raban wrote. “If the phrase could now be held to mean anything at all, it belonged to the sea, not the land; and the sea around Alaska was a real wilderness, as wild and lonely as any territory in the American past.”
Admittedly, his voyage pre-dated the multiplicative inundation by today’s monster cruise ships carrying as many as 5,000 passengers each. But much remains wild in water and on shore once the big ships have passed by.
THERE’S JOYTO BE FOUND if you look around. Sometimes you can almost taste it.
It’s June at Horse Drawn Farm, where I took my brother Tom this week during a one-day marathon tour of Lopez Island’s greatest hits (the Brian version).
Besides stocking up on peppery-fresh arugula and tremendously large stalks of crimson rhubarb, we got to see a draft-horse colt nuzzling its mama. The farm’s name is no joke, they really plow their fields with these beautiful examples of equine splendor.
Tom, who has come to stay for a while from his home in southern Arizona, called our day on Lopez one of his best days in years.
A nice spinoff benefit I’m looking forward to after dinner tonight: the strawberry-rhubarb crumble he baked, using berries from Center Island Farm and sweetened with stevia-based brown sugar.
THIS SPRING ISN’T GETTING any easier at the Nuthatch. We buried Bosun today, next to Compass and Rose, among blooming salal beneath the tall firs.
Our dear old tuxedo cat, who was old enough to vote if the San Juan County Clerk had just let him register, was in what we were calling his third “bonus year” since suffering a stroke in 2018. He’d had at least one more stroke since then, on top of failing kidneys and hyperthyroidism. But he was the Comeback Kid, bouncing back and refusing to give in to his ailments. His trademark was a booming purr anytime you touched him. He kept purring until just a few days ago.
When the purring stopped, we knew he was in trouble. He stopped eating and drinking early this week. His body had decided it was time to go. Bosun wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, but he was falling down and couldn’t use his sandbox anymore. We were afraid he was going to fall down the stairs and break every bone in his body. We couldn’t let him go that way. So on Thursday I took our old friend in his travel carrier on the water taxi to a veterinary clinic near Mount Vernon. He came home in a box.
It’s been a tough spring.
Bosun was a good cat. He spent much of his life on our sailboat, Sogni d’Oro, where we lived until moving to our island cabin three years ago. He was our third cat with a nautical name, following Compass and Rose, and he sailed the San Juans with us summer after summer. He was the beta cat, the big softie who got bossed around by smaller females. (And what male hasn’t, at some time in their life?) He was a sweet-tempered boy who liked to plant himself smack dab between me and Barbara in bed at night. It tended to hamper our social agenda. But when you tried to pry him off the bed and got that rumbling purr, what could you do?
Daughter Lillian was here to help nurse him in his final days, along with my brother, Tom, who arrived from Arizona on Tuesday.
Bosun was a sweet old cat, and he was my good old friend. I told him to go be Barbara’s kitty now.
FEW THINGS FEEL MORE HEALING than sitting on the old wooden porch of Isabel’s Espresso in Lopez Village and sipping a strong drip coffee with three Stevias and a dollop of half ‘n half — the diabetic widower’s special, I guess — on a blue-sky morning in May. It’s bloom time for the island’s wild hawthorne and dainty white bells of salal. I sniff a heady perfume of flowers and fir pollen on the lazy swirls of fresh air that haven’t worked quite hard enough to be a breeze.
Just sitting, doing something normal, and reading one of author Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries, set in the Alaska bush. Barbara’s not with me, yet she is, in my choice of reading. For years my wife tried to convince me I’d love this sassy Aleut detective, Kate, with a half-wolf dog named Mutt. Dumbly, I resisted, until last fall. Now I’m on Book 13. Two things I’m glad Barbara lived to witness: Trump’s humiliation and my Kate Shugak conversion.
It’s heartbreaking that Barbara’s not sharing in this simple pleasure, just sitting on a sunny deck, reading a good book and sipping a cup of something hot and reviving. But I milk a little enjoyment from knowing she’d have loved it, too.
Neighbor John, the Mad Birder, astutely summed up for me the paradoxical elements of grief. To paraphrase: You don’t honor your loved one by succumbing to a lifetime of emotional paralysis. Barbara wouldn’t wish that on me, and would hate to be the cause of it. Yet how can I stop thinking of her and loving her, and wouldn’t it be wrong to stop missing her?
