To these island hermits, a few hours on Orcas feels like an overseas vacation

P1290832Locals walk Orcas Island’s Crescent Beach, looking out on East Sound.

IMG_7955WE TOOK A 3-1/2  HOUR VACATION to visit the rich cousin with the organic farm and lots of sheep.

Sort of.

Each of these San Juans has its own personality, so when Barbara and I took our old Ford pickup, Ranger Rick, to Orcas Island for a day last week, it was a bit like visiting the eccentric relative. It’s only seven miles away from Center Island, but a different watery world.

After a very moist, cold and stormy January, the weather gurus called for a day of sunshine and light breezes. Happy to relieve a mild case of cabin fever, we jumped in our boat, tied up at Lopez Island’s Hunter Bay dock and took the truck aboard the interisland ferry for the 35-minute hop to Orcas, the largest island in the archipelago.

P1290714On the way to Orcas Island, the state ferry pulls into the dock at Shaw Island, the least visited of the ferry-served San Juans.

The ferry schedule can rule your life when you live in the San Juans. Finding interisland sailings that would get us there and back with plenty of daylight on each end, with a bit of ferry-line waiting built in, we had 3 1/2 hours to explore the 57-square-miles of Orcas.

But, you know, you can actually see a lot in a few hours. You can even have lunch.

Another motive for going: I have another writing assignment for AAA of Washington, giving them 800 words about Orcas Island. I’ve been there many times, but needed a quick refresher.

With that objective, we mostly drove around and took photos. (The weather gurus muffed it, by the way: We got, ahem, snowed on, which put the kibosh on driving to the top of Mount Constitution.)

Along the way we had time to munch tasty fish n’ chips at the White Horse Pub in Eastsound, with a lovely view of the water. We did a little Valentine’s Day shopping.P1290875 And we stopped at one of our favorite Orcas farmstands, the historic Coffelt Farm (now run by the Lum Family), where we picked up a dozen of the prettiest, freshest eggs a hen ever clucked about, in delightful soft pastels of green and brown.

The quick tour reminded us of the bucolic beauty of Crow Valley’s rolling pastures, pocketed among island forests; the mossy, mountainous wonderland that is Moran State Park; the hippie-dippie perfection of Doe Bay Resort; and the coziness of Olga, one of the few communities I know that can properly be called a hamlet.

P1290765A mossy old one-lane bridge marks one entry of Moran State Park.

There’s also money on Orcas, with plenty of it represented in the view homes overlooking long-ago Seattle Mayor Robert Moran’s 110-year-old waterfront mansion, Rosario, or in Oprah Winfrey’s 43-acre, $8 million island retreat, which she calls “Madroneagle.” (Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue for me, but money and poetry don’t often go together, it seems.)

It’s a different crowd, all in all. But anybody driving around in an old pickup truck can fit right in, too. Just wave at the sheep as you go by. 1-anchor

Par-tee! Toasting Cousin Rabbie (a few times removed)

P1290685A Burns Night Supper of vegan haggis with sides of neeps and tatties made every Rabbie around our table smile — in a reserved, Scottish sort of way.

IMG_7955ON A REMOTE LITTLE ISLAND IN JANUARY, you just have to make your own fun.

After weeks of winter winds, snow and rain, the timing was right for a party. January 25 is the birthday of the renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), and all over the world, followers of “Rabbie” and everything Caledonian celebrate with Burns Night Suppers, toasting the author of such cultural standards as “Auld Lang Syne” and other poetic pearls.

We hosted a Burns Supper on Saturday. It was fitting, since before Barbara took the name Cantwell she was (and, of course, remains) a Burns. Grandpa Burns hailed from Nova Scotia, and the family genealogy says he was, indeed, a shirttail relative of the Scottish bard.

Our neighbors, John the Mad Birder, who earned his doctorate from a Scottish university, and his charming first wife, Carol, joined us. Complete with Rabbie masks for all, it was an evening of sipping good single-malt from Speyside, listening to bagpipe music on the stereo, the Mad Birder’s richly rendered readings of modern Scottish poetry, and even a recitation by Rabbie himself of his delightful poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785,” said to have been written after Burns was plowing a field and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest, which it needed to survive the winter.

It was the poem that inspired a John Steinbeck novella, among other things, with the passage,  “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” (Agley is an old Scottish word meaning, basically, fucked up.)

