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.
THE OFFICIAL, FARMER’S ALMANAC-SANCTIONED spring equinox might not be until 2:24 p.m. PDT Monday. But spring arrived today in the San Juan Islands.
The sky was clear, the seas were calm, the thermometer pushed 60 degrees, and Center Island’s docks were nearly full. All over my island people were outside hammering, hoeing, washing down and tidying up — doing all the celebratory puttering that comes with the end of a long winter.
I celebrated a few days early by relaunching my 1957 runabout, WeLike, on Thursday. It had sat forlornly on a trailer since November. Doing my part as a spring-inspired islander, I checked over the boat’s electrical system, added fresh fuel, drained the water strainer, ran the bilge pump and gave the boat a good scrub.
Then I buzzed over to Lopez Island yesterday for a blissful day of normal stuff you do when it’s not winter.
At Isabel’s Espresso, I sat outside on the deck and read a book while I sipped a good coffee. I stopped in at the supermarket for fresh produce. I took a sack lunch and strolled out to a favorite bench at Fisherman Bay Spit, where rogue daffodils were starting to bloom in the pasture of a long-deserted farmstead. I ducked into the public library and checked out a real book. What a delight! One gets overly reliant on Kindle when you live on a remote island.
Galley Cat, too, is reveling in the warmer days, gamboling up and down the rocky knoll. Returning inside today after an hour out inspecting the grounds, she smelled all sun-washed and fresh, like linen sheets that had dried on a clothesline.
It’s supposed to rain on Monday, the Weather Service says. But for a few days, we got a jump on the season of renewal, in all its glory. Hallelujah.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Will S. wrote, and as I breathed a sigh of relief this morning I decided he was right.
But this is definitely the year I replace my chimney.
Being Daylight Savings Sunday, I was lolling in bed reading John Grisham and finishing my coffee and avocado toast at what some might call a late-ish hour of the morning. But I had that “spring ahead,” lose-an-hour-of-sleep excuse for lolling.
That’s when I heard the skittering.
For a moment I tried to convince myself it was a Nuthatch — the bird for which my cabin is named — outside messing about in my metal roof’s gutter, as they often do. Getting a sip of water, perhaps; the drainage isn’t all that great.
But then I heard it again: a sound like fingernails lightly brushing metal, and it wasn’t coming from outside. I recognized that sound.
I had another bird down my chimney.
Loyal Reefers might recall a couple Novembers ago when this happened before. That time, I got paranoid about what was in my chimney, imagining anything from a hapless bird to a squirrel or racoon (or, as several merciless readers suggested, a skunk).
At that time, try as I might I couldn’t figure out how to open up the chimney and release the creature, which had fallen into the lowest reaches of the woodstove’s metal flue, the eight feet or so that connect the stove with the cabin ceiling. The chimney has a conical cap up top and I expect it was screened when it was new, but the screen has probably disintegrated with rust and heat over the years. Rising high above my rooftop, it’s not easily inspected.
Unable to catch-and-release that first time round, I went with Undesirable Choice No. 2: Refrain from building a fire and let nature, uh, take its course. It was several days before the skittering stopped.
Eventually I discovered a way to remove the fire bricks at the top of the woodstove and was able to remove the poor dead sparrow.
As I lolled in the loft this morning, I resigned myself to another unpleasant days-long “death watch.”
But then I realized: Now I know how to open up the stove from inside. I could try to get the bird out. If I could free it from the chimney, maybe I could capture it in a large trash bag and set it free outside, hopeful that it wouldn’t be caked with soot and creosote. I had to try.
Meanwhile, Galley Cat, who usually snoozes the morning away on her heated cat bed downstairs, had come up to the loft to see me. Vocal and wide-eyed, she was clearly trying to tell me something.
Descending the stairs and crossing the living room, I saw what she was trying to communicate: “Pops!” (she calls me “Pops”)… “Pops, there’s a birdie in the woodstove, you can see it in there!”