It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s wrong that she isn’t with me, but somehow it’s right that I should find a small pleasure sipping my coffee on the old wooden deck while devouring a good book that Barbara turned me on to.
I love you, sweetie. With a tear in my eye, I love you.
EVERY ISLAND IN THE SAN JUANS has its own character. Even a 10-minute hop over the water in WeLike can be like a little vacation.
My old friend Daniel Farber and I put that to the test when he was visiting earlier this week. Daniel and I grew up less than a mile from each other in the Seattle suburbs, went to the same high school, and were housemates while attending The Evergreen State College. He was my best man when Barbara and I married in 1979.
His visit was part of my continuing determination to accept kind invitations and offers of companionship to help me weather my grief at losing my dear wife. It was a month ago today. It seems like yesterday.
But good company helps. We packed a lunch and zipped southward on the blissfully calm waters of Rosario Strait to tie up to a San Juan County Land Bank buoy in Lopez Island’s pretty Watmough Bay. Raptors swirled above us, catching updrafts from the soaring, rocky cliff of 470-foot Chadwick Hill as we munched our lunch. Only one person lounged on the sandy beach. Otherwise, we shared the little bay with a pretty sailboat rocking gently at anchor.
Filled with food, we cast off and turned back northward for a 15-minute run to James Island, a marine state park not much more than a frisbee’s throw from neighboring Decatur Island.
It’s only a few hundred feet across a narrow saddle of forest from one side of James to the other, between two bays equipped with a boat dock and mooring buoys. Daniel and I hiked out to a viewpoint with a wide panorama of the Washington State Ferries route and the high ramparts of Cypress Island. We were the only people wandering among empty campsites that will likely be bustling in a few weeks. I skipped stones from the beach piled high with myriad little agates and tide-polished rocks the size of a martini olive in shades of red, green and ocher.
Back on my island, I saw that the wildflowers called sea blush were frosting our knoll with pink. I found a few calypso orchids, the tiny flowers also known as fairy slippers. Having bloomed when I wasn’t looking, they were already fading.
Daniel left yesterday morning. Today, as I returned from an outing with my chainsaw to bring home firewood from the community log pile, a splash of orange caught my eye among the shadowy woods. I looked up to see a small glass vase of nasturtium flowers hanging on a tree at the side of our back drive.
It thrust me back to four Thursdays ago. My island friend Dan Lewis was driving the community pickup truck. I rode shotgun. Barbara’s siblings Julie and Sarah crouched in the truck bed to ensure that the backboard stretcher to which their sister’s blanket-wrapped body was strapped didn’t slide out the back as we made our way to the community dock. From there, Dan’s fast boat would take us across the strait to Anacortes to meet a driver from a nearby mortuary. It was part of the gritty reality of a life’s end on a remote island. My love chose to finish her days here in view of towering trees and sparkling saltwater rather than in a cold and sterile hospital.
As the truck mounted the small hill behind Nuthatch cabin that day, I saw first one, then another, then another vase of fresh flowers hanging from trees along the drive. I instinctively and immediately knew it was the work of our dear neighbor, Monique, the island’s farmer, who had visited Barbara the previous afternoon, holding her hand and whispering comforting words as she faded. The whimsical display of spring blossoms added an air of love and grace to our sorrowful cortège.
Just the one hanging vase remained this morning. It looked as if fresh flowers had been added recently.
I cracked a small smile. I’ll never get over my loss, but these islands, old friends and kind neighbors continue to look out for my soul.
For my 65th birthday, five days after she passed away, I got the gift of a packet of reporter’s notebooks, the slim, coil-bound pads that every journalist carries in a pocket — all over the world, in my case. They aren’t easy to come by if you don’t work for a newspaper, but Barbara had found them online and ordered me a bunch. She planned to give them to me at the birthday party she didn’t get to attend.
It would be easy to pack it in and stop writing. She represented so much in my life that was good and happy and comfortable. And I like to write about the good, happy and comfortable parts of life. I don’t like learning that it’s hard to insert contact lenses when your eyes are full of tears. I don’t like waiting to awaken from this bad dream so I can hear her call me to dinner.
But Barbara, Nuthatch Cabin’s friendly ghost, would want me to write about the good parts, so that’s what this post is about — a visit from an old buddy who didn’t hesitate to come running when I needed company. A week ago, my friend Ken Brinkley came up from Portland for a five-night visit.
It reminded me of a painful time 15 years ago when I went to Ken’s side after a sailing tragedy took the life of his wonderful 18-year-old son, Andy. I asked him to come now, in part, because I knew he’d been through the kind of grinding grief I’m facing.
It happens that I met Ken for the first time in these islands. It was the 1980s, and a group of colleagues from The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, where I worked for 10 years, took a party weekend at Rosario Resort, on Orcas Island. (Incidentally, it was a stupid place to party. I seem to recall a late-night visit from a sheriff’s deputy.)
Ken, who was married to one of my co-workers, stood up at a meal gathering and asked if anybody else was interested in hiring a sailboat for an afternoon on the sparkling waters of East Sound. I was the only one to raise my hand.
It was the start of a 35-year friendship. Barbara and I later joined Ken and his (now-ex) wife in chartering a larger sailboat in the San Juans, an adventure that eventually led us to acquire Sogni d’Oro, the sailboat on which we explored these islands every summer for decades, and sailed to Mexico in the mid-1990s.
Just having company at the Nuthatch this past week was a blessing. I did all the cooking, with tips I’d learned from Barbara (vegan barbecue rarely tasted so good) and a menu prepared with the help of daughter Lillian, who had returned to Seattle and work. Ken pitched in and helped me with rough and tough cabin chores that had been deferred for months. The hard work was a good distraction from sadness. He brought a bulging satchel of old movies. (All VHS tapes! Ken is 10 years older than I.)
After a trip to the Lopez Island dump on Sunday, we took a sack lunch and hiked to gorgeous Shark Reef Sanctuary, where we sprawled on a sunny cliffside and watched gray whales spout and tail-slap among the roiling tidal waters off Cattle Point. The morning Ken departed, we sat at a favorite Center Island bluff with a view of the snow-draped Olympic Mountains and sun-dappled Lopez Sound, where an otter dove and played. I’d never seen either of those creatures in those places. I think Barbara is pulling strings for me now.
It’s just me and the cats in our cabin for the next few days. The loneliness can be grueling, but I have other visits in the offing. Sometimes an old friend, ready to listen and ready to help, is life-saving nourishment for an emotionally starving man.
Barbara wanted me to keep writing. Here I am.
An old friend from college, Kathy Pruitt, sent this poem that gives her comfort when thinking about loved ones who have passed away.
Finding you in Beauty
The rays of light filtered through
the sentinels of trees this morning.
I sat in the garden and contemplated.
The serenity and beauty
of my feelings and surroundings
completely captivated me.
I thought of you.
I discovered you tucked away
in the shadows of the trees.
Then, rediscovered you
In the smiles of the flowers
as the sun penetrated their petals
In the rhythm of the leaves
falling in the garden
In the freedom of the birds
as they fly searching as you do.
I'm very happy to have found you,
Now you will never leave me
For I will always find you in the beauty of life.
-- Walter Rinder
The oncologist said Barbara might have four months. She had three weeks.
The love of my life passed away in her favorite chair in the Nuthatch cabin’s front room in the darkest hours of the morning last Thursday.
Unlike many cancer victims, she had not been experiencing significant pain, for which daughter Lillian and I are profoundly grateful. Unlike many cancer victims, she was able to stay in her home until the end. That meant a lot to her and to us.
The prior week, she was happily teaching Lil old favorite family recipes in the kitchen. That Sunday, Barbara and I spent a cozy day by the fire. We played Scrabble. She gargled, sipped lemon water and worked hard to get her weak and raspy voice working, so she sounded like her old self. We sang a favorite song, and had one of our best days together in months.
The next day, everything changed. She had a hard time waking. She stopped eating. She could barely stand. A written directive filled out in better times instructed that we pursue no further medical solutions.
A few days later, as I slept near her, she left on her next journey. Another dimension? A bird on our railing? A ghost in our loft? Lillian says her mum is just taking a long walk on Cannon Beach. Wherever she might be, she is forever in our hearts.
Well-meaning people whom I love talk about how good a death it was. But Lillian and I will never stop missing her. Her wit and her smile. Her doting love and attention. Her simple ability to make herself and others around her happy. To us, she was perfect. Her death can only be wrong.
Friends and family have reached out, from Center Island, from Seattle, from Mexico, from Australia. They have been wonderfully kind and supportive. They are making sure we are not alone. They are helping us stumble through our agony.
But after 48 years with my sweetie, suddenly the chair next to me is empty. Overnight, everything has changed.