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 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.
SPRING HAS ARRIVED with the rush of a barreling Piccadilly Line train crammed to the exit doors with Marmite-breathing riders eager to reach Cockfosters. If you’re still stuck in a winter mindset, do Mind the Gap.
Apologies for the London fixation. Perhaps I’ve been immersed in too many Bertie Wooster stories, our favorite read-alouds as of late in our cabin refuge. (I pride myself a bit on my Jeeves characterization.) That, and I have travel on my mind, as we’ve been receiving missives from (fully vaccinated) Maui-visiting friends who accused me of being “analog” when I requested postcards. (Note that mail takes a full week to get here from Hawaii now, thanks to Postaldisaster General Louis DeJoy.)
But the here and now has its up sides. Returning to the San Juans a few days ago from the Seattle area, where I got my final COVID vaccination while daughter Lillian stayed with Barbara, I enjoyed the full whammy of spring-has-sprung treats as I crossed the Skagit Valley.
First, there was Fir Island’s blizzard of snow geese whirling overhead. Touching down in farm fields for a last bit of fattening up before winging it back north to Alaska and Siberia, they honked up a cacophony reminiscent of a Friday-night rush hour in Manhattan.
Then came my first-of-the-season stop at the Snow Goose Produce stand, self-proclaimed home of Immodest Ice Cream Cones. There I bought a pot of genuine Skagit Valley tulips, ready to pop into bloom in a couple weeks. They’re parrot tulips, Barbara’s favorite, in a striking purple, according to the tag.
Wending my way along the Best Road, next came astonishing carpets of blooming daffodils, farmed for their bulbs, splashing yellow like spilled paint across the valley floor.
Back home at Center Island yesterday, Barbara and I stepped out on the deck to take in the seasonal wonders, from rain-washed fresh air to spring bird calls.
Ravens are among our March visitors, croaking and gronking from the treetops, and at times producing a surprising, loud clicking noise not unlike those ratcheted noisemakers New Year’s revelers twirl in their hands.
We also have woodpeckers galore this spring — the small Downys, the big Hairys, and twice at our feeder in recent days a Northern Flicker the size of a small chicken and nattily fitted out in what resembled a handsome gray morning coat and speckled cummerbund. From somewhere on our rocky knoll yesterday we heard a woodpecker’s rapid-fire drumming — the mating-season pneumatic hammering meant to show off to other woodpeckers, not the slow, pecking-for-lunch thump common year-round.
We smiled to each other as we heard the same staccato drumming again and again. It conjured a picture of a geeky teenage woodpecker looking for love, shouting out the avian version of Rod Stewart’s “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy” song.
MY BARBARA ISN’T WELL. Many “Reef” readers know that. For others, this is news.
I last posted to this blog in days of winter snow. Now, what a difference in our world as we’re on the verge of spring, with daffodils adding lemony zest to our island landscape (they’re one of the few flowers deer won’t devour) and the first bloom blushing pink on my beloved wild currant (surrounded by wire fencing). Brilliant sunshine floods the windows of the writing hut and warms my hands as I type.
I took a journal-keeping hiatus because my dear wife has reached tough times in her illness. It’s been almost five years since she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, and three years since we retired to our island so as to make the most of life.
It’s been 12 days since the oncologist told us there were no more “tools in the drawer.” What a difference in our world.
Heretofore I haven’t written much about Barbara’s illness. This blog was to be about the joys of island life, all wrapped up with meeting the challenges of isolation in a place with no stores, no cars and few services. City folk figuring out how to be island folk. Stocking up enough firewood, keeping the boat running, figuring out composting, weathering winter storms.
But now the Nuthatch cabin is our refuge. Our place of comfort, festooned with photos of family, treasured artifacts of travels, and a peaceful and comforting view of towering firs, glittering saltwater and apricot-tinted sunsets.
Tending to my sweetheart’s needs is now my life’s focus, as long as we can make things work for her here. I’m treasuring each day, savoring her every beautiful smile. We’ve been married 41 years; a couple since I was 16, she 17. So far, she still preps many meals, but now I’m the shopper and the sous chef. I’ve gotten handier with a broom and a dish brush. Daughter Lillian is a frequent visitor and a wonderful helper.
I guess it’s all part of the pageant of island life. Hospice service doesn’t come here, but neighbors pitch in with loving help and support. When I told neighbor John, the Mad Birder, we could use a wheelchair ramp when we returned from Barbara’s last round of doctor visits, he put the word out. The next day he emailed photos of the newly constructed ramp. (Thanks Dan, Sean and Jim.) Almost every day, another friend asks, “What can I do?”
When the situation becomes more difficult, it’s likely we’ll ultimately repair to the mainland to homes of loving sisters whose generosity is beyond compare, and where home-care services are more easily obtained. Knowing my wife’s fortitude, I expect we’ll be on our island longer than many might guess. And, yes, I’m being careful to take care of myself as well.
For now, extending wishes of wellness to friends and family, we’re just enjoying the little bit of magic on our rock.
“FRASER VALLEY WINDS” is a phrase bound to provoke shivers in islanders this time of year.
It’s a reference to the icy breezes that funnel southward out of British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley, a place commonly mentioned by our Canadian neighbors in statements such as “That Fraser River Valley is quite the blooming deep freeze, eh?” To which some guy named Graeme, or perhaps “Gord,” will reply, “No doubt aboot it.”
The Fraser winds are upon us, blowing from 46 miles north-northeast. The thermometer outside the Nuthatch’s window is stuck in the Fahrenheit 20s, with a wind-chill factor skidding into the teens.
With the predicted plunge in temperature I finally took the (still-blooming) fuchsias in off the deck early this week. I hung them in the woodshed to take a chance at reviving in June. I chopped more firewood. The electric heat pump gets us through much of winter, but on these briskest days a fire in the woodstove is required to keep the cabin cozy.
Yesterday we celebrated Barbara’s 66th birthday. Just the two of us, COVID-style, though masked neighbors came knocking with cupcakes and gifts. Daughter Lillian planned to drive up from Seattle and catch the water taxi Saturday morning for a repeat celebration, but snow forecasts appear to be putting the kibosh on that plan.
We awakened to a snow-frosted world this morning. Just a half-inch overnight but enough to add a glistening mantle to the salal and swordfern. Sunshine briefly broke through the clouds, and Galley Cat insisted on going out to frisk up the rocky knoll behind us. As I made coffee, outside the kitchen window birds were mobbing the nearly-empty feeder. I counted a dozen juncos waiting on a nearby fir bough. While the brew dribbled I stepped outside in slippers and robe to replenish the seed supply from the galvanized can on the back porch. As I stepped around the corner to the feeder dozens of birds took flight in panic, emerging from under the porch, beneath the rain barrel and from every perching spot nearby. It felt like an arctic migration.
Once back inside I looked out again, directly into the eyes of a young buck deer who had stopped by to munch fallen birdseed and keep up his energy on the frosty morning.
Days like this feature repeat trips to lug wood in from the shed. Extra cups of hot coffee and a few extra minutes with a crossword puzzle. Time to sit and jot some words about it. In a while I’ll bundle up in my winter coat and Elmer Fudd hat and stretch my legs with a walk to the mail shack.
Just another February day, with Fraser winds. Stay warm.
THE FUCHSIAS ARE STILL ABLOOM on the Nuthatch deck this first of February. We’ve yet to experience a killing frost this winter. For weeks on end, it seems, our temperatures have been stuck in the 40s. No really frigid nights, no unseasonably warm days like we often experience at least once in January. This week, just plain damp and cold. Cold-ish, anyway.
The fuchsias aren’t as fat and happy with blossoms as in August, it’s true. Some leaves are dropping. Nor are birds swarming the feeders. We stopped filling them a couple weeks ago because of salmonella poisoning among songbirds up and down the West Coast. (Humans aren’t the only pandemic victims.) Right now, the real “wow” factor in our little world, its horizon shrunken by health threats, low clouds and drizzle, is the Amazing Amaryllis.
We’ve never grown an amaryllis before. This was a holiday gift from our island neighbor, farmer Monique, who presented several island friends with bulbs in pots attractively trimmed with moss and fir sprigs.
We got it around December 1, and for a good month it sat dormant. We weren’t certain it was going to do anything. I watered it once or twice, and waited. Around New Year’s Day, a green sprout showed. We moved it to a windowsill behind the kitchen sink.
A week into January, it decided to grow. And grow. And grow some more. By mid-month, it was like something from “Little Shop of Horrors,” an inch-thick green stalk seemingly ready to take over our kitchen. A kid named Jack might have planted it from a magic bean he got in trade for a cow.
Then it blossomed.
Now 30 inches tall, the Amazing Amaryllis is a glorious thing. Four massive, trumpet-shaped blooms, light pink with apricot-colored tiger stripes, each measure nine-inches top to bottom. Another stalk, topped by another bud, is on its way up.
February has arrived. We could still get massive snow. The fuchsias might finally go into the woodshed. For now, though, we have our own winter wonder, on the windowsill behind the sink. So far, it hasn’t popped the roof. But we’re keeping a close eye on it.
Another token of island friendship. Merci, Monique. (Did you have to trade a cow?)
ON THE NUTHATCH RAIL today we are showing the American flag presented to my family at my father’s funeral in honor of his World War II service. As our neighbor John suggested, it’s time to reclaim Old Glory. So we’re showing the Cantwell family flag, rededicating it on this historic inauguration day for the side of truth, justice and the American way. Cheers, friends, from a little island nobody’s heard of, in the far Northwest corner of these United States of America.
LAST WEEK HAD ITS DIFFICULTIES. That’s why I’ve waited until now to sit down and write about the big windstorm that hit our island a week ago.
Whew. Only just caught my breath, it seems. But it’s time to tell this story of how wrong things can go on occasion, and the remarkable kindness and generosity of our island neighbors.
January has become notorious for windstorms in the San Juan Islands. We don’t remember it being so bad, not as a regular thing, until maybe five years ago. Now, ripsnorting winter winds seem to be the new normal, blowing into the islands with climate change.
This time we didn’t get a proper warning. I check the National Weather Service forecast regularly, and while they were talking about some good gusts by last Tuesday night, nobody said anything about winds nearing hurricane strength.
A TV report we saw around 5 a.m. Wednesday — and there’s a reason we were awake then — showed gusts to 70 mph at Ferndale, in nearby Whatcom County. The local newspaper reported gusts to 65 on San Juan Island.
It was shortly after midnight that night when things really got rocking and rolling at The Nuthatch. The cabin’s metal roof always resounds with a timpani-like boom when a big branch comes down from one of our 100-foot firs. Usually the percussion score doesn’t take over the whole symphony, though. This night, it was like a band of bad-ass squirrels on steroids was perched in the trees and pelting the side of our cabin with a nonstop assault of fir cones and sticks.
We’d heard it all before, though, and snoozed off. What woke me around 1 a.m. was the beeping alarm from Barbara’s oxygen generator, which lets you know when its power source has failed.
Luckily we had her portable unit charged up, so we did a quick switch. But it’s only good for about 3 1/2 hours on a charge. While the electric-power cooperative that serves the islands is usually pretty quick at repairing downed lines, this was the middle of a cold, dark night. The wind was still howling. I had an inkling we might face a challenge.
After a few phone-recording updates from the power company, providing no estimate of when electricity would be restored, it was clear we needed to find another option for keeping juice to Barbara’s oxygen machine, on which she relies full-time.
I had a hunch our island friend Dan Lewis might be awake, or at least within earshot of an alert on his cellphone. I also had a hunch he owned a portable generator. Dan, a long-ago Navy Seal and a longtime union carpenter, has lots of handy stuff at his cabin and is notoriously generous with his toys. In the wee-est hours of the morning, I texted to ask if he had a generator.
One minute later came his one-word reply, “Yes.”
My texted response: “How do you feel about having guests pretty soon?” And I explained our plight. The time stamp on the text: 3:35 a.m.
“No worries,” came his reply.
And so, some 45 minutes later, Barbara and I stepped out our back door into the inky night, dodged flying fir cones, and piled into Mr. Toad, our 1996-model golf cart. I flipped on the halogen headlights and we wended our way across the island to the Lewises’ place.
Now, before you purse your lips too tightly at our lack of preparedness for all this: It had occurred to us that a generator was a good idea for our cabin. And we had ordered one. And Amazon had promised it would be delivered, coincidentally, that Tuesday — before the outage.
But United Parcel Service (whose name I’m spelling out in its entirety to ensure you know who to blame) had, as usual, misdirected our package to Anacortes instead of the clearly labeled Center Island address. We knew, from all too frequent experience, it might actually come on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or maybe Saturday.
As night merged into morning and we sipped coffee and watched TV news with Dan and his wife, Lisa, we realized the extent of the power outage. Not only was all of San Juan County dark, but more than a half-million other electric customers around Western Washington had lost power. The fix might be a long time coming.
One news item showed a semi truck that had been crossing the 177-foot-high Deception Pass Bridge, between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands, when the wind knocked it on its side. A small guard rail kept it from plunging to the saltwater below.
We wondered if our generator might be delivered that day, so Dan texted another island friend who helps fly the planes that carry UPS packages. We gave her the tracking number. Soon she got back to us: Our generator had been in the truck that tipped over. Of course.
Dan offered his generator to us to take back to our cabin, but we couldn’t leave them without power. As a fill-in, he loaned me a fully charged auto battery and borrowed an inverter from another neighbor, Jeromie Mead. An inverter converts 12-volt direct current to 120-volt alternating current. It would keep Barbara’s portable oxygen machine running for hours.
By mid-afternoon, we heard that Jeromie, who knew the UPS people in Friday Harbor, had located our generator. It was in Friday Harbor, but UPS didn’t plan to fly it our way for two more days. A flyer with his own small plane, he made arrangements to personally deliver our generator to Center Island.
By around 3 p.m., Jeromie and his partner, Bethany, showed up at our back door with our generator. They had already taken it out of the box, filled the gas tank and had it running and ready to use. That’s the kindness and generosity of fine neighbors on a small island. (Barbara baked lots of cookies the next day.)