Sure enough, this bird was no longer caught in the chimney, it had squeezed its way down past the firebricks and made it into the stove’s main chamber. There it was, clearly visible, fluttering behind the glass: a very unhappy Dark-eyed Junco. For goodness’ sake.
OK, Rescue One, suit up and respond to an avian distress call at 1366 Chinook Way.
Adrenaline flowing, I grabbed a trash bag from the pantry. Plopped the feline in the bathroom, behind a closed door. (She was certain she could help. I demurred.) I hoped to bag the victim as I cracked open the stove door, but in case it got past me I opened wide the glass slider and a side door.
Happily, the Junco wasn’t caked with creosote. It remained perfectly mobile, which it proved the moment the door was cracked. Despite my best efforts with the trash bag, I had a Junco flying around my living room.
Unfortunately, it didn’t find the open doors. It bumped against one of the big front windows, then flew through the kitchen and thumped against a window by the sink, where it decided to stay and flutter about.
Now, I have to say this for that bird. Whether or not it knew I was trying to help, it did me one huge favor. Anybody who has heard the sad tale of the duck that got into our sailboat’s V-berth, which ended with a very long afternoon at the laundromat getting our bedding de-ducked, will know these things can end badly. I’ll just say it bluntly: No matter how frightened it may have been, the Junco did not shit inside my house. Thank you. Were the roles reversed and a giant songbird was chasing me with a trash bag the size of Mount Constitution, I can’t promise I’d have been so reserved.
Anyway, I sidled over to the kitchen with my trash bag opened wide. The bird tried to take cover in a potted plant sitting behind the sink, but I swooped and scooped.
As first, I didn’t think I’d caught it. Songbirds don’t weigh much, and under the feathers there’s not a lot of bulk. I very lightly gripped the bag closed while I searched around the plant and among the dishbrushes. My home invader wasn’t there. So I carefully peeked into the plastic bag cradled in my fist and saw a pair of fragile bird feet sticking out. It wasn’t struggling, perhaps just resigned to its fate.
Keeping my grip loose, I quickly strode out onto the deck, put the bag down and opened it wide. The Junco flew away, and I don’t think it stopped until it hit Lopez Island.
All’s well that ends well. But, sheesh, it’s time to get a chimney with a screen.
When I flee the seemingly endless winter on Center Island and seek a place with more live humans, I guess you might call me an “off-my-rocker.” Kind of goes along with living in a cabin called the Nuthatch.
Anyway — forging prosaically on — when I need to get away and have just a day, I like to go to Bellingham.
This week I decided a necessary grocery-shopping trip would be a good opportunity for a northward pilgrimage to the City of Subdued Excitement, as Bellinghamsters like to call their town.
OK, I mean, right there — not only does the place have a great self-deprecatory, tongue-in-cheek slogan, but residents go by a name that conjures a vision of a town full of anthropomorphized rodents driving around in little cars. I appreciate a community with a sense of humor.
They also have almost as many craft breweries and brew pubs as Bend, Ore., which everyone knows adds significantly to the quality of life.
When my family returned from a 1990s sailing trip to Mexico after two years of being off the grid careerwise, Barbara and I realized we could start afresh wherever we chose. We hoped to make a go of it in Bellingham, a congenial college town on a beautiful bay, a half-day’s sail from the San Juans and practically in the shadow of Mount Baker and its razzle-dazzle ski area.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Newspapering was my life, and I did get hired and worked for one day at the local daily, the Bellingham Herald. But I was young, a bit cantankerous, and just returning from the freedom of the wild seas. That first day on the job, after I’d expressed enough disagreements with the corporate policies of the Herald’s parent company, Gannett, one of America’s worst newspaper chains, the newspaper’s H.R. director and I mutually agreed that it just wasn’t a match made in heaven. So my family sailed south into Puget Sound and I ended up at The Seattle Times. A happy ending, as it turned out.