Oh, you may wonder how Rabbie recited it for us on Saturday. To shorten a long story: When he died, in his late 30s, a plaster cast was made of his skull. A couple years ago, universities in England and Scotland joined forces to use the skull as a basis for creating a motion-capture 3D animation of Burns, as he actually appeared before his death, reciting the poem, using the voice of modern-day Ayrshire poet, and Burns enthusiast, Rab Wilson. It’s brilliant, with all the proper Scottish burr and pronunciations. (“Mousie” becomes, deliciously, “Moosie.”)

And, of course, it’s on YouTube, so we watched it on our 40-inch flat-screen.

We then recited the proper Selkirk grace before the ritual stabbing and devouring of the haggis, which Barbara made with a vegan recipe featuring a filling of lentils, oatmeal, grated carrot, mushrooms and shallots traditionally seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sage, thyme and rosemary — all wrapped in savoy cabbage leaves rather than a sheep’s stomach. (We were truly thankful.) Sides included neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes) with whiskey gravy. Dessert was a trifle with layers of custard, angel food cake, coconut cream, peaches and fresh raspberries.

Na ane coud eat na more, a well-fed Scot might have said in 1785. 1-anchor

Snow falling on cedars — and firs, and hemlocks, and salal…

P1290570.JPGSnow blankets the front path to The Nuthatch on Tuesday.

IMG_7955IT DID SOME SERIOUS SNOWING on Center Island in the past 24 hours.

We’d had a light frosting now and then since the weekend, but Tuesday afternoon the mercury was frozen in the mid-20s and the slate-gray sky decided flurries were a bore. It opened up and snowed.

Last night, Barbara and I doused the lights in the cabin, switched on the outside lights above our wall of windows and watched “Snow Theater.”

By Wednesday morning nine inches blanketed the island.

P1290656The snowcap on our feeder Wednesday morning: Cold and hungry birds have depleted our stock of birdseed. Sorry, spotted towhees.

We’re living off the larder. Pulling on snow boots to tromp the buried roads. Tempted to build a snowman on the blank whiteboard that is our airfield.

Stay warm, stay safe. We’re hunkered happily. 1-anchor

Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens, 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The kinglet and I

P1290330.JPGA golden-crowned kinglet bows as if to show off the bright stripe for which it is named.

IMG_7955IT’S BEEN A BIT OF A SAGA, my effort to photograph the golden-crowned kinglet.

Last winter we first noticed small groupings of these tiny, round gray and olive-green birds with an orange mohawk-like stripe on their heads. Oddly, they liked to hop about and peck in the gravel roads on Center Island. John the Mad Birder, my next-door neighbor who has officially declared these his favorite island avian, informs me they are pecking for mites.

Neighbor John’s affection for them is understandable (considering, of course, that we already had dibs on the nuthatch). Kinglets are delightful balls of fluff, though perhaps not overly bright; we had to watch our step at times so as not to actually tread on one. They seemed oblivious to pedestrians on our cowpath-ic byways.

So I expected it would be a cinch to get a good kinglet photo.


For months I’ve been in pursuit. But when I’d walk around the island and encounter kinglets I wouldn’t have my camera. I would resolve to carry it next time I ventured out. But of course then no kinglets were to be seen.

This went on for weeks. No camera? An island infested. Camera in hand? A peaceful, kinglet-free walk.

I came to learn their “tells,” however. Kinglets hang out in the understory in small groups and are rarely silent. Their cheeping call, while distinctive, isn’t loud. When six or eight are hopping among roadside cedars, a sound like the faint tinkling of a fine crystal wind chime will gradually work into my consciousness. It’s my kinglet alarm!

Yesterday, finally, I caught some with my camera. But, of course, they turned shy and wouldn’t allow me near. Perhaps because it was a cold day of pelting rain mixed with snow, they hopped quickly and actively, so catching a focused photo with my zoom lens was a challenge.

I’ve not caught my perfect kinglet image in this round. But here are a couple of soft-focus first efforts that give a clue to their colorful adorability.

I’m not finished with you yet, my pretties.  1-anchor

P1290276Kinglets like to peck on the ground, or even on a gravel road, in search of mites. The fir cone in the photo’s center is a tip-off to the bird’s compact size.

Geography geeks, map your route here once a month: The quiz lives

ND state capital.JPGOne of America’s least architecturally distinguished state capitol buildings, above, is in one of the state capitals featured in the first Reefer’s Mini Quiz for Hopeless Geography Geeks. See Question 5, below. Artwork courtesy of Digital Horizons.

IMG_7955I REALLY DON’T MISS getting out of bed before dawn to go to work every morning.

But I do miss the good people I worked with at The Seattle Times, and I look back fondly at some of the projects and tasks I enjoyed. One feature I loved was the annual Seattle Times Geography Quiz, which we ran in the Travel section every New Year’s as a fun reader activity to wind up the holidays.

For much of the final decade I worked at the Times, it became my task to compose the quiz, and I loved it. I’m a total geography geek, and I believe readers appreciated a challenging yet fun quiz. I felt like the Will Shortz of geography.

So I’m bringing it here: the monthly Reefer’s Mini Quiz for Hopeless Geography Geeks. It will be just five questions each month on whatever topic I choose.

First topic: U.S. STATE CAPITALS. No Googling (this means you). Answers are upside down below.

1. What state’s capital, when spelled out, includes three pairs of doubled letters?

2. What state’s capital, when spelled out, ends with the name of a popular roll candy?

3. What are the most populous and least populous state capital cities in the U.S.?

4. What state’s capital is also the name of the prickly aunt in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”?

5. What state has the only capital city named for the leader of another nation?

ANSWERS (Turn your laptop upside down, but don’t drop it, OK?)

inverted answers jan24

Thanks for playing! The quiz will be back in February. 1-anchor

I’ll be blowed, it’s winter on the rock

P1290248.JPGSeen from Center Island, boats shelter in Decatur Island’s Honeymoon Cove, looking across a tombolo to the whitecaps of windblown Rosario Strait.

WINTER IS NOT DULL on our island.

There are fewer people, for sure. Neighbors occupy only a handful of the vacation homes this time of year. If social whirl is what you’re looking for, you got off on the wrong rock.

For those of us who live here year-round, this is the season that makes us feel a bit like pioneers on the edge of the world.

The whirl we do experience is wind. Maybe it’s how climate change is manifesting in the San Juans. For days on end in January, we get windstorms.

The National Weather Service has a cool trick where you can call up a map online, touch the screen for your location and get a pinpointed forecast. For Center Island, our typical forecast almost daily for the past two weeks has been along the lines of “Showers turning to rain, southeast wind 20 to 25 mph, with gusts to 40.”

So we’re hunkered down. Our little boat, WeLike, which doesn’t enjoy going out in such winds, is securely tied to our community dock. We haven’t pulled her from the water because, well, it’s usually too stormy to do even that. We walk across the island to check her every day or two, to run the bilge pumps and snug up the lines and fenders. So far, so good.

But we’ve also not left the island since before Christmas.

Happily, it’s a season when we have new books to read and games to play (thanks, Santa), and Barbara keeps a well-stocked pantry year-round, so nobody’s going hungry. But the fruit bowl is low, the fresh vegetables are pretty much gone, and we’re hoping the Amazon order of cat food isn’t delayed too much longer. (It’s coming by a UPS plane, but they don’t fly in high winds.)

So we sit in our living room with its high wall of windows, watch the 100-foot firs sway like sea grass in a typhoon, and listen to falling limbs ka-thunk as if they’re coconuts on our metal roof. (We can imagine we’re in Hawaii.)

Only once in our 16 years of cabin stewardship has a tree come down on the place, necessitating a replacement roof on one side. The structure is strong enough that the big fir didn’t pierce the interior ceiling. We’re hoping that was “our one time.”

This video is from one of the milder days of wind recently, as seen from Madrona Bluff.

On the worst night of winds last week, a dead tree fell across our road. The next day a lull in the rain allowed me to get out the new gas-powered Husqvarna, shared with neighbor John. Gunnar, as we’ve dubbed the Swedish-heritage chainsaw, made quick work of the 10-inch-diameter fir. The good news: It was dead, dry and perfect for burn-it-now firewood. And splitting it gave me a good chance to “get my corpuscles ’puscling,” as Barbara likes to quip. Restocked the woodshed nicely.

We also like to pull on our rubber boots and walk around our island between rainstorms. Pecking for mites in the gravel road ahead of us, the latest feathered arrivals blown in on the storms are golden-crowned kinglets, tiny cheeping balls of green and gray with a dramatic orange stripe atop their heads, like avian punk rockers. At our favorite viewpoint, which I think of as Madrona Bluff, for the artfully gnarled, bronze-barked trees hanging over the high bank’s edge, we watch white-capped swells steamroll across Lopez Sound.

Maybe the winds will drop enough tomorrow to let us fire up WeLike and get across to Lopez to replenish our toilet-paper supply, among other items running low. We’ll see. Never a dull moment in a Center Island winter.

Next week’s forecast says snow. 1-anchor

From a small island, taking on the blessings and challenges of 2020

P1290209.JPGThe Nuthatch cabin is our island refuge where I get to gather greenery to make our own holiday wreaths.

IMG_7955IT’S A BLUSTERY DAY IN SHADYHANGER, to paraphrase one of my daughter’s favorite childhood picture books, “The Adventures of Dudley Dormouse.” (His home wood, Shadyhanger, always seemed like a good place to be from.)

Our tall firs are dancing the hula and rain has been drumming a tattoo on our metal roof since daybreak. It’s now 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and it’s already getting dark on Center Island, which I think we should consider renaming “Shadyhanger Island.”

Barbara and I are sitting by the fire and sipping a glass of wine as I turn on my laptop to reflect on the change of year. At times like this, there’s a kind of bliss to being so far removed from the rest of the world.

We are thankful to be fortunate. We just hosted our delightful daughter for the holidays. We have health challenges, but not today. We live in a place where I get to craft my own giant Christmas wreath of bent cedar, fir boughs, salal and wild holly. We have good friends and loving family, near and far.

Resolutions are something people talk about. Neither Barbara nor I take such things very seriously, but we do set goals for the coming year. She has applied for a writing fellowship in Alaska. I’m determined to work on a mystery novel or two. I’m hoping to get closer to the natural world. Do more birding and trail building. Get to know some Lopez Islanders. Make more beer.

Barbara asks if I mind being so isolated on our island. The answer is “mostly, not.” But I do treasure old friendships, and keeping them going can be a challenge when people are in Seattle, Olympia or Portland, caught up with the daily tasks of life and the pleasures and headaches of the city while I’m here tootling around on my boat and taking photos of birds. So, please, come and visit.

P1290206.JPGA pair of hooded mergansers — a male in foreground, and female beyond — bobs in winter waves on Reads Bay, off Center Island.

One challenge for me in 2020 will be to feel involved in important decisions for our nation. In 2004, I felt compelled to go to Florida, Land of the Hanging Chad, to help Miami’s inner-city voters get to the polls on Election Day. This year’s election is far more crucial to our future.

Tonight we’ll all raise glasses to mark the arrival of a new year — but not a new decade; that will be 2021, my sweet librarian wife insists. (She also was a stickler for claiming the 21st century started in 2001.) Here’s hoping that in months to come, science, education and compassion will triumph over ignorance, lies and intolerance. That we’ll once again find leadership that honors and cherishes America’s constitution rather than showing it brazen contempt. That our democracy will survive the buffeting winds of demagogy.

It could be a blustery year. My personal wish for friends and family, including you, dear reader, is for health and happiness, love and delight. 1-anchor

P1290217.JPGNew year, new beer: Life can’t be too bad when you get to concoct your own brewskis. Here are the newest ales from Nuthatch Brewing.

Winter’s here, and Lopez cheers

image.jpgYour correspondent models a homemade bird mask inspired by the pagan-tradition solstice celebrations of Penzance, England.

IMG_7955SATURDAY’S WINTER SOLSTICE REMINDED ME: I just love living next door to Lopez Island.

We had a little solstice observance at The Nuthatch on Saturday evening. Neighbors John and Carol came over. We dug out the solstice masks we made a few years ago after daughter Lillian had returned from a winter in England, where she attended Montol, the solstice festival in Penzance, where Cornwall pokes into the Atlantic like a finger into an eye. (Geography nerd’s digression: It’s next door to my favorite-named English town, Mousehole, which Lil tells us the locals pronounce as “Mouzel.”)

Penzance, where Gilbert and Sullivan based their “Pirates of Penzance” operetta, has revived the pagan tradition of celebrating the shift of seasons and the beginning of longer days with masked revelers parading the streets, led by someone called the Lord of Misrule. There are massive bonfires, street dancing and merriment throughout the town every December 21st.

Our Center Island celebration was staid by comparison. John and I, the charter members of the Center Island Writer’s Guild, both have a fondness for John Steinbeck, and last night we sipped hot cider laced with applejack (Steinbeck’s favorite quaff) and read aloud from the works of one of our favorite poets, Robert Frost, whose writing often reflected an appreciation of the grand solemnity of winter. (“My little horse must think it queer, to stop without a farmhouse near, between the woods and frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year…”)

We burned a traditional yule log, marked with the date and drawn with a stick figure representing Father Time, to signify the passing of the year. We ate Barbara’s lovely, rich pot du creme au chocolat and Carol’s perfectly piquant cranberry bread.

As the hour and minute of the official change of seasons approached, we carried a lit candle out into the dark to look up at the stars. And at precisely 8:19 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, when the sun’s path across the sky officially began to track back northward for the return of longer days, someone on Lopez Island, less than a mile across the water from us, set off fireworks. The quiet night erupted with booms and bangs, as if it was midnight on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve never experienced fireworks anywhere else on the winter solstice. But this is an island whose most common event on the weekly community calendar is yoga sessions, along with tai chi, zumba and something called “Ecstatic Dance.”

It’s lovable, lefty Lopez, and it made me smile. Happy solstice. 1-anchor

Kicking up heels for a marriage milestone

20191215_165353.jpgFrom left: Your scribe, his lovely bride, and friends Daniel and Jean, on the rooftop at Seattle’s Inn at the Market on a special Sunday. In the background is the Great Wheel, edging Elliott Bay.

WHEN YOU SPEND WINTER on a really quiet little island, special occasions tend to be really special.

Such was the case this past weekend, when Barbara and I sampled Seattle’s high life in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary.

Forty years sounds like a lot, but it’s not a true measure of how long we’ve been together. That would be 47 years this coming New Year’s Eve, the anniversary of our first kiss, a big smooch in the back seat of her boyfriend’s car, while her then-boyfriend (not me) was in the driver’s seat — but, oh, hey, we don’t need to go into all that. (It was complicated.)

We were high-school sweethearts. I was 16 and she was the alluring older woman of 17, not long out of Melbourne, and with a tantalizing Australian accent.

We dated for seven years before finally making it legal on December 15, 1979.

Sunday, we booked a stay in a posh water-view suite at our favorite hotel in the world, Seattle’s Inn at the Market, in the Pike Place Market. Daughter Lillian and I spent the forenoon doing our annual Christmas shopping spree, dividing our time between the Ballard Farmers Market and Pike Place. At 2:30, we met up with Barbara, who had already checked into our suite. We found her reclining on a chaise longue next to a wide window with an astounding view of the market, the Seattle waterfront and Puget Sound. Shoppers scurried about below. Ferries scuttled on Elliott Bay. Gulls soared at eye level. She seemed pretty happy.

Friends Daniel and Jean Farber drove up from Olympia and joined us in our suite for a cocktail hour — a shared bottle of good bubbly from Walla Walla and snacks from DeLaurenti’s deli. Daniel, my former college roommate, was best man at our wedding. We all dressed up a bit for this occasion. I wore my old wedding tie, which was only a tiny bit frayed (not unlike its wearer). Barbara found her actual wedding lipstick. It was still a dark and luscious burgundy.

Our evening was a dinner show, the holiday extravaganza at Can Can cabaret, an underground theater next door. (From the bar you can look straight up through little translucent tiles and see people’s feet walking the sidewalk three feet above you.) The show had a lot of winter-wonderland-y music, flashy dancing, crazy acrobatics, a lot of titillating humor and, uh, not a lot of costumes in some scenes. (There were fans, and feathers, and sequins.)  We all agreed that, while kick-dancing a fine line at times, it was whimsical, not crass. And we had fun, fun, fun.

It was a delightful way to celebrate that we, too, are still alive and kicking. And sometimes getting away from our island hermitage for an indulgent weekend in the city is just what the lifestyle doctor ordered. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

20191215_165255.jpgBrian, Lillian, Barbara and Jean warm up by the rooftop bonfire at the Inn at the Market. As Barbara and Jean demonstrate here, by the end of the evening, after a couple bottles of bubbly, we were all a little blurry — in the best sense.