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.
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.
I WON’T ASK FOR TOO MUCH SYMPATHY. Living on a small island in the San Juans isn’t too painful, I admit.
But this remote life with no stores, no garbage pickup, and no bridges to the mainland has its challenges. Anytime I leave Nuthatch Cabin for an overnight outing requires days of planning and preparation. And once I’m walking among the landlubbers, I’m a multi-tasking fiend. Especially as winter sets in.
Friends have expressed curiosity about my shopping and travel routines, so here’s an example from a recent four-day visit to the Outside (as bush-living Alaskans call the rest of the world).
SEVERAL WEEKS in advance, I trade emails with friends or family to see if a guest room is available for me and possibly Galley Cat.
FIVE DAYS in advance: I text Paraclete Charters, my preference of the two local water-taxi services (because their boat has a cargo area protected from the elements). I request a booking for passage back and forth to their base at Skyline Marina in Anacortes. It’s a 35-minute boat ride from my Center Island dock, though that can be considerably longer when they stop at other islands. Rather than take my vintage runabout to Anacortes, I rely on the water taxi for the 5-mile crossing of Rosario Strait, which can kick up nasty any time of year. My Paraclete friends and I trade notes about preferred travel times; they make two or three round-trips to the islands each day. Once we’ve settled on an itinerary, they confirm my reservations.
A FEW DAYS AHEAD, I figure out how many cargo totes I’ll need. I pack one with bagged trash, to deposit in a mainland dumpster. Another carries snacks, cat supplies and a few food items; I usually try to contribute to a meal at my host’s home. I have a lot of grocery-shopping needs this time. I seem to have run out of everything at once, and winter is coming. I feel like a worried squirrel whose store of nuts is low. I bring a large hard-sided ice chest to transport frozen foods and an empty 18-gallon plastic tote to hold other groceries on my return trip. While nearby Lopez Island has a sizable supermarket and a well-stocked natural foods store, inflated island prices encourage me to do the bulk of my grocery shopping on the mainland. A small soft-sided suitcase takes my clothes, plus a soft-sided cat carrier for Galley Cat.
TIME TO CLEAN HOUSE. I hate to come home to a messy cabin. Out comes the vacuum, the broom, the duster and the spray cleaner. Galley, not a fan of roaring machines and spritzing spray bottles, flees outside for an hour.
PACKING clothes and supplies takes up the day before my departure. When Galley is to accompany me on a trip, I do packing the day before leaving. She is generally a good traveler on road trips, but by far prefers that we stay home by the fire. When the suitcase comes out and I start cleaning like a fiend, she knows she’s about to be scooped into her travel carrier, so she hides under a bed. Prying her out can be like wrestling a grumpy Tasmanian Devil from its den. So, on departure morning, 30 minutes before it’s time to load my baggage on to my golf cart for the trip to the dock, I pop her into the bathroom and close the door so as not to be chasing her frantically around the cabin when it’s time to catch the boat.
ON THE BOAT RIDE, when not looking out the window at Stellar sea lions that hang out on Bird Rocks, I write a check for the $38 fare (one-way) and text my Farmers Insurance agent letting her know I’ll be using the car for a few days. She takes my Honda Civic off the “storage” rate and I pay an extra $3 a day for insurance while I use it.
ROOM AT THE INN: After I drive south for a couple hours, sister- and brother-in-law Margaret and Tom Hartley host me and Galley at their comfortable home in Shoreline, just north of Seattle. I enjoy good company, a delicious home-cooked dinner and a DVD viewing of “Love Actually.” Galley stays in the guest room to avoid conflicts with my hosts’ tabby.
A multi-tasking whirl
SATURDAY, daughter Lillian and I wade out into the rain on our annual day of Christmas shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, reached by a light-rail ride from Northgate. We start with Eggs Benedict for breakfast at the Athenian Restaurant, from which we gaze out the window to watch scuttling ferries on Elliott Bay. Favorite shopping stops include Perennial Tea Room, with loose-leaf teas galore, and Golden Age Collectables, which claims to be the world’s oldest comic-book store. We watch fish getting tossed, we have tea and crumpets for “elevenses,” and give a Christmas-sized tip to the busking piano man. By the time we head back to the rail station, our giant plastic shopping bag bulges with gift purchases.
