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.
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.
SUDDENLY IT’S SERIOUSLY NOVEMBER, and I’m back in my writing hut on the rocky knoll. The oil-filled radiator is cranked up high, warming my shivering knees. When did all this happen?
After autumn’s sunny and dry debut until October’s final days, the Pacific Northwet is reasserting itself. About time. We have sorely needed the rain. In a matter of days, the 3-inch quilt of moss blanketing my knoll has returned from its anemic pallor to a vibrant lime green.
Still, we’ve had a happy mix of weather days. For a weekend getaway to the Long Beach Peninsula with old friends, we enjoyed a blueberry sky (on what’s sometimes regarded as the Cranberry Coast, because they grow them there). Back with Seattle in-laws two days later for the annual Halloween party, I sheltered from an onslaught of fire-hose rain.
Yet, November’s first day brought another blue-heavens afternoon. Galley Cat and I relaxed into a smooth ride on placid seas as the Paraclete water taxi transported us home to Center Island.
Now I sit with a high-intensity lamp gleaming on my keyboard to counter the mid-afternoon gloom. Rain pelts Wee Nooke’s cedar-shake roof. Outside the mullioned window, serviceberry leaves that have taken 40-degree nights like a tonic are suddenly a brilliant yellow, defying the gunmetal sky. On my desktop speakers, Bob Dylan drones his delightfully nasal “Like a Rolling Stone.” Outside, rapidly building winds set tall firs shimmying as the drumming raindrops transform from a rattly snare to a booming timpani.
It might be time to beat a retreat to the sturdier cabin and stoke a blaze in the woodstove. This is why I split all that firewood in September.
Stay dry if you can, fellow webfoots. Stay warm, however you may.
I’M A WIDOWER, a word that through 99 percent of my life I never for a moment thought would someday apply to me. Any more than I imagined giving up journalism to become a Certified Public Accountant. Or developing a taste for lutefisk. Or voluntarily moving to Arkansas.
I was one of those lucky people who found the love of my life at a young age. She was also my best friend. In our optimistic youth, if Barbara and I ever talked about old age and death, we made a pact to blaze out together while making mad, passionate love until our wrinkled old bodies could take no more. The autopsy report would make interesting reading.
It didn’t work out that way, sorry to say. Damn, damn cancer.
I’ve kept it no secret that I’m no fan of solitude, but for better or worse I’m now the sole human occupant of Nuthatch Cabin, on a remote little island reached only by small boat or plane.
But I’m not here alone. I have a cat.
A dopey orange cat who has helped me weather loneliness and occasional depression over the past 18 months.
Galley Cat got that unusual name because she was a boat cat for most of her life. It was my lame play on “alley cat,” suggested as kind of a joke at the time. But it stuck. When Barbara and I visited a cat-rescue center in 2013, a few months after another well-loved kitty had taken up residence in the cat graveyard by the Nuthatch’s front path, my dear wife was lobbying for a sedate, older gray tabby. One that would be happy to snooze most of the day and come with no challenges.
But as a teenager I had grown up with a handsome orange cat that I adored. When the adoption-center aide showed us a beautiful little five-month-old tiger-striped ginger, still with kittenish ears too big for her head and an assertive, slightly pugnacious attitude despite her still-healing spay scar, Barbara’s hopes were dashed. She knew her husband couldn’t let that one go by.
Even at a very basic level, Galley is a rare animal. Because of a fluke of genetics, only one in five orange cats is female. Orange coloring in felines is carried by the X chromosome. Females possess two Xs and males possess an X and a Y. Male kittens need the orange gene only from their mothers to become a ginger, whereas females must inherit an orange X from both parents — making females much less likely to exhibit the trait.
Whether Barbara liked it or not, Galley had a particular fondness for her, obviously regarding her as a mother figure. When Galley’s cuddling and purring adoration went too far, Barbara would have to chuck her off her lap with protests of “Cat drool! I can’t stand cat drool!”
Galley Cat had a tough year just as I did when Barbara passed away in 2021, followed closely by the death of our older cat, Bosun, Galley’s buddy since the day we’d brought her home. That summer of 2021 was about the same time Galley started getting chased outside by wild foxes, which an idiot neighbor had trapped on a neighboring island and illegally released on Center Island because he apparently thought it would be fun to have more wildlife. (Even on the other island, these foxes are not native to the San Juans, but are an invasive species brought by humans.)
Can cats understand death? All Galley knew was that two of the beings she loved most had left her. And suddenly the woods she loved to roam weren’t safe anymore. More than once she’s had to bolt up a tree to escape a predatory fox. She became skittish and easily frightened. She would hiss at people she didn’t know. They thought she was a mean cat. She’s not mean, she’s just had her world shaken. I can sympathize.
She and I bonded in our solitude. After so many years of living on the boat, at age 10 she loves being outside, and I can’t deprive her of that, so I’m trusting that she’s learned how to escape foxes. I find joy — an emotion in short supply lately — when she gallops up the path to the top of the rocky knoll behind the cabin, sometimes continuing six feet up a maple tree before looking back to be sure I was watching. I cheer her on every time.
She has been good company in my months of adjusting to life without Barbara. Galley sleeps on my knees most nights, and sometimes noses her way under the blankets. Occasionally she’ll want to lick my face in the night. Kitty kisses are no substitute for Barbara’s, but they make me grin awkwardly until her rough tongue starts to take skin off and I have to push her away. Sometimes I get drooled on. (Like Barbara, I’m not wild about that.)
Having a pet limits my travels since I don’t have a regular cat-sitter. I hate to take her to a boarding kennel, and she’s made it clear that she, too, hates that experience. Sometimes she accompanies me when generous family members and friends don’t mind hosting both of us. I put that to a real test recently when Galley and I went on a road trip to visit a friend in Walla Walla, a long day’s drive over the Cascades and across the state. I provided her bowls of food and water on the floor in the Honda’s back seat, along with a small litter box should she need it. As long as I let her wander freely inside the car, snoozing when she chose, she didn’t seem to overly mind the long ride. At times, she would stand on the passenger seat with her rear paws on the seat and her front paws on the dashboard, looking ahead with interest. I don’t think she’d ever seen mountains before. Once again, she proved a good sidekick.
It’s hard to quantify the value of a friend, whether human or animal. All I can say is that, in the toughest time of my life, a dopey orange cat has helped get me through.
Oddly enough, it’s something to celebrate on Center Island. Our deer are returning.
Loyal readers might recall that when I first made this rock my full-time home four years ago, I used to temper the monotony of my morning bike laps by counting how many deer I passed. Admittedly, since I rode a circular course, some were repeats, but my record for three laps of the airfield — about a 20-minute ride — was in the range of 45 deer.
The down side to that was that you couldn’t plant a new tree or shrub on Center Island without fencing it. And if you love swordferns like I do, you better get used to them being munched down to the hilt. Those guys can be voracious. Nonetheless, there was something peaceful and comforting about seeing the Center Island herd grazing the grass airfield on a misty morning. It was part of our bucolic island scene.
Alas, 2021 brought more than COVID, it brought a mysterious virus that killed most of the deer in the San Juan Islands. It’s been months since I’ve spotted Bucky or Bambi on my morning ride.
This morning, as I trundled downstairs to make coffee, the first thing I spied out front of The Nuthatch was a handsome buck, antlers proud and pointy, bedded down in the tall grass beyond the salal patch.
He spent the morning. In fact, as I was lounging outside on the deck with my second cup around 11, taking a break from rebuilding the cabin’s back balcony, I was starting to worry about the guy. Was he hurt? Was he, shudder, sick?
Just about then, a rustle sounded from deep in the salal, and out came a little doe. Wow, here come the deer, I reveled. And I bet a girlfriend will get his corpuscles puscle-ing.
But before he could rise and introduce himself, more rustles split the morning’s peace. And out of the shrubs came another buck, with antlers even pointier. I didn’t just have one deer in my yard, I had a whole new herd!
Just as things were looking up for the hoof-and-hatrack population, a fearsome thought sprouted in my bean: Would a battle over the doe ensue? Would this happy population explosion blow up in my face with a fight to the finish between these two young studs?
Everybody just munched on my salal and hung out for a while. It was all chill.
Bucky, Bambi, welcome back. Just, please, leave the swordferns alone.
THE MESSAGE CAME IN A WHISPER. A whisper of breeze. “Autumn,” it sighed. “Autumn.”
I was enjoying a cloudless Tuesday morning, lounging in my Adirondack chair on the Nuthatch’s deck, from which I looked through mossy trees to the quiet waters of Lopez Sound. A warm September day. Not a breath of air moving. What was moving were a few midges that I swatted at between sips of my day’s second cuppa and my few daily minutes with a New York Times Sunday crossword.
