A Northern flicker grabs a December snack from a suet cage hanging from the eaves of Nuthatch cabin. Of the woodpecker family, mostly we get downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, but occasionally one of these flashy dressers drops by. This is a female, distinguished by lack of a red stripe across the cheek, as seen on males of this red-shafted (Western) species.
Bucolic beauty of late autumn: I grabbed this shot of Mount Baker last time I drove across the Skagit Valley on my way home to the San Juans.
HEADING INTO THE HOLIDAYS, somehow we feel busy even in our island hermitage, where the only other life forms we see some days this time of year are fat spotted towhees on our deck railing and hairy woodpeckers hanging on the suet cage. (Who knew they made a squeak like a cat toy while eating?) We’re busy making lots of plans to get together with friends and family.
We already have our Christmas tree, with plans to put it up on Saturday when Barbara is back from a round of doctor visits in Seattle.
Though our Christmas is more a celebration of solstice and a good excuse to brighten winter’s cold, short days, we go whole hog with Christmas traditions. It’s how we were brought up. And we do a pretty spectacular tree, festooned with ornaments collected over decades, inherited from parents and grandparents, souvenirs of travels, knitted and sewed, or picked up from the forest floor (including a new bunch of nice Ponderosa pine cones I fetched home from a trip to Winthrop in September).
In recent years, we got our tree from places like Home Depot, which wasn’t very satisfying. We tried to find a good u-cut tree farm, but many seem to sell out the weekend after Thanksgiving, which has always felt a little early for us.
This year, serendipity stepped in. When Barbara and I took our boat to Lopez Island last weekend for a little shopping and a trip to the dump, we found a tree lot set up by the Lopez 4-H Club. The trees were, ahem, island priced. But we decided it was a lot easier to stuff a tree into WeLike and get it home in a half hour than to wrap it and tie it on to the car for a freeway trip home from our next visit to Seattle.
And it was much more satisfying to give our money to the 4-H kids on the next island than to the big store headquartered in Atlanta. We came home with a pretty Nordmann fir. I gave it a fresh cut with the chainsaw and it’s sitting out back in a bucket of water, smelling spicy and good, waiting to be the centerpiece of our December celebrations.
Our traditions keep evolving the longer we live on our rock. I think we’re becoming islanders. And our cats are more and more intrigued by the woodpeckers.
With the aid of a telephoto lens, Mount Rainier dwarfs the Tacoma skyline and ships on Commencement Bay, as seen from Dune Peninsula, a newly opened annex of Point Defiance Park.
I’ve been fortunate to hook up with Journey, the magazine published by AAA of Washington, for which I’m working on three freelance travel-writing assignments.
One is a little piece for their website, part of a series of day-trip getaways. This one focuses on Tacoma.
So on Wednesday I visited Tacoma for a fresh look. And this town, which many Seattleites a few decades ago sneered at as the armpit of Puget Sound, continues to surprise me. Among other things, I found a newly minted section of its famous Point Defiance Park dubbed Dune Peninsula, which opened in June. It’s a gorgeous park of waterfront paths, sweeping lawns and dramatic earthscapes created on a former Superfund site where the now-defunct ASARCO copper smelter once dumped its slag. The name “Dune” comes from the futuristic novel by Tacoma native Frank Herbert, whose tale set on a harsh and inhospitable desert planet is said to have been influenced by his life experience in Tacoma in the 1950s, when it was one of the nation’s most polluted cities.
Among Dune Peninsula’s attractions, on a clear day such as I experienced on Wednesday, is perhaps the best panoramic view of Mount Rainier that you’ll get anywhere (as seen above). That this showcase piece of parkland grew from a toxic waste dump is an inspiring tale of rejuvenation.
When AAA publishes the piece online in a couple months, I’ll post a link so you can read all about it.
“Sipping this spiced amber ale is like drinking a slice of pie,” according to Northern Brewer, the outfit from which I order my beer ingredients. Spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, it’s flavored to fit right into the autumn menu. Barbara and I shared the first bottle this afternoon. And who says pumpkin pie doesn’t go with a bowl of corn chips and roasted almonds?
A pair of trumpeter swans swims in a Lopez Island marsh off Fisherman Bay Road. They winter here after spending summer breeding months in Canada or Alaska.
HONK! HONK! The Lopez trumpeters have arrived.
We’ve always enjoyed the migrant populations of trumpeter swans in the Skagit Valley every winter. These birds, stretching up to 6 feet in length, are North America’s largest native waterfowl.
It’s a stirring sight when two or more fly overhead with their long, snowy necks outstretched and giant wings spread wide, often filling the cold autumn air with a honk that, to be honest, sounds more like a Model T Ford than a brass trumpet. Gives you shivers, nonetheless.
In our first autumn in the San Juans, a year ago, we were pleased to discover that Lopez Island is another stop for wintering trumpeters. A small population inhabits a wide mid-island wetland just off Fisherman Bay Road, a couple miles south of Lopez Village.
A few weeks ago we saw the first arrivals, coming from summer breeding grounds in coastal Alaska and Canada. This week we returned with my camera, and counted about a dozen of the big birds.
Once hunted to near-extinction because their plumes were valued for quill pens and women’s hats in the 18th and 19th centuries, trumpeters are now considered a “recovering” species.
Whenever we visit Lopez in the colder months, we make sure to drive Fisherman Bay Road and listen for the Model Ts in the sky. That’s “T” for trumpeter.
- Trumpeters take an unusual approach to keeping their eggs warm, covering them with their webbed feet. That makes sense since sitting on them might be hazardous, as adult trumpeters can weigh more than 25 pounds.
- The trumpeter’s scientific name, Cygnus buccinator, is from the Latin Cygnus (swan) and buccinare (to trumpet). Humans have a buccinator muscle in our cheeks — used to blow out candles and to blow into trumpets and other musical instruments.
— thanks to The Cornell Lab’s website, allaboutbirds.org
Center Island’s oldest apple tree still bears lots of fruit, enough for many of us to share.
FIRE-HOSE RAIN AND WHIRLING WINDS have been November’s trademark for years in the Pacific Northwest. But the first eight days after Halloween this year were some of the prettiest of our island autumn.
The falling maple leaves, dry and spicy of scent, were the kind you could kick your way through with a satisfying scrunch. Center Island’s oldest apple tree gave us more than one bag of crimson fruit destined for pie and Brown Betty. And I had a bonus week of firewood gathering for the winter, after going in halfsies on a new Husqvarna chainsaw with neighbor John, the other charter member of the Center Island Writer’s Guild. (Seeing the two of us with our new saw and accompanying shiny new safety gear, one island wag dubbed us “Paul” and “Bunyan.” He didn’t say who was “Bunyan.”)
If not for her blue harness, our Galley Cat would almost disappear among fallen leaves on our knoll.
But if the birds and squirrels know anything, we could get a blizzard any day now. They’ve been in feeding frenzies all week, hoovering up the sunflower seeds from our feeders and gobbling suet blocks like they were Pop Tarts.
Squirrels literally ate the face off our Halloween jack o’lantern.
Today, rain arrived, but on Carl Sandburg’s cat feet, not with galumphing galoshes. A misty, quiet Saturday, perfect for a fire in the woodstove, Van Morrison on the stereo and bottling my latest batch of beer (Lopez Pumpkin, ready to uncap just in time for Thanksgiving).
Hatches are battened. Let the storms do their worst.
A squirrel dines on the remains of our jack o’ lantern, sitting on a stump next to Trudy, a garden bunny who followed us from our Bremerton house to the San Juans. Pumpkin beer is on our Thanksgiving menu. The squirrels don’t get any.
I was going to carve our jack o’ lantern this year to look like Rudy Giuliani, with the bug eyes and hornrimmed glasses. But Barbara said it would be too scary. So I just did the bug eyes.
AS MAPLE LEAVES DRIFT to the ground like lazy snowflakes in the watery autumn sun, and fewer and fewer of our island neighbors are spending time at their holiday cabins, Center Island is feeling more and more like Sleepy Hollow.
We’re off to my sister-in-law Margaret’s annual costume party in Shoreline. Happy Halloween.
Ghost bird? As I snapped this photo of a chestnut-backed chickadee chowing down at our feeder, another bird flitted by just in synch with my camera shutter, leaving a birdie blur in the center of the photo. Or was it… something else?
Each grape-like hardy kiwi has a stem that requires removal with a quick pinch and twist.
THIS OCTOBER IS QUIET IN THE SAN JUANS, except for the wind and rain.
Even on our little rock, it’s harvest time. Our friend Monique, who lives on the Center Island farm, brought us a flat of hardy kiwi fruit, part of 20 pounds that she picked from her vines. Saturday, we built a fire in the woodstove, stayed inside out of the rain and made kiwi/lime marmalade.
These hardy kiwis are smooth-skinned and grape-like, distinguished from the big fuzzy kiwi fruit you buy in the supermarket. Inside, they are very much like other kiwi fruit: bright green with black seeds, but perhaps a little sweeter and less astringent in character. We found that making marmalade from them was work-intensive, suited to a moist autumn afternoon, because each “berry” must have the stem twisted off by hand. But you don’t need to peel them; the skin is edible.
We ended up with 13 jars. We’re going to try it on crumpets for dessert tonight.
Late Saturday afternoon, the sky cleared and I went for a walk with my camera and found some scenes haunting in their beauty. Perfect for October.
Late afternoon sun piercing the conifer woods on Center Island backlights the showy colors of a bigleaf maple.
I had another apt October moment earlier in the week when Barbara was in Seattle and I was baching it with the cats. Late one night, I had turned off lights and was about to head for bed when I suddenly heard a soft, disembodied voice from out of the darkness, vaguely familiar, saying, “Hello, hello, is anybody there?” After momentarily wondering if The Nuthatch Ghost had finally chosen to manifest its ghoulish presence, and preparing myself to see the knotty-pine walls bleed and all that sort of thing, I realized the muffled voice was coming from a pocket of my jeans.
Prying my phone out of my pocket, there was daughter Lillian’s face, looking puzzled (and, really, a little ghoulish because she was in dim light). OK, everybody knows about accidental “butt calls” with a cellphone. But I think I may have made history with the world’s first ever Butt Skype.
I don’t know how that was even possible. I have enough trouble Skyping intentionally.
Next time anybody says “boo,” I’ll just ask “boo who?”
Center Island neighbors come in to land their small plane Saturday evening, as other Center Island neighbors graze the airfield.
Our Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, alongside an autumn bouquet of golden maple leaves, sea grass, crimson rose hips, salal and quaking aspen we gathered along Center Island roadsides in Monday’s sunshine.
HAPPY CANADIAN THANKSGIVING, a day late.
Maybe it’s because we live on a small island where there isn’t enough to do. But it’s also because my dear wife, Barbara, loves to cook, especially sage-rich dressing, butternut squash, cranberry sauce and savory mushroom gravy. So when we sparked on celebrating Canada’s Thanksgiving this year, on the second Monday of October, the day after the Hunter’s Moon lit up the night sky, the idea resonated like Diana Krall singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Mind you, our special dinner wasn’t in place of the traditional American observance on the fourth Thursday of November. This just gave us an excuse to cook and eat a bunch of that good food twice as often.
There’s some justification, too, in that Barbara’s Grandpa Burns was from Nova Scotia. And these days reverting to her Canadian roots has more and more appeal to her. (But that’s a whole other rant.)
From an embarrassingly quick read of Wikipedia, I’ll tell you that Canadians eat pretty much the same menu for their harvest celebration as folks south of their border, though the everyman’s encyclopedia notes that their variations on turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie might include baked ham, salmon, wild game, something endearingly known as Jiggs dinner (corned beef and cabbage, named after a now obscure comic-strip character who liked it), apple pie and, yes, even the occasional gooey Nanaimo bar. Oh, Canada!
Our Monday repast didn’t include turkey or anything Mr. Jiggs liked, because we pretty much eat vegan these days. But the plant-based bratwurst from the Beyond Meat folks, served with a nice truffle mustard, went quite nicely with sage dressing and all that other good stuff.
Alas, we had nothing in the cabin with which to celebrate Nanaimo, which happens to be Diana Krall’s birthplace, just 68 miles northwest of here as the pigeon guillemot flies.
Maybe next year, eh?
Scattered on and around vintage farm machinery — some of which might still be used on occasion — October pumpkins are offered for sale at Horse Drawn Farm on Lopez Island.
IT WAS A DUMP DAY.
Those words don’t carry magic for most people, but we love our trips to Lopez Island, usually prompted by the need to dispose of trash and recycling at the Lopez Dump.
We buzzed the three miles across Lopez Sound on a pristine autumn Friday with a cloudless sky, calm air and flat waters. After a couple weeks of idleness, WeLike’s new Evinrude purred the way our cat Bosun does when we’re dishing up his favorite fishy Friskies. Once we arrived at the Hunter Bay public dock, Ranger Rick, the teenaged Ford pickup that serves as our Lopez wheels, started on the first crank. How many 15-year-olds are that cooperative?
I quickly settled in to the wave-a-friendly-index finger mantra of Lopezian driving each time we passed another car. Whenever I drive on the mainland now I have to quell the impulse to wave at passing drivers. It’s too bad, really.
We took care of business at the dump, then picked up a cinnamon roll and some cookies from Holly B’s and Americanos to go from the Lopez Coffee Shop, next door. (While I was waiting for the coffee, a local teen came in the back door and asked the owner if there was any little job he could do in exchange for a free drink. He was soon emptying trash cans. A nice little slice of island life.)
We then drove toward our favorite lunch spot at the Fisherman Bay Spit to enjoy the Kicken Salad sandwiches Barbara had packed. “Kicken” is a term recalled from our daughter’s toddler years, when she couldn’t say “chicken.” We now use it to refer to imitation chicken made from mycoprotein. With mayo and chopped green onion, we can’t tell the difference, and it’s our new favorite picnic food. No hormones or cholesterol, and no cluckers bought the farm.
Along our route, great blue herons waded in shallows edging the narrow isthmus between San Juan Channel and Fisherman Bay. The heather-like ground cover on the tideflats shone with colors of amber and cranberry in the bright October sunshine.
As we munched at our customary bench, where we usually see nobody else, a couple suddenly appeared from around a rock and strolled directly in front of us, stopping a short way down the embankment for a lengthy drinking in of the view of sparkling water, moored boats and autumn colors at the entrance to Fisherman Bay. “Hmmm, whose personal space can we invade today?” I mimicked snarkily, sotto voce, to Barbara.
When they finally departed, the woman apologized for intruding. “It’s a beautiful view,” I said, forgivingly. Starting to walk away, she suddenly turned on impulse and asked, “Do you live here?” We explained that we were from the next island over. “We’re from Montana, and this is all new to us, so we’re just taking this in for the first time,” she said wistfully.
“Enjoy your visit!” I called after her, feeling about two feet tall.
After lunch, we made our October pilgrimage to Horse Drawn Farm, our favorite farm stand, on Port Stanley Road. I picked out a pumpkin for our Halloween jack o’lantern and Barbara filled a bag with field-fresh produce.
A stop at the wonderful Lopez Library, a bit of supermarket shopping, then back to the boat for a smooth ride home with a full-on view of snowy Mount Baker looming beyond the opening of Lopez Pass.
Just a Dump Day.