SUNDAY, I spend the forenoon piling carts high with groceries at Trader Joe’s, Fred Meyer and Costco (the total tab: $435.90; I really was out of everything). At the car, playing something akin to Grocery Tetris, I meticulously wedge my purchases into totes for homeward transport. Next stop: Shoreline’s Holyrood Cemetery, where I place Christmas wreaths on the graves of my parents and in-laws and sing them a lonely carol. (The couples are buried about 100 yards from each other.) The day concludes with the annual Burns Family Christmas potluck at the Kenmore home of my sister- and brother-in-law, Sarah and Danny Mansour. The gathering is a highlight of the year for my late wife’s family, sharing good food, good drink and lots of socializing.
BUT IT’S NOT OVER YET: Monday morning at 7:45 I check in for an annual dental check-up and cleaning at Willamette Dental in Mountlake Terrace. Multi-tasking, remember? With a clean bill of dental health (and sparkling teeth), three hours later I’m the carpool driver for a couple of old friends, Kristin Jackson and Steve Miletich, on our way to a lunch gathering in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District with other former Seattle Times colleagues, Terry Tazioli and Lynn Thompson. The dim-sum carts don’t stop rolling at Joyale Seafood Restaurant. Eventually, we waddle back to the parking garage, and I buzz back to Shoreline to fetch my kitty cat and hit the highway back to Anacortes for a 4 p.m. sailing to Center Island. Among my many other purchases I’ve filled a 5-gallon jug with gasoline to add to the tank of my pickup truck next time I voyage to Lopez Island, where gas costs twice as much.
By 5 p.m., I’ve trundled all my groceries back to the Nuthatch, filled the fridge and freezer, lit a fire and poured a glass of wine. Time to rest up for the next trip to the mainland.
Meanwhile, happy holidays! May you all feast from a larder as full as mine. As a Christmas bonus, here are more colorful images from the Pike Place Market.
But before the snow flies, Galley Cat and I enjoyed a Thanksgiving that evoked the true meaning of the day, with an enjoyable visit from daughter Lillian and her new partner, Chris. Lil is vegetarian and he eats vegan, so turkey wasn’t on our menu. Instead we fired up the charcoal barbecue — never a bad turn of events at the Nuthatch, in the view of this chief cook and bottle washer — to grill Beyond Meat burgers. For a Thanksgiving spin, we added sage to the plant-based “meat” (meet? mheet? mieht?) and a dollop of cranberry sauce on the buns. Sweet-potato fries and oven-crisped green beans were our sides. For dessert: Lillian’s homemade pumpkin pie. (The woman has the gift of pie crust, a skill that will serve her well in life.)
We played games by the fire. We watched favorite movies. The day after our fanciful feast we hopped aboard WeLike, the eldest but most colorful watercraft of the Cantwell fleet (turquoise was popular in 1957), and buzzed over to Lopez Island for a hike through woods to one of my favorite San Juan destinations, Shark Reef Sanctuary. As we looked out from a mossy cliff, whitecaps churned the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca, harbor seals and cormorants lounged on offshore rocks, and wind-riding bald eagles pirouetted above our heads.
Lil and Chris returned to Seattle on Saturday morning, and I soon set about preparing for winter. The weather forecast for this week frequently mentions the “S” word (snow), along with robust winds, pelting rain and nighttime temperatures below freezing.
I hoisted a brown triangular rain tarp between trees to help ease winter’s assault on the Nuthatch’s Electronic Personnel Transport, aka Mr. Toad, my 26-year-old golf cart. (A toad-size carport is still on the to-do list for coming summers.) I climbed aboard Center Island’s big orange Kubota tractor and pulled WeLike on to its trailer for winter storage, safe from battering waves. After spraying the boat’s canvas top with waterproofing gunk (to use the technical term), I snapped on the window covers and refreshed the boat cabin’s dehumidifiers with new calcium-chloride pellets.
So, let’s see. The woodshed is stacked high. The pantry is stocked. Extra cat food is on order. Tomorrow I will test-run the gas-powered generator and be sure the emergency candles are someplace I can find them in the dark, should it come to that.
Winter’s coming. On a small island nobody’s heard of, you gotta know when to hunker down.
Yes, my snubnosed, bullfrog-green golf cart no longer has the two halogen headlights that gave it such a froggy face. The little flivver’s two “eyes” originally contributed to our decision to name it after the automobile-obsessed, speed-demon, amphibian antihero of “The Wind in the Willows.”
