A fallen leaf from our Canadian maple complements the redwood stain on the roof of a railing-mounted birdfeeder in front of Nuthatch cabin. Christmas is two months away.
WeLike bobs at a buoy on Watmough Bay on a perfect October day in the San Juans.
YESTERDAY WAS QUIET, uneventful, and one of the best days of our lives.
Monday I finished, smack dab on deadline, and filed the text, photos and maps for my project for Mountaineers Books.
Tuesday was a perfect October day, and Barbara and I realized: This is why we came to this little island with all its challenges. The sun was shining, maple leaves were golden, a morning fire in the wood stove drove away the cabin’s chill, and by noon we packed a lunch of spaghetti sandwiches — don’t roll your eyes, you don’t know what you’re missing — and jumped in that classic runabout we’ve been using mostly for trips to the Lopez dump (which has its odd pleasures, but that’s another blog post).
A light Northwest wind fluttered the flag at the Center Island dock and rippled the water, but by the time we scooted past Rim, Ram and Rum islands and out Lopez Pass, we were up on plane and found Rosario Strait in a delightfully atypical state — glassy.
Mount Baker, all snowy and gorgeous, soared on the eastern horizon as subtle as fireworks on the Fourth.Mount Baker above Rosario Strait.
I nudged WeLike’s throttle and we zipped gloriously along at 20 knots, which for an old full-keel sailor who could never count on more than 4 knots if the currents weren’t just right, was damned fun.
Our destination, 5 miles from our dock, was Watmough Bay, one of our favorite Lopez Island discoveries, where San Juan County Land Bank, one of the stewards of the place, maintains free mooring buoys.Fall colors frame the Lopez Island shore.
A lone sailboat occupied the bay, a narrow cleft of saltwater at the foot of a 466-foot-high rock cliff called Chadwick Hill that blocks Northwesterlies considerably better than the Berlin Wall blocked democracy. At the hill’s top, wide-winged turkey vultures wheeled on updrafts, never flapping a wing.
We snagged a buoy, broke out our sandwiches, poured steaming tea from a Thermos and reveled in the view of Baker, the nearby splashes of fish and seals, the colorful autumn leaves framing the beach, and the lovely quiet of the place.
After a while, a family from the sailboat went put-putting past in a dinghy on their way from the driftwood-strewn beach back to their boