Some things about life stink, no matter where you live

P1300242Kent Schaefer, Center Island’s handyman and jack-of-all-trades, supervises as the Nuthatch cabin’s septic tank gets pumped out.

IMG_7955GOT A SEPTIC TANK? Then it’s no news to you that life can stink when things go wrong.

When we bought our place on Center Island in the fall of 2003, it was our first investment in a home with a septic system.

It was a relatively new system for a relatively new cabin. It was in the ground. It had passed inspections. What was there to worry about? We didn’t even have to pay pesky monthly sewer fees.

The fact that we visited our cabin only once a month led us to believe that the septic system was fine. “Out of sight, out of mind” never applied more aptly.

After a few years, we got a card in the mail from San Juan County saying our septic system was due for inspection. But we’d hardly used it, and while we have a nice view of the water through the trees, even if our septic tank suffered a catastrophic failure there’s no way any leakage would reach Lopez Sound to harm salmon fingerlings or other sensitive inhabitants of our local biosphere (I thought).

So the reminder card, and, to be honest, the next few after it, got tucked away in a “someday I’ll get to this” file.

Eventually a letter came informing us that, having ignored the previous polite postcards, we would be subject to a fine if we didn’t have the inspection done pretty darn soon.

So, I hired the island handyman to do the inspection ($250). He measured the tank’s gunk, filed a report with the county, and told us we were due for a pumpout, which he could also arrange ($1,000 more). So much for paying no sewer fees. They always get you in the end (so to speak).

Three years later, another card came in the mail. Inspection time again!

It was, ahem, a shitty job, but I wasn’t going to pay $250 to someone else to do the inspection again. I signed up for a free training session with the county and spent a morning in Friday Harbor learning how to do my own septic inspection. Got educated about the scum layer and the sludge layer and why two-ply toilet paper is better than one-ply (other than the fingers-break-through-thin-toilet-paper-and-nobody-wants-that factor). Hint: One-ply dissolves too quickly and can plug up the tiny tubes in your drainage field. (It still seems counterintuitive to me.)

The county septic-system overseer, a guy you might call the Grand Poobah of Poop, got my attention when he told us that our septic system was “the most expensive home appliance we would ever own.”

It’s true. If the septic system fails, we could face a bill of $20,000 to $40,000 to replace it. Oh, crap.

So I went to Lowe’s and got the prescribed lengths of PVC pipe and glued them together to fashion  a DIY sludge-and-scum measuring device. Did the numbers, sent in the report, and found that we were almost due for another pumpout, four years after the first.

A truck from Rainbow Septic Service, of Anacortes, came on a barge to Center Island. It barely fit on our island’s roads.

We were on the cusp. But it was close enough that I contacted my friend the handyman, who put us on “his list.” At his arrangement, a while back a big tank truck came on a barge to Center Island and spent the afternoon gingerly navigating our cow-path roads to pump out the muck and mire generated by a half-dozen island homes, including ours. This time our bill was $1,100. (Everyone’s costs are going up, a guy’s gotta make a profit, that barge doesn’t come cheap, etc.)

I guess it’s better than the outhouse days. A few of those can still be seen, unpainted and unloved, tucked in forlorn thickets behind some of the island’s older cabins. I don’t think any are still in active use. And so far, I’ve not seen any of them tipped over on Halloween.

But you know, things do get kind of slow around here in October… 1-anchor



From micro-farm to table on Center Island

IMG_20200627_091849682-1Our micro-farming has rewarded us with a bushy abundance of kale in a rail-mounted planter, once the squirrels decided it was too healthful for their tastes.

IMG_7955OUR  HORTICULTURAL EFFORTS have met with meager results on our little piece of the rock — until now.

There is a real farm on Center Island, a 10-acre spread not far from our cabin. It is mostly idyllic pasture land dotted with groves of stately madronas and cedars, occupied by happily retired horses and pampered old chickens. Our friend Monique works wonders with her organic garden there and kindly shares occasional treats of cracking-good snap peas or tender crimson strawberries, as well as selling us beautiful brown or greenish-blue eggs, each marked in pencil with the date when laid by one of her “girls.” (It’s a special treat to fry up an egg jotted with “Easter” or “Mother’s Day.”)

