Adventures in travel, 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.
A Great Blue Heron hunting for its breakfast was a lonely figure in the smothering mix of fog and smoke off Center Island on Tuesday.
SEPTEMBER IN THE SAN JUANS is passing in fog and a cloud of smoke.
Our islands have been spared the tragic, record-breaking wildfires that have plagued the West, but we’re not immune to the veil of choking smoke carried on southerly winds from Oregon and California. Barbara and I have been mostly sheltering inside for days on end, with no view beyond the trees in front of our cabin. Some days we hear the ferries blowing their foghorns, but there’s no fog, just smoke. Other days heavy fog combines with smoke, reducing visibility to yards.
Autumn is quickly approaching, but it’s all a blur. Like most of 2020 in our collective consciousness. Our hearts go out to people who’ve lost their homes and businesses. Friends in Talent, Ore., had to evacuate. Flames spared their home, but two blocks away looks “like Hiroshima,” they tell us.
We’ve had a few hours of light rain in the past 72 hours, giving the sky a rinse, but we’re not out of it yet. Keep fingers crossed for a good, old-fashioned Northwest September rainstorm, the kind that used to make back-to-school time such a damp and dreary thing when I was 12. It sounds pretty good right now. For all of us.
IT’S BEEN A BUSY late-summer building season at the Nuthatch.
Finally, our front steps are up to code, now seven normal-size steps where once there were four GIANT steps. (Anyone playing “Mother May I” would have had to ask special permission to get up to our front door.)
We are also now the proud owners of Center Island’s only art cart. We finally caved and acquired an electric golf cart, the preferred-by-many method for getting around on our island, where you aren’t allowed to drive privately owned internal-combustion-powered vehicles on the one-lane community roads.
The front steps replacement was a giant project for me. (Bob Vila’s job is safe.) I was helped along a bit by our generous island friend Dan Lewis, a union carpenter in his former life. But yours truly did much of the pounding, sawing, finishing and polishing. And everything is now legal, from the grippable handrails to the upright balusters that a four-inch ball can’t be pushed through (that’s in the state building code).
We’ve been among the sole holdouts who preferred to walk or bike around the island, but old legs keep getting older and it was time for a backup mode of transportation. So when an island neighbor was upgrading to shiny and new recently, we snapped up their old-but-still-functional (like us) E-Z-Go golf cart.
The first thing the cart needed was a cargo box for carrying groceries and supplies. I crafted one from cedar planks and repurposed bits of the old staircase, giving the cargo compartment a finned profile like the family station wagon of my childhood. But why stop there? Since seeing art cars displayed at Seattle’s Fremont Fair, daughter Lillian has always wanted to create one. So we offered her our golf cart as a blank canvas. Over Labor Day weekend, she gathered swordferns and leaves of salal, Oregon grape, and maple, daubed them with paint and printed the cart with nature’s images. Because the squat little vehicle’s basic color is dark green, and “Wind in the Willows” is one of our favorite read-aloud books, we’ve dubbed it Mr. Toad.
Other than that, the Nuthatch has endured deck repairs, railing repairs, gutter repairs and construction of attractive cedar screens around the not-so-attractive rain barrel and electric heat pump. It’s all part of this pioneering island life.
Winter will be a nice break. All I have to do then is chop firewood.
The nasturtiums have gone wild, tumbling down the ledge in front of the Nuthatch cabin this summer.
ON MY OWN at the cabin while Barbara’s gone for a few days, I step outside of a morning with my first toast and coffee to lounge, bathrobe-clad, in the old wooden Adirondack chair and listen to the birds. A wafting coolness hints of too-early autumn as cotton-puff clouds float aimlessly in the blue sky. I notice a hummingbird working the nasturtiums. I went overboard with them this year and they are cascading through the deck rail and down the cliff with trumpets of mandarin orange and sunflower yellow. I’m pleased with the effect. From the tall firs all around me, nuthatches serenade me with their own trumpets, though much more adenoidal.
Take a moment one of these mornings and enjoy your August.
Kevin, the Paraclete water taxi’s skipper, helps unload my lumber upon arrival at Center Island. The Paraclete is our primary link to Anacortes and the mainland.
CONNECTING WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD is not as easy for us islanders as for most people. In the midst of a pandemic that’s probably a good thing. But it also poses challenges when it comes time for, say, summer home repairs.