One of the headlights had long ago filled with water. The other recently decided to stop working for reasons unknown. With a rare need to do much night driving on Center Island, I coped with it. But now that Pacific Standard Time draws down the nightly veil around 4:30 p.m., and the afternoon Paraclete water taxi doesn’t get me back from Anacortes until nightfall, I’m driving home from my dock in blackness like a mortician’s hat.
When last I returned from a trip to Outside, I luckily had packed my battery-powered headlamp, of the type useful for night hiking. Unfortunately, wearing the headlamp while driving Mr. Toad was no help; the bright beam only reflected glaringly off the plexiglass windshield. So I had to hold the headlamp out to the side of the cart with my left hand while steering (and veering) with my right. At least I got home without swerving into the Nootka rose brambles.
A few years of island pioneering has taught me to think ahead, however, so as I rambled along the gravel cowpath on the way to the Nuthatch that night, I had in my baggage a newly acquired LED headlight for Mr. Toad.
I’d shopped online first. (Hey, I live on an island with no stores.) But I always read the one-star reviews of any item before I hit “buy.” Most of the cheap, Chinese-made LED lights suitable for a golf cart came with obscure brand names such as “Turboo” and “Bliauto” (product description: “Lights Pod Is Bright Enough to Provide Visible for You to Observe the Road Conditions Around The Car During Travel”). Reviews were littered with words like “junk.” Many warned that the supposedly waterproof units filled with rainwater within weeks.
So I’d bucked America’s shopping trends and actually walked into an auto-parts store in Anacortes to find what I needed.
I was drawn to a four-inch-square, 13-LED “pod” manufactured by Sylvania, for many decades a reliable name in the American lighting industry (who manufactured this item in Mexico, according to the fine print, but oh, well).
The one headlight cost double or triple what I might have paid for two lights online. But often you really do get what you pay for. And because this 2,100-lumen light was designed for offroad use — the box pictured Jeeps, swamp buggies and farm machinery — and a diagram promised a wide floodlight shining more than 200 feet ahead, it seemed like just one of these puppies would suit Mr. Toad’s meanderings. I would mount it front and center.
Installing and wiring the new light was my next challenge. I’m a word guy, not a skilled mechanic, but I savor such projects. It’s so satisfying when I get it right.
However, it’s almost always more complicated than I expect.
But as I often tell people, “I ain’t Joe Cantwell’s son for nothin’.” My dad was an aerospace engineer, one of many who played a small role in producing the Saturn V rocket that put human beings on the moon. So, the genetic material is there. I’m no rocket scientist, but if I fumble around long enough I can usually figure stuff out.
I had hoped to reuse the existing switch and wiring. But my circuit tester revealed no life signs. Oxidation had blackened the copper wire. The chrome switch was rusty. Those ducks were dead.
So I methodically ripped out the old wiring clear to the battery and replaced it with fresh 14-gauge wire I had on hand. I hitched a boat ride to Lopez with John the Mad Birder so I could get a new 12-volt switch. Installing the light involved squeezing and twisting my arm through narrow openings beneath Mr. Toad’s fiberglass hood. Carefully snaking tools through holes in the dashboard to crimp and heat-seal new connectors. At the end of Day 3 on the project I was very close to finishing the last connections.
But it had been a long day. It was, yep, 4:30 and getting dark, when the Nuthatch Ghost talked some sense in to me.
My sweet Barbara was never a nag, but she always knew when I needed a gentle goad. As the sun sank behind Lopez Island and I wearily contorted my hand to attempt another connection, the recesses of my imagination lit up with words my late wife would have said about then.
“How’s it going, sweetheart, are you almost done?” she’d have called from the kitchen door. “Dinner is on the stove and it’s getting dark, so I’m getting a little concerned for you.”
She’s right, she’s right, I said to myself. I can’t see what I’m doing, I’m tired and I’m going to make a stupid mistake. Probably blow all the fuses in the golf cart. Drop a wrench across the battery terminals. It’s time to call it a night and finish this off fresh in the morning.
A friend who lost her spouse to cancer told me recently of the long conversations she has with her long-departed husband. So far, the Nuthatch Ghost and I aren’t on a regular conversational basis, but there’s that vibe in the air.
“You’re right, darling. Thank you,” I sighed as I stowed my tools for the night.
The next morning everything came together easily. The wires connected, the new switch fit the hole where the old one had been, and the new headlight shone brightly on cue.