Our rocky promontory doesn’t have soil suited to an in-the-ground garden. Efforts at growing vegetables in pots on our deck have mostly met with disappointment, stymied by our property’s limited sunlight (but oh, those gorgeous tall firs!). There were the long-pampered tomatoes that were just finally starting to ripen in September, only to be raided by deer so bold as to clamber on to our cedar deck. All they left behind were tragically denuded stalks — and the gardener’s tears.

But finally, we have success: Kale!

A yard-long planter hung from our deck railing and protected from deer by a strategically placed gate has yielded a nice little crop of vitamin-packed greens, thriving in our cool island climate.

Barbara prepares our hula-kale pizza (with pineapple).

Tonight we enjoyed the first harvest. We dined on Barbara’s delicious homemade pizza trimmed with kale, black olives, pineapple and vegan cheeses.

The only challenge to this horticultural endeavor came early on when a squirrel, hopping along the deck railing on its way to another felonious assault on our birdfeeder, paused to sample a few nibbles of baby kale. Happily, our homegrown greens apparently held no more appeal to the squirrel than they would to a finicky four-year-old of the human variety.

That’s fine with us. We’re ready to move beyond monoculture next year. Anybody know how squirrels feel about spinach? 1-anchor

Connecting in rewarding ways on Father’s Day

Cantwell Father's Day photo 2My dad, Joe Cantwell, was among the legions of young, GI Bill-educated engineers who flocked to Seattle after World War II to work for Boeing. He imparted a love of the outdoors and the Cascade Mountains in his children (from left), Tom, Marcia, Brian and Doug.

IMG_7955TO ALL THE DADS out there, happy Father’s Day.

Barbara and I enjoyed a Skype breakfast with daughter Lillian. We all had waffles. I got a big, sweet dose of love from my wife and daughter, and some sweet gifts as well.

Thinking of my dad recently, I wrote an essay that my alma mater, The Seattle Times, published today (along with photos, including the one above). I’m getting nice comments and emails from old friends as well as people I’ve never met, which is another delightful gift. Here’s a link to the Times piece. 1-anchor

Summertime, when the livin’ is fine

IMG_20200605_100618050_BURST000_COVER_TOP-2Photographed through the windshield,  WeLike’s cabin roof and vintage navigation light form the foreground in this view of the Deception Pass Bridge on a June morning.

IMG_7955SUMMER ARRIVED A DAY EARLY in the San Juans, it seemed. Barbara and I just spent a lovely Friday afternoon sitting outside on our deck, sipping wine, chatting lazily and soaking up sun. Bumblebees nuzzled the magenta foxglove flowers growing on our mossy cliff and birds sang their little hearts out, triumphing over the happily distant but somehow pleasantly domestic buzz of a neighbor’s weed whacker. Ahhh. (Even better that it’s him and not me.)

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, but in this typical Northwest June, rain is in the forecast.

As we finished our wine, the afternoon’s delicious warmth slipped a cog, as we’ve often experienced in these islands, when a breath of cool marine air suddenly whispered in our ears, “I’m the front of the front.”

The exciting news of our Friday came from Jim Smith, a marine canvasmaker on Whidbey Island, who emailed this morning to say that our boat would be ready by day’s end.

WeLike, the restored 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser you see at the top of this blog, needed new clothes — or, to be precise, a new canvas dodger and camper top, the roof and cockpit enclosure that provides shelter from wind, rain and sun.

The old white canvas seemed in good shape when we acquired the boat, and the material remained sound. But a few months ago, the seams all decided to start letting go, like the ripping trousers of a fat man who finally added five pounds too many. If you don’t pay the price for high-quality UV-proof stitching up front, you pay the price later. (Or, in this case, we are paying the price later.)

So WeLike is getting a new top, in UV-proof Sunbrella fabric and using polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) “lifetime” thread, which is supposed to stand up to just about anything the elements can throw at it. Instead of white, the new top will be aquamarine, matching the boat’s topsides.

It’s a big investment, but this will be our island runabout for years to come, and it will also be our vacation vehicle this summer. With COVID-19 truncating other travel plans, we hope to buzz around these islands and do some fun boat camping with our new weatherproof camper top.

The boat has been at Oak Harbor Marina the past two weeks for this project. We plan to go pick it up early next week. I’ll post pictures.

Meanwhile, atop this post is a photo I took two weeks ago when I took WeLike through Deception Pass on the way to Oak Harbor. It’s always a scenic ride going that way.

Happy solstice, wherever you are. To all my Northern Hemisphere readers — enjoy the summer! 1-anchor

P.S. If you’re getting sick of reading about how perfect life can be on our island, you can take comfort in knowing that yesterday a deer climbed on to our deck, walked 15 feet across it to a low-hanging basket of fuchsias that had finally turned the corner in my efforts to keep them healthy, and ate every blossom.

Ever seen a hummingbird nest?

hummingbird nest - CopyThe upraised beaks of two hummingbird chicks are seen protruding from their tiny nest of lichen in this photo taken by John S. Farnsworth, aka Neighbor John the Mad Birder.

IMG_7955THESE TROUBLED TIMES are lightened for us by the wonders of nature, and the continued delight of getting better acquainted with birds as they migrate here and back again, build nests and raise offspring.

Having a next-door neighbor who is such an authority on birds adds to our enjoyment and education. Neighbor John the Mad Birder, as you may have come to know him in these columns, is John S. Farnsworth PhD, an emeritus professor in environmental studies and sciences from California’s Santa Clara University, and a member of the board of Seattle Audubon. John and his wife, Carol Farnsworth, relocated to Center Island about the same time we did.

From their window, Carol recently spotted a hummingbird nest on a limb, maybe eight feet off the ground, of one of the evergreens between our cabins. John shared this photo he captured of a parent and two hatchlings. He also let us get a close-up look through his spotting scope.

The nest is a marvelous construction of lichen lined with moss and spider-web silk to make it soft and cozy.

These are Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna), among the most common hummers on the West Coast. Through the scope, I saw one of the chicks experiment with poking its long tongue out, reaching well into the air like one of those birthday-party noisemakers that you blow into. John said he observed a chick preening at the edge of the nest on Monday, which, according to Cornell University (among the nation’s leading sources of research on birds), indicates the chicks hatched about 20 days earlier.

The Mad Birder estimates they should be ready to leave the nest three or four days from now. 1-anchor

Rosy times in the San Juan Islands — and maybe you can visit in June

P1300319It’s wild-rose time in the San Juans. Stick your nose up to one of these hot-pink Nootka roses for a potent dose of quintessential rose scent. These are seen from our favorite picnic bench on Lopez Island. The San Juan Islands remain closed to non-essential travel because of COVID-19, but are expected to reopen to visitors by mid- to late June. Get updates here, or give us a call on Center Island. 1-anchor

For Memorial Day weekend, it’s time to party in the treetops

IMG_7955A SEATTLE TIMES EDITOR was well-known for her, shall we say, carrying voice and raucous laugh. Even if my colleagues and I never saw her, we all knew when she was in the newsroom, even if she was on the far side of the building.

It’s been like that with the arrival on Center Island this past week of an old friend. So far I’ve heard but not seen this migratory newcomer known for his distinctive song that resembles a farmhand’s pub order after a long day of slopping the hogs: “Quick, three beers!”

Flycatcher IPA SNIP
The label for my latest home brew features John James Audubon’s artistic rendering of an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Yes, it’s every birder’s old drinking buddy, the Olive-sided Flycatcher.