But I’ve always enjoyed visiting Bellingham, about which I wrote numerous travel stories for the Times. These days I like going even if only for a quick trip to the sole Trader Joe’s in Northwest Washington. From the water-taxi dock in Anacortes, it’s an easy hour’s drive.
I got a pleasant sunny day for this trip, and I found time to get off Interstate 5 and chug northward on scenic and serpentine Chuckanut Drive, the original northbound road that skirts the base of the Chuckanut Mountains, a foothill spur that geologists say is the only place the Cascade range meets the sea. It adds only about 15 minutes to the trip, but it’s a superb quarter hour. Starting from the Samish Flats, where I saw a fluttering flurry of snow geese, my red Civic snaked along boulder-strewn cliffs, passed chattering waterfalls and skirted moody panoramas of islands and saltwater.
Reaching town, I navigated the old-town Fairhaven district and pulled off at Boulevard Park. A narrow strip of land between the bay and the main north-south railroad tracks, the park offers shoreside benches, picnic tables, a kids’ playground and a waterfront path and overwater boardwalk that stretches miles into downtown. It’s my chosen stop when I pack a lunch. On breezy days, I’ve watched kiteboarders fly high out in the bay. The park even has a good, locally run coffee shop. Very civilized.
After lunch, my day was devoted to grocery shopping. But if you’re there with more time, Bellingham has a bunch of fine museums, dedicated to history, art, and even electricity (the eyepopping Spark Museum); a distinctively spired performing arts center (the 96-year-old Mount Baker Theatre); a variety of pleasant walking trails (such as a waterfront amble on Lake Whatcom), and the aforementioned breweries.
The excitement, though tastefully subdued, is earned.
DECEMBER TOOK A JAB AT IT, but February has again tussled its way to the title as the San Juan Islands’ winter month with the most unpredictable and weirdest weather.
We’ve had hail (pelting down like a million icy little meteorites on my deck, more than once). We’ve had frigid Fraser Valley gales (combined with big tidal swings that make crossing Rosario Strait to Anacortes a rocking, sloshing, life-challenging adventure, more than once). We’ve had blowing snow, we’ve had frosty nights. And, yes, we’ve also had pristine sunny days, such as today, most of which have never warmed above freezing. And, oh my, the starry nights.
“I’m done with the cold,” the Mad Birder grumped on a recent visit. He moved here from California, which by rights might make him bitter about our February freezes, but today Los Angeles has blizzard warnings, so go figure.
Extreme cold tends to keep us otherwise hardy islanders indoors by blazing fires much of the time. By now, with the month of March parading our direction as if to a John Philip Sousa composition, our feet are decidedly itchy.
I have done a few things other than binge-watch all four seasons of “New Amsterdam” in recent weeks. On a day when the earth wasn’t frozen I finally dug a hole in which to plant the five-foot Charlie Brown fir tree that had been living in a root-bound pot on my deck for many months. Daughter Lillian brought the tree up a couple years ago. It was Nuthatch cabin’s Christmas tree in 2021. When much smaller, it had served as her Christmas tree on the sailboat in 2020, after being dug up on Auntie Sarah’s Camano Island property. So it’s a well-traveled little tree, finally properly planted and surrounded by deer fencing next to the porch of Wee Nooke, my Center Island writing hut.
Wee Nooke needed a new tree. We originally erected the 36-square-foot cedar shed in the shade of a sizable shore pine that leaned artfully over its roof until the pine blew down a few winters ago. Had the tree fallen about 10 inches to the left my Nooke would have been transformed from man cave to matchsticks. If the Charlie Brown tree ever gets big and old enough to blow down, I am confident I won’t be around to be squished. Always look on the bright side of life, I say.