Around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, workers on Fidalgo Island completed repairs to an Anacortes substation that had been smashed by fallen trees, and the lights came back on in the San Juan Islands. It had been 18 hours. We were never happier to turn on the internet and watch junky TV shows.
The drama wasn’t over for us yet, however. The next morning, I had fired up the Husqvarna chainsaw that I share with neighbor John, the Mad Birder, to cut pieces of a fallen tree into rounds suitable for splitting into firewood. I was about 15 minutes into it when a nagging pain in my lower back became more like a red hot poker, and I realized I was having a recurrence of kidney-stone problems that had laid me low in 2018. It happened that I never followed up and got a full prognosis that first time because we were in the middle of moving to Center Island. I just had to hope it wouldn’t happen again.
But it did. I was flat on my back for a day and a half. The pain and related symptoms constituted the most wrenching medical malady of my life. Being on a remote island, my best choice was to grit my teeth, pop painkillers and ride it out.
I’m better now. But what a week it’s been. Tomorrow comes the inauguration of a new president for our weary nation. I’m hopeful for healing — for me, for Barbara, and for the country.
I GREW UP WITH THAT THOREAU QUOTE on a poster on my bedroom wall, with a lovely photo from Eliot Porter’s Sierra Club book bearing that title.
For me, the sentiment comes to mind after a week of political drama and hooliganism in the other Washington. Barbara and I are thankful for the nurturing beauty of the nature around us while our smart phones bring us constant updates on whether our nation’s democracy will survive the month.
On Saturday we had a break from wicked winter winds in the San Juans, so I fired up the old boat and buzzed across Lopez Sound on a dump run. (In true tree-hugger fashion, I had one 18-gallon container of trash and about half a pickup full of recycling.)
Along the way, I photographed these images of Mount Baker, as seen from the water, and of a pair of Trumpeter Swans, among a dozen or so swimming on a cattail marsh off of Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay Road.
These are the kind of comforts I gather when the rest of the world is so troubled. Thought I’d share them.
Last winter, my loyal reader might recall, I was stymied in getting just the photo I wanted of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, the tiny dumpling of a bird that seems to vacation on Center Island this time of year. My neighbor John, the Mad Birder, has declared it his favorite bird on our rock. While this no doubt has to do in part with the fact that the Nuthatch was, ahem, already spoken for, I concede that Kinglets, with their distinctive yellow-orange Mohawk, are pretty adorable.
This New Year’s Day, when everybody agrees that the new year can only be better than the last, I set out amid gale-force winds to trek across the island to the community dock to run the bilge pumps and check the fenders and mooring lines on our 64-year-old runabout, WeLike.
As I walked, I once again (“for the umpteenth time” would be an understatement) cursed myself for not bringing my camera when I should have. The kinglets were out.
Now, loyal reader, you may have just seen my missive that mentioned the principled and highly respected outdoor writer Barry Lopez, who chose in mid-career to stop photographing wildlife because he felt that telephoto lenses put his quarry at a disadvantage. While I’m in awe of Mr. Lopez, I’m not ready to give up my camera. A good wildlife photo is a piece of art that reflects the photographer’s love and admiration of the subject and can inspire others to love and admire that subject as well.
But in deference to Barry, I’ll tell you about these birds, too.
I first discovered them for myself a couple winters ago when Barbara and I were out stretching our legs along the wet and muddy gravel roads of our island. Suddenly we encountered a small flock of tiny hopping birds in the gravel in front of us. As we moved ahead, they hopped ahead at the same pace, though occasionally we’d laughingly dodge a straggler who seemed oblivious of our marching boots. For all we could tell, it appeared the birds were feeding on tiny bits of gravel, which made us laugh in confusion. Their bright topknot, gaily contrasting with the gray and mud-brown landscape around us, immediately clued me in. These must be Golden-crowned Kinglets.
The Mad Birder theorized that their appetite wasn’t for gravel — though birds do consume grit to fuel their gizzards — but more for mites found among the gravel and mud.
Their high-energy hopping is what makes photographing them so difficult. It’s sometimes easy enough to get close to them as they peck at the roadway, but it’s maddeningly tough to catch them unblurred in a camera viewfinder, I’ve found. They just keep hopping. Quite quickly.
After inspecting the boat, I hightailed it home for my camera and returned to stalk kinglets. As usual, I ended up with a generous supply of blurry exposures splashed with yellow and green, kind of the way the kitchen wall looks when the cover slips off the smoothie blender. When the birds were near, I fumbled to find my rapid-repeat shutter function. By the time I figured it out, they’d fled to the woods. But after persisting for another half hour and wandering back and forth across the island, I ended up with a couple of keeper photographs, though even the best has only a soft focus.
Maybe it’s their choice. Maybe it’s why they won’t stand still for the camera. Anybody with that kind of flashy hairdo has to have an ego. And, hey, don’t we all look our best in soft focus?