I made such a trip yesterday with a load of lumber and supplies to rebuild the front steps of The Nuthatch cabin. The cabin is more than 20 years old now, and in Center Island’s marine climate that means its time to rebuild outdoor structures such as wooden decks and stairways that are subject to water infiltration, mossy growth and rot.
Living on a remote island makes you an expert list maker, because if you get all the shopping done and something you needed wasn’t on the list, it’s not a quick trip down the street to make up for the lack.
I spent hours at Home Depot and Lowe’s in Burlington and Mount Vernon yesterday, picking out all the lumber, nuts, bolts and screws needed for my project.
Another challenge came in fitting everything in to our car. We have a pickup truck, but we keep it on Lopez Island. For mainland transportation, we rely on our Honda Civic sedan, which we keep parked at Skyline Marina in Anacortes.
You might be surprised how much lumber can be carried in a Civic. The trick: The rear seatback can be folded down, connecting the trunk space with the passenger compartment. I always feel like a Vegas magician when people watch me load 8-foot planks into the trunk of my small car. (Threaded between the front seats, they reach just short of the gearshift. I lash them in place so a quick stop doesn’t pop the gearshift into reverse.)
At Skyline, the Paraclete’s home base, I loaded the supplies into a dock cart. As usual, the boat’s skipper and crew member volunteered to help wheel the supplies down a ramp to the salty 45-foot, 34-passenger motor vessel that has been serving the San Juans’ “outer islands” such as ours for many years. The 35-minute trip across Rosario Strait and into Lopez Sound costs $38 per person, including cargo in most cases.
Of course, no list maker is perfect. Today, as I tore apart our old front steps, I discovered rot in some timbers that I thought would be reusable. So, tomorrow my neighbor John (The Mad Birder) will kindly give me a ride to Hunter Bay public dock on Lopez Island, where Lopez-based Sunset Building Supply will deliver enough lumber to complete the project.
Connections come in many forms and from many directions when you live on a remote island. Like Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, we get by with a little help from our friends. The view from the stern, looking eastward across Rosario Strait toward Burrows and Fidalgo islands, at right, with Bird Rocks at left.
They really do use horses at Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm. We spotted this leggy colt on a recent visit to the farm stand.
IT’S HIGH SEASON at Horse Drawn Farm, our favorite purveyor of fresh produce on Lopez Island.
And when we visited the farm stand recently, there was also a new horse — a handsome, well-muscled young colt, apparently the next generation of the draft horses that farmers Ken Akopiantz and Kathryn Thomas use to plow their fields. (The farm’s name is for real.)
And there were goats, which we hadn’t seen before, including one sitting on a rock.
I got to know this farm in 2014 when I wrote a piece for the Seattle Times Sunday magazine about Akopiantz’s role in banning GMO crops in San Juan County. Happily, little has changed there — except for the new horse. And the rock-sitting goat. Here’s a look.
King of the mountain? Or the rock, anyway.
The very pretty produce cooler at the farm stand in July.
Barbara buys Swiss chard at the serve-yourself checkout counter. Sweet-pea bouquets add a heavenly aroma to the experience.
You might share your shopping experience with a chicken at the Horse Drawn Farm stand.
The farm stand occupies a weathered old barn, reached by a .3-mile long gravel driveway off Port Stanley Road. It’s open daily in summer.
WeLike shows off her new canvas camper top, fresh paint and polish at the Hunter Bay public dock on Lopez Island.
ALL DRESSED UP, with someplace to go.
That’s the case with WeLike, our 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser, the little 20-foot runabout built (and restored) in LaConner, just 16 miles from our island home.
As promised, here are photos of the boat with her new canvas camper top, designed and created by Jim Smith of Harbor Canvas Designs in Coupeville. Jim gets 5 stars for quality work delivered as promised.
As soon as we got the boat back from Whidbey Island, we took her out of the water at Center Island and I spent 10 days painting and polishing, so she looks better than ever. Considering that WeLike is just a year younger than I am, I know she needs regular TLC.
Now it’s time to play. Barbara and I hope to get up to Sucia Island, one of our favorite places in the San Juan Islands — and on Earth, for that matter — in a week or so for a couple nights of boat camping. The boat has a cozy cuddy cabin complete with memory-foam mattress, his-and-her reading lights, classic built-in wooden lockers, electric fan and a neatly hidden Porta-Potty. The cabin features a fold-out cooking counter, galley storage, a portable butane stove and a stainless-steel sink with pressurized water.