That’s when the branches suddenly rustled, high in my biggest fir. A soft breath of wind came with the rustle. A cool breath, spiced with the scent of the woods.
“Ahhh,” I sighed back. “It’s here.”
For days, we islanders have known fall was coming. The berries and currants have swollen like pregnant bellies and ripened with a purple from the deepest sea. Flower baskets on decks have splashed color about like an artist who knows an international oil paint shortage is right around the corner. Endless weeks of sunshine have driven me and my splitting ax to the woodpile day after day, inspired perhaps by the same instinct that causes woolly bear caterpillars to grow blacker and fuzzier.
Officially, the autumn equinox is at 8:03 p.m. PDT this Thursday. The equinox is when the sun shines directly on the equator, and the northern and southern hemispheres get the same amount of rays.
That’s the official time, and the scientific explanation. But I know a new season arrived on Center Island this morning around 10:30 when a cooling breeze gave me goosebumps and a few windblown fir needles pattered quietly down on my deck railing.
I’m enjoying a lazy day back on my island after six days away, four of which were spent in hard physical labor at Seattle’s Canal Boatyard during the necessary every-three-years haulout of my beloved old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro.
Daughter Lillian and I sanded and repainted (two generous coats) the boat’s ample, full-keeled bottom, among other tasks. A modified-epoxy, copper-infused antifouling paint is key to keeping barnacles and long streamers of kelp from taking up residence on the hull of Sogni d’Oro, whose name is the Italian version of “sweet dreams.”
The Cantwells haven’t a drop of Italian blood, as far as I know. But my late wife Barbara and I had enjoyed memorable travels in Italy in 1989, the year we made the boat ours. (“Bought” isn’t the right word.) At the time, we were smitten with all things Italian. These things happen.
If nothing else, the exotic name is a good dockside conversation starter with folks who ask “what’s that mean?” and “how the heck do you say it?” (“SO-nyee DOH-ro”). My daughter and I still say it to each other when we bid each other good night.
The boat means much to me and Lillian. My family lived aboard the sailboat for the better part of 25 years. When Lil was born in 1991, Barbara and I brought our little girl home from the hospital to a marina on the Columbia River in Portland, where we lived at the time. In the mid-’90s, we took a great sailing adventure to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. The full-keel boat was meant for ocean cruising, and given the right wind and sail handling, she charged through waves like a sea-going locomotive. On one memorable passage, hundreds of leaping dolphins surrounded us as we plunged through the seas.
Once settled in Seattle, for 20 years we threw off the mooring lines and spent two weeks every summer exploring every cove and cranny of the San Juan Islands. It’s how Barbara and I fell in love with these islands and ended up retiring here.
When her mum and I moved to Center Island in 2018, now-adult Lillian moved back aboard Sogni d’Oro at Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina. She and her cat, Tiberius, are the boat’s liveaboard stewards now — with a healthy bit of elbow grease and wallet-loosening from Papa come haulout time.
In recent years, the boat has mostly been “dock sailed,” as sailors snickeringly describe it when a vessel doesn’t leave the marina. It’s a matter of some regret for us. But sometimes rocks poke up in your life’s plotted course.
For me, these four days in the boatyard were like an intimate reunion with a salty old friend. In our head-to-toe Tyvek painting suits (which on a warm day feel a lot like wearing a portable sauna), Lil and I scraped barnacles from the prop and restored the bronze shine. We applied $500 worth of paint. We hand-cleaned and polished the fiberglass topsides and the gleaming green stripe beneath the teak cap-rail. Lillian sanded and refinished 32-feet of rub rail. Everything below the waterline got inspected, cleaned and restored.
Someone asked if this might be my last haulout. It’s a lot of work. I’ve always insisted on doing it myself, and ain’t nobody getting any younger. I love my good old boat, but, I admit, Lil and I discussed whether it might soon be time to find someone new to love her.
For now, I’m still basking in the glow-slash-exhaustion from all that we did to spiff her up.
I do still have a lovingly restored 1957 runabout, a 10-foot plywood sailing dinghy, an 8-foot inflatable Zodiac with outboard, and a two-person inflatable kayak. I still have boats to “mess about in,” as Kenneth Grahame memorably put it.
Too soon to say. In the end, I might just find someone new to love my island cabin, and move back aboard Sogni d’Oro. Lots of sweet dreams happened there.