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.
“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?
I wasn’t going to write about this wildlife sighting because I didn’t have a camera with me at the time and couldn’t include photos with my posting. Then this morning I read the Washington Post obituary for nature-writer extraordinaire and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, a longtime Oregonian sometimes compared to Thoreau. Lopez died at age 75 on Christmas Day. The obit recalled how Lopez had chosen to stop photographing wildlife years ago after an encounter with a polar bear when he decided his camera’s telephoto lens gave him an unfair “advantage over the bear.” After that, he committed his wildlife encounters to memory and shared them only through his words. In honor of a man of ethics and art, I humbly offer this recollection, without photos:
AT LOPEZ ISLAND’S HUNTER BAY PUBLIC DOCK, I had just returned to WeLike from a brief time ashore on a cold Monday three days after Christmas. I was about to climb aboard our old runabout when a flash of white drew my eye over the water.
Sunshine had burned away winter’s gloom. Overhead, puffy clouds drifted like hot-air balloons, casting fleeting shadows on Lopez Sound and the distant blue-black ridges of Orcas Island.
What had caught my eye was sunlight glinting off the head and tail of a bald eagle.
The big bird was some 800 feet away, tightly circling over the water, looking down. Alone, I stepped to dock’s end to watch.
I was mesmerized as the eagle dipped almost to the surface, jerked to a stop, then flapped away into the air. Obviously hunting. A big fish near the surface? I wondered.
Again and again, it pirouetted and wheeled. After I’d watched for three minutes, maybe ten — I honestly don’t know — a lilting soprano call, perhaps best described as a gargling whistle, drew my head to another eagle emerging from nearby firs. The new bird appeared on broad wings to join the first, both wheeling in a corkscrew pattern over the same spot in the water.
Whatever was there was elusive. The eagles whirled and dodged but never stopped peering down. A dozen feet away inside my boat was a pair of binoculars, but I couldn’t peel myself away from the drama.
The second eagle finally departed back to the trees, but the first was not to give up on its prey. Once or twice it struck at the water but came up with empty talons.
Finally, after a longer period than I can tell you, a tiny wet head poked up from the ripples. A bird, not a fish. A small, slim head. Maybe a grebe? It quickly dipped underwater again, too fast for the eagle.
But by now the diving bird, starved of oxygen, must have exhausted itself eluding the patient hunter above. It soon reappeared. The eagle plunged, all in this time.
And it stayed in the water.
Because eagles are commonly seen flying with fish in their talons, some people think that’s all they eat. But in “dog-eat-dog” fashion, smaller birds make up a big part of a bald eagle’s diet. One problem: With its feathers drenched, and with a struggling prey that was perhaps a fifth of its own weight, this eagle couldn’t get airborne again.
From my distance I could see the eagle’s head bob up and down, likely starting to feed on its catch. Flopping its wings, it slowly moved toward a large rock called Crab Island, a couple hundred feet away.
As I returned to my boat, a woman from a nearby beach home strode down the dock. She, too, had been watching. She voiced concerned that the eagle was still in the water. Was it hurt?
I told her I’d seen the diving bird come up. “I’m pretty sure the eagle’s just eating his meal,” I assured her. And while eagles don’t have webbed feet built for swimming, bird guides will tell you they can manage a decent sort of breast stroke with their wings. This one was making good headway and soon made it to Crab Island.
For me, it was a captivating glimpse of the wild world, with watery winter sunshine spotlighting those snow-white feathers, burning the image into my memory.
For the diving bird, it was the desperate and frightening end of life. For the eagle, it was lunchtime.
Season’s greetings from the Nuthatch, where we like BIG wreaths, and we’re looking forward to the end of 2020.
A WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It’s blowing like stink outside my window, with tree branches waving like a football referee after a particularly egregious foul. Sitting alone in the December dimness of my cozy writing hut on our rocky knoll, three days before the solstice, I’m contemplating 2020. Worst year ever, many say. Of course, they didn’t live through the Great Depression. Or any world wars. Nevertheless, the worst many of us have experienced. Yet, yesterday a fellow islander and I shared feelings of optimism. There’s more than one viable vaccine against the virus. There’s a new government on its way, with able minds and honest aspirations. We won’t pause right now to count the daunting hurdles before it. Let’s grasp at hope. On our little island we count ourselves lucky for the protection isolation affords. But like others everywhere, we feel the strain of separation. Today my father would have turned 99. He died six years ago. I’m beginning to look back on living friends the way I look back on him. It’s not good. A friend in Portland, with whose family we’ve shared many a beach getaway, emailed us that her workplace recently had a Zoom meeting in which they shared a little stress-relieving exercise, answering the question, “What would you do first if COVID magically disappeared tomorrow?” It sounded like a fun hypothetical, to take people out of their boxes (literally). But some ended up in tears. We’re all emotionally tender, we’re all missing the life we used to know. Many have lost friends and loved ones. To look beyond that to relief and relaxation touched a nerve. It’s a topsy turvy world. This week New Yorkers who would normally curse an early snowstorm for bringing the city to a halt and making them late to work instead treasured the change outside their window. Most weren’t going anywhere anyway. Anything to make life more interesting again. But just to emphasize our inverted reality, school kids stuck on their computers at home didn’t get the pleasure of schools shutting. For them, it wasn’t a snow day, a reporter noted. It was just Thursday. A friend asked recently: As a travel writer, how have I coped with this year of no travel? Certainly, I miss it. I love how seeing new places and meeting new people refreshes my mind. I love to write about that and maybe inspire others to go. I get itchy. Staying home is like knowing that it’s time to update my computer but reboots aren’t allowed. Admittedly, missing travel is kind of a first-world problem. With the vaccines, I’ve started to dream about next fall. More than anything, though, I miss visits with friends and family. Those beach getaways. Game nights and cozy dinners. After weighing the “what to do first” question, our Portland friend concluded that it wasn’t “fly to Paris.” Rather, she said she would invite friends to brunch. In fact, she extended the invitation. We said we’d take her up on that. At the beach.
Not quite Rudolph, but that’s what I call the buck who likes to lounge in our front clearing this time of year.
DECEMBER IS A UNIQUE MONTH on our isolated island.
A grump could call this Tuesday morning dreary, with low clouds fogging the treetops and cold drizzle pooling on the cedar deck.
But I’m lounging in my big wicker chair inside our wall of windows and sipping a hot mocha. Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy “Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack plays softly on the stereo. Outside, Purple Finches, Nuthatches, Spotted Towhees and Downy Woodpeckers mob our feeders, and the last shivering blooms of our summer fuchsias add pink and red to the string of holiday lights draped from the railing. I spy to see if Rudolph is still lounging among the salal in our front clearing.
Well, he’s not actually a reindeer. And his antlers are not going to win him any trophies (just as well). But there’s something comforting about having the buck deer hang out, cushioned by the mosses. We’re happy to lend him the hospitality of The Nuthatch’s half-acre.
Human neighbors are few here this time of year. We wave all the harder when we see them. Outdoor chores, when weather allows, are mostly limited to cutting more firewood to fend off the chill. The year’s shortest day is less than two weeks away.
Wintry winds mean we don’t use the boat much. We’re hunkered down with a full pantry, looking forward to our daughter’s five-night visit at Christmas. A pretty eight-foot fir sits in a bucket of water out back, ready to bring inside for decoration when Lillian arrives (after a COVID test).
The pandemic has made the family Christmas party a Zoom affair this year, and my treasured annual shopping outing with Lil to Seattle’s festive Pike Place Market is a no-go. But Barbara and I have good books to read, and the intrepid postman who comes by boat is delivering packages that we hide under the bed until Santa’s big day. A trek down the puddled gravel road to the mail shack is occasion for excitement.
Winter can be long on our little rock. But December is kind of special.
A camellia adds color to a cold December day in the J.A. Witt Winter Garden, part of Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum.
JOY IN LIFE IS ALL RELATIVE in these pandemic days. After many weeks of doing little to break my island routine other than making an occasional beeline up and down Interstate 5 for doctor appointments, I chanced upon a diversion that truly refreshed my soul.
And it only happened because of a scheduling glitch with a couple of doctor exams. The endocrinologist could see me at 10:20. But the ophthalmologist wasn’t available until 2. (And why is it, asks this guy who’s about to start Medicare in a few months, that all these MDs with “Seattle’s Top Docs” certificates on their walls appear to be about 12 years old? But I digress…)
Anyway, I had time to kill between appointments. I wasn’t about to leave my car hostage to the robber barons who run the medical building’s parking garage, so I had to drive somewhere. The clinic was at 7th and Madison. It was a straight shot down Madison Street to one of Seattle’s best places, the Washington Park Arboretum. Hadn’t been there in many months. I’d packed a lunch.
Parked by the Japanese Garden. It was chilly, so I ate in the car. But it was a beautiful, blue-sky day, and not too cold for a brisk walk after lunch.
My memories of winter treks in the Arboretum included squelching along rain-sodden grassy passages where my shoes sank like I was hiking in deep snow without snowshoes. Since then, however, they’ve added a nicely paved and landscaped 2-mile loop path suitable to pedestrians and cyclists, and somehow I’d forgotten the interlinking web of gravel paths that wind up and down hills and over brooks, from the Rhododendron Glen, past Azalea Way, to the Woodland Garden.
The best visit this time of year: the J.A. Witt Winter Garden. Here’s a photo essay of blossoms and berries I saw there. You’ll see more as the season progresses, once the witch hazel adds its color and scent.
Whether your cabin fever involves a small island, or if you just live down the street, I highly recommend a trek in Seattle’s Arboretum next time your spirits need a lift.