To our boater friends, may the wind be always at your back — and at WeLike’s, too, while I’m thinking about it.
Kent Schaefer, Center Island’s handyman and jack-of-all-trades, supervises as the Nuthatch cabin’s septic tank gets pumped out.
GOT A SEPTIC TANK? Then it’s no news to you that life can stink when things go wrong.
When we bought our place on Center Island in the fall of 2003, it was our first investment in a home with a septic system.
It was a relatively new system for a relatively new cabin. It was in the ground. It had passed inspections. What was there to worry about? We didn’t even have to pay pesky monthly sewer fees.
The fact that we visited our cabin only once a month led us to believe that the septic system was fine. “Out of sight, out of mind” never applied more aptly.
After a few years, we got a card in the mail from San Juan County saying our septic system was due for inspection. But we’d hardly used it, and while we have a nice view of the water through the trees, even if our septic tank suffered a catastrophic failure there’s no way any leakage would reach Lopez Sound to harm salmon fingerlings or other sensitive inhabitants of our local biosphere (I thought).
So the reminder card, and, to be honest, the next few after it, got tucked away in a “someday I’ll get to this” file.
Eventually a letter came informing us that, having ignored the previous polite postcards, we would be subject to a fine if we didn’t have the inspection done pretty darn soon.
So, I hired the island handyman to do the inspection ($250). He measured the tank’s gunk, filed a report with the county, and told us we were due for a pumpout, which he could also arrange ($1,000 more). So much for paying no sewer fees. They always get you in the end (so to speak).
Three years later, another card came in the mail. Inspection time again!
It was, ahem, a shitty job, but I wasn’t going to pay $250 to someone else to do the inspection again. I signed up for a free training session with the county and spent a morning in Friday Harbor learning how to do my own septic inspection. Got educated about the scum layer and the sludge layer and why two-ply toilet paper is better than one-ply (other than the fingers-break-through-thin-toilet-paper-and-nobody-wants-that factor). Hint: One-ply dissolves too quickly and can plug up the tiny tubes in your drainage field. (It still seems counterintuitive to me.)
The county septic-system overseer, a guy you might call the Grand Poobah of Poop, got my attention when he told us that our septic system was “the most expensive home appliance we would ever own.”
It’s true. If the septic system fails, we could face a bill of $20,000 to $40,000 to replace it. Oh, crap.
So I went to Lowe’s and got the prescribed lengths of PVC pipe and glued them together to fashion a DIY sludge-and-scum measuring device. Did the numbers, sent in the report, and found that we were almost due for another pumpout, four years after the first.
We were on the cusp. But it was close enough that I contacted my friend the handyman, who put us on “his list.” At his arrangement, a while back a big tank truck came on a barge to Center Island and spent the afternoon gingerly navigating our cow-path roads to pump out the muck and mire generated by a half-dozen island homes, including ours. This time our bill was $1,100. (Everyone’s costs are going up, a guy’s gotta make a profit, that barge doesn’t come cheap, etc.)
I guess it’s better than the outhouse days. A few of those can still be seen, unpainted and unloved, tucked in forlorn thickets behind some of the island’s older cabins. I don’t think any are still in active use. And so far, I’ve not seen any of them tipped over on Halloween.
But you know, things do get kind of slow around here in October…
Our micro-farming has rewarded us with a bushy abundance of kale in a rail-mounted planter, once the squirrels decided it was too healthful for their tastes.
OUR HORTICULTURAL EFFORTS have met with meager results on our little piece of the rock — until now.
There is a real farm on Center Island, a 10-acre spread not far from our cabin. It is mostly idyllic pasture land dotted with groves of stately madronas and cedars, occupied by happily retired horses and pampered old chickens. Our friend Monique works wonders with her organic garden there and kindly shares occasional treats of cracking-good snap peas or tender crimson strawberries, as well as selling us beautiful brown or greenish-blue eggs, each marked in pencil with the date when laid by one of her “girls.” (It’s a special treat to fry up an egg jotted with “Easter” or “Mother’s Day.”)