Last night, before bed, I had some letters to put in the mail bag for morning pickup. I hopped in Mr. Toad, flicked on the new light and zipped down the road. I parked by the grassy airfield and walked across by flashlight to the mail shack. Halfway across, I looked up and stopped in my tracks. O, the stars!
I doused my light. No planes were in the air. Ahead, to my east, Orion lay on his back, as if taking a siesta on his jog around the galaxy. The three stars of his knee gleamed like a king’s jewels in the cold November air. Gazing straight up I saw Barbara’s favorite constellation, the pulsing, huddled coffee klatsch of stars called the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.
Huh. Barbara was one of seven sisters in her family. Looking up, I felt that connection again. That presence, that helped me replace a light. That helped me not blow up my golf cart. That now shone down, glowing faintly above the Earth for all to see.
I’ve given up denying the tree-hugger label. I embrace it, along with firs and cedars. I’m pretty sure I cemented my reputation on Center Island a few years back when a former caretaker cut down a beautiful big fir in front of my cabin. At the road’s edge, it was on community property, so he was technically within his rights. But it wasn’t unhealthy, leaning, or in any way an obvious threat to the public good.
For context, this was back in the days when I was still a working stiff, with a busy 40-hour-a-week job in the city. My family retreated to our cabin for a quick weekend once a month, if we were lucky. Once here, after battling through freeway traffic and squeezing into a crowded water taxi for an often bouncy voyage, my favorite decompression hour involved firing up the charcoal barbecue on the cedar deck, sipping a glass of something choice, and gazing through a curtain of big firs and maples as the sun sank over Lopez Sound.
Years of savoring that view, which includes some of the largest and oldest trees on the island, made me familiar with each one. The giant Doug fir with thick branches gnarled as an old man’s arthritic fingers. The forked hemlock with the big black hollow where squirrels nest. The Douglas maple whose dazzling fallen leaves stuck to my deck railing amid October mists.
So when I confronted the caretaker to express my dismay that he had removed a healthy big tree from my favorite view, in my emotion I blurted out, “Every one of those trees is my friend!”
It was true, certainly. But was I 12 years old?
A former logger from Sedro-Woolley, the caretaker surely repeated that line far and wide.
Incidentally, I never did get a clear explanation why he took down the tree. Maybe he needed firewood.
That was years ago. These days I’m a little more circumspect — or grown up, at least — as to how I express my tree-hugging nature. I also acknowledge that I am at least partial owner of two chainsaws. I have cut down trees — unhealthy ones — and I partially heat my cabin with wood harvested on the island.
But I continue to value the island’s lovely woods, and I believe I’ve found a better way to express that.
Two things set me off in recent times. The first occasion was when I volunteered for a work party to clean up one of the island’s little community park lots. While I envisioned picking up litter and raking fallen limbs, some of my neighbors had another idea. With machetes in hand, they undertook to denude a hillside of its salal. “Wait! Stop! That’s a beautiful native plant, what are you doing?” I — once again — blurted. “Think of the erosion that will cause.”
They stopped. But there were mutters and smoldering glances. Cantwell the Tree Hugger was standing in the way of “cleaning up” Center Island.
The second occasion came when a new cabin owner moved to the island and immediately clear-cut the lush and healthy salal from his property. In its place he planted laurel bushes like you’ll find at Home Depot. He lined them up to form a hedge just like you see in Bellevue or Redmond.
What’s worse, it became a copy-cat crime. A week or two later his next-door neighbor planted his own laurel hedge.
My question: Why did they bother to buy property on a remote, semi-wild island in the first place? Were they on a mission to bring the suburbs to the San Juans?
But I kept the snide remarks between me and friends.
Publicly, I set out to educate and, perhaps, entertain. For decades, I was a professional outdoors writer and photographer. So over the past couple years I’ve produced three small posters under the headline, “Getting to Know Center Island’s Native Plants.” I’ve posted them in the island’s mail shack and clubhouse, and Monique Maas, the island farmer, has shown them off at her produce stand.
So far, I’ve featured salal, oceanspray and, most recently, snowberry. Have the posters made a difference? Hard to know. Nobody’s torn them down, at least. It’s a small thing I can do without trampling anybody’s right to do what they wish with their own property.
Here’s what my snowberry poster looks like. I hope it makes people think. Maybe it will slow the machetes.