I bottled a gallon of beer this week, brewed on the Nuthatch’s stovetop a couple weeks ago with the help of Lillian and partner Chris when they were up for a quick visit. The beer fermented in a jug next to a miniature electric radiator beneath an upturned plastic storage tote behind my bed. I got to drift off to sleep to the comforting “boop-boop” of the jug’s venting gases that told me the yeast was happily working its magic.
Made with a popular strain of pungent, citrus-scented hops called Cashmere, this brew is dubbed Cashmere Blonde. Lillian educated me that cashmere wool comes from Cashmere goats, so I found an image of a wildly-horned, blonde Cashmere goat to go on the bottle label. The ale will be properly bottle-aged in time for me to quaff with Lil and Chris on their next visit, possibly while we brew another batch, in mid-March.
Meanwhile, if robins are harbingers of spring (a highly dubious assumption, I see them here in December) (but I digress)… If robins are harbingers of spring, we should be headed for warmer days. Yesterday I saw about a hundred of the red-breasted harbingers pecking for worms on the grassy field that is Center Island International. So I guess “seeing red” isn’t always a bad thing.
Until spring has sprung, Galley Cat and I send warm thoughts your way.
VISITS WITH FRIENDS count double when it’s mid-winter, you live on a remote island, and you might not see another human some days.
So I didn’t hesitate when my chums Lynn and David invited me over to their Lopez Island digs earlier this week.
There was talk of lunch, and maybe a Scrabble game. And if the weather was conducive to an outdoor trek, their holiday home is barely more than a puddle-jump from the trailhead to Iceberg Point, one of the most popular and scenic hiking spots in the San Juans.
I got lazy and left my boat, WeLike, stored on its trailer, choosing to hire a water taxi for the 2.5-mile crossing of Lopez Sound on Monday. But I did get the chance to give a good run to Ranger Rick, my Ford pickup that is parked at Lopez’s Hunter Bay County Dock. As of this year, Ranger Rick is old enough to vote. He needs to stay limber.
I trundled some trash and recycling to the Lopez Dump, one of the island’s social centers, sipped a coffee on the deck at Isabel’s in the village, and picked up a few items of fresh produce at the market before heading to my friends’ place.
Lynn had cooked up a tasty carrot-ginger soup, served with some good Barn Owl Bakery bread. I contributed a bowl of my famous blueberry-apple-walnut cole slaw, of which David ate thirds. And we sipped some nice wine while I admired their newly renovated kitchen, deck and carport.
David asked for tips on blogging, because he’s helping his octogenarian father publish some writings about vintage family photos, a nifty idea. I offered a few strategies, not all of which worked. The sky outside was cloudy but dry and the wind pretty calm, so Lynn and I then took their energetic Springer spaniel out for a hike on Iceberg, which we had all to ourselves.
The southernmost point of Lopez (and of all the major San Juan Islands), Iceberg Point offers a stunning view across the 21-mile-wide Strait of Juan de Fuca. Surprising on this overcast afternoon, on the far side the Olympic range was clearly visible below the clouds. To the southeast, Mount Rainier peeked (peaked, should we say?) over the top of Whidbey Island. I’ve rarely seen it from here in summer; winter parcels out its little surprises.
Scrabble had to wait until next time, as I had a water taxi to catch.
As January met February, that was my social whirl for the week. Today, winter gales are back, the trees are dancing a bugaloo, and nobody’s coming or going from Center Island in the San Juans. Stay warm, friends.
The Spotted Towhee, to be precise. And I use the term “curious” in the “curiouser and curiouser” sense of Wonderland’s Alice, rather than in the inquisitive sense.
Galley Cat, currently curled up in my lap with her head resting on my right wrist so as to make typing on my laptop a silly and awkward exercise, has developed a distinct, cold-like snuffle in recent days. So, I’m not letting her out to wander on her own this damp and cold January day. If Barbara was around she’d fashion a cat sweater by cutting an old woolen sock with holes for arms and head. I’m not as textilely handy, and have no socks to spare.
But Galley demands her daily dirt time. So I took my insistent little cat out on her leash for a quick walk to the end of our road and back. It’s not far, but she considers it an adventure.
No neighbors are present this time of year, and the winter gales, for once, had ceased. The only sound meeting our ears as we walked was the quiet crunch of my shoes on the road’s sparse gravel. Galley padded silently beside me, her tail up and ears twitching.
Then came the skittering.
“Thar be Towhees, Cap’n!” a barrelman might cry from the crow’s nest if we were shipboard.
Towhees, which look a bit like robins with freckled backsides, are ground feeders. On our island, they tend to skitter around at the base of salal bushes, likely in search of fallen berries this time of year. In such a pursuit, they often remain unseen, allowing imagination to work overtime as a lonely man and his cat peer from the road to see what nefarious creature might lurk in the tall bushes.
It reminded me of “The Wind in the Willows” story when the over-adventurous Mole sets off into the Wild Wood, an often forbidding place full of peering faces, intimidating whistles and mysterious pattering, as in this passage:
“He thought it was only falling leaves at first, so slight and delicate was the sound of it. Then as it grew it took a regular rhythm, and he knew it for nothing else but the pat-pat-pat of little feet, still a very long way off. Was it in front or behind? It seemed to be first one, then the other, then both. It grew and it multiplied, till from every quarter as he listened anxiously, leaning this way and that, it seemed to be closing in on him.”
For the frightened Mole, the pattering came from nasty stoats or wicked weasels. For Galley and me, it was only Towhees.
Our clue came as we heard the birds’ characteristic call, a brief, whinging cry that Cornell Lab describes as a “catlike mew.” (Galley resents such species profiling.) To me it sounds like a petulant child asking “What? What?”
This told us there were no stoats. No lurking foxes. Just a few skittering Towhees.
Switching now from Grahame to Frost: The woods were lovely, dark and deep, but we were grateful we did not have miles to go before we sleep. We toddled the few yards back to the cabin unmolested, Galley to convalesce, me to try to type with a cat chin weighing down my wrist.
I CAN ATTEST that there are few better ways to welcome a new year than the annual New Year’s Morning cycling tour on San Juan Island.
For one, it gets you out of bed and out of the house, but it starts at 10 a.m., not any ungodly hour such as 7 or 8.
Two, it doesn’t get you wet and cold — and sometimes naked (brrrrr!) — like the polar-bear swims that so many misguided souls take part in.
And three, a potluck brunch immediately followed, with waffles, bacon, frittata and all sorts of good food, of which the consumption carried less guilt because, after all, one had just gotten up early(ish) and ridden one’s bicycle several miles in the invigorating January cold.
That was my New Year’s morning, during a quick weekend reunion with my Alaska boat-voyage buddies, Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson, at their Friday Harbor home, along with Carol Hasse (aka Sea Goddess), visiting from Port Townsend. Friday Harbor friend (and another sailor who’s gotten around a bit) John Neal joined us.
After leaving Galley Cat to hold down the Center Island fort by herself at Christmas for longer than intended (thanks to the doggone weather), I limited this visit to one night away. It was short, but sweet. And the weather cooperated, with a pleasant day for cycling.
New Year’s Eve, we watched a slide show of the Inside Passage voyage, ate a wonderful dinner prepped by all the Osprey crew, streamed a fun, salty bit of cinema (“Fisherman’s Friends”), and played with Barbara and Bill’s adorable new ginger kitten, named, appropriately, “Sailor.”
I made some new friends on the bike ride and happily confirmed that my favorite old K2 commuting bike, stored in the canopy-covered bed of my pickup truck on Lopez Island, was still perfectly functional once the tires were pumped up and the chain oiled. That good old bike got me back and forth between Shilshole Marina and the Seattle Times office for many of its 20+ years.
Happy new year to all. One of my resolutions: Do more cycling in 2023!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.