Our rocky promontory doesn’t have soil suited to an in-the-ground garden. Efforts at growing vegetables in pots on our deck have mostly met with disappointment, stymied by our property’s limited sunlight (but oh, those gorgeous tall firs!). There were the long-pampered tomatoes that were just finally starting to ripen in September, only to be raided by deer so bold as to clamber on to our cedar deck. All they left behind were tragically denuded stalks — and the gardener’s tears.
But finally, we have success: Kale!
A yard-long planter hung from our deck railing and protected from deer by a strategically placed gate has yielded a nice little crop of vitamin-packed greens, thriving in our cool island climate.
Tonight we enjoyed the first harvest. We dined on Barbara’s delicious homemade pizza trimmed with kale, black olives, pineapple and vegan cheeses.
The only challenge to this horticultural endeavor came early on when a squirrel, hopping along the deck railing on its way to another felonious assault on our birdfeeder, paused to sample a few nibbles of baby kale. Happily, our homegrown greens apparently held no more appeal to the squirrel than they would to a finicky four-year-old of the human variety.
That’s fine with us. We’re ready to move beyond monoculture next year. Anybody know how squirrels feel about spinach?
My dad, Joe Cantwell, was among the legions of young, GI Bill-educated engineers who flocked to Seattle after World War II to work for Boeing. He imparted a love of the outdoors and the Cascade Mountains in his children (from left), Tom, Marcia, Brian and Doug.
TO ALL THE DADS out there, happy Father’s Day.
Barbara and I enjoyed a Skype breakfast with daughter Lillian. We all had waffles. I got a big, sweet dose of love from my wife and daughter, and some sweet gifts as well.
Thinking of my dad recently, I wrote an essay that my alma mater, The Seattle Times, published today (along with photos, including the one above). I’m getting nice comments and emails from old friends as well as people I’ve never met, which is another delightful gift. Here’s a link to the Times piece.
Photographed through the windshield, WeLike’s cabin roof and vintage navigation light form the foreground in this view of the Deception Pass Bridge on a June morning.
SUMMER ARRIVED A DAY EARLY in the San Juans, it seemed. Barbara and I just spent a lovely Friday afternoon sitting outside on our deck, sipping wine, chatting lazily and soaking up sun. Bumblebees nuzzled the magenta foxglove flowers growing on our mossy cliff and birds sang their little hearts out, triumphing over the happily distant but somehow pleasantly domestic buzz of a neighbor’s weed whacker. Ahhh. (Even better that it’s him and not me.)
Tomorrow is the summer solstice, but in this typical Northwest June, rain is in the forecast.
As we finished our wine, the afternoon’s delicious warmth slipped a cog, as we’ve often experienced in these islands, when a breath of cool marine air suddenly whispered in our ears, “I’m the front of the front.”
The exciting news of our Friday came from Jim Smith, a marine canvasmaker on Whidbey Island, who emailed this morning to say that our boat would be ready by day’s end.
WeLike, the restored 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser you see at the top of this blog, needed new clothes — or, to be precise, a new canvas dodger and camper top, the roof and cockpit enclosure that provides shelter from wind, rain and sun.
The old white canvas seemed in good shape when we acquired the boat, and the material remained sound. But a few months ago, the seams all decided to start letting go, like the ripping trousers of a fat man who finally added five pounds too many. If you don’t pay the price for high-quality UV-proof stitching up front, you pay the price later. (Or, in this case, we are paying the price later.)
So WeLike is getting a new top, in UV-proof Sunbrella fabric and using polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) “lifetime” thread, which is supposed to stand up to just about anything the elements can throw at it. Instead of white, the new top will be aquamarine, matching the boat’s topsides.
It’s a big investment, but this will be our island runabout for years to come, and it will also be our vacation vehicle this summer. With COVID-19 truncating other travel plans, we hope to buzz around these islands and do some fun boat camping with our new weatherproof camper top.
The boat has been at Oak Harbor Marina the past two weeks for this project. We plan to go pick it up early next week. I’ll post pictures.
Meanwhile, atop this post is a photo I took two weeks ago when I took WeLike through Deception Pass on the way to Oak Harbor. It’s always a scenic ride going that way.
Happy solstice, wherever you are. To all my Northern Hemisphere readers — enjoy the summer!
P.S. If you’re getting sick of reading about how perfect life can be on our island, you can take comfort in knowing that yesterday a deer climbed on to our deck, walked 15 feet across it to a low-hanging basket of fuchsias that had finally turned the corner in my efforts to keep them healthy, and ate every blossom.