“A little early in the day for me,” I quipped this morning to neighbor John, the Mad Birder, when I heard the unmistakable “three beers” refrain ring out from a nearby tree. Chuckling, he noted that the American Goldfinch, of which Center Island has many right now — including crowds of fumbling, newly fledged youngsters — have a call thought to sound like “potato chip, potato chip.” So, when he hears the two birds together, he’s ready for happy hour.

I have a new home brew that I bottled just about the same day the Flycatchers showed up, so I’ve named the beer accordingly: Flycatcher Quick 3 Beers! IPA.

I should probably have included one of those “Enjoy Responsibly” disclaimers on the label, eh?

Stay safe, stay healthy, and have a good weekend. 1-anchor



A golden day to celebrate moms

P1300305He and she: A male American Goldfinch, at left, pauses at our feeder with a female on the next perch.

IMG_7955WE’RE BOMBARDED WITH GOLDFINCHES on this Mother’s Day on Center Island. And that’s not a bad thing.

After a shared “virtual brunch” with daughter Lillian — Barbara and I on our sunny San Juans deck, Lil aboard our sailboat in Seattle — we’ve spent much of the day sitting outside. We’ve been reading, working crosswords, sipping iced coffee or mineral water, soaking up the warmest day of our year so far, with the thermometer peaking at a pretty perfect 77 degrees F. It rarely gets warmer here.

We’re surrounded by a choir of bird song and a constant rush back and forth to our feeders, with the flippity-flip of songbirds’ wings complementing the mad buzzing of hummingbirds. I have my Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America next to me, striving to identify newcomers by sight or sound. (It just helped me be sure that a female goldfinch wasn’t a pine grosbeak, for example.)

Barbara is now happily baking buns for a barbecue, after watching the dough rise robustly in the outdoor sun.

Happy day to all mothers, human and avian. 1-anchor

P1300260“What are you lookin’ at, buddy?”

The extremely well-behaved eagles of Fisherman Bay

P1300187You’ll be surprised at the number of bald eagles perched on boats moored in Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay, in the San Juans.

IMG_7955BIRD POOP CAN BE A PLAGUE for boats that sit on a mooring ball for months at a time. Sea birds enjoy a good resting spot with a nice view, and their toilet habits often leave a lot to be desired. Sailboat booms and canvas are particularly prone to collecting what you might call guano graffiti.

How to control it? Some boaters use those multi-fingered bird-repelling spikes to turn their vessels into floating porcupines. (Too angry.) Others mount long-armed, wind-driven whirligigs atop their cabins, or hang old CDs to twirl in the wind. (OK, if you like the tech angle. Ineffective on calm days.) At most chandleries, you can buy plastic owls that are supposed to scare away other birds. (I’ve seen gulls perch atop them.)

On Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay, a few bald eagles seem to do the trick.

After looking out during visits to our favorite picnic bench near the bay’s entry spit, I soon realized the eagles perched on the boats in the bay were very quiet and well-behaved. Probably because they are carved and painted.

Nice work by a local craftsman, I’m guessing. And the boats looked pretty clean. 1-anchor

P1300188Look, there’s another eagle!P1300190And another!

Markers of May in our San Juans

P1300134SHE KEEPS RETURNING to the same cozy spot in the grassy meadow in front of our cabin. Maybe in the family way? (Mother’s Day is coming soon.) Or she’s just a little pudgy because there’s so much tasty greenery to munch after our wet winter. I say, “Hello, dear” to my wife, and “hello, deer” to our recurrent visitor.

P1300124I STILL LEARN NEW THINGS in these woods, even after spending most of my life in Washington. Neighbor John (The Mad Birder) helped me identify this low tree with showy white spring flowers that wraps around our woodshed and likes our rocky knoll. It is Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). I’ve never seen its blueberry-like berries, probably because they are said to be popular with birds and squirrels, of which we have plenty.

P1300138UNCURLING NEW FRONDS of swordfern also announce the coming of May here.

P1300149WILD STRAWBERRIES are blooming, too. We don’t get harvestable fruit, but the tiny white eyes among the rocks and open, sunny ground are another happy harbinger of mid-spring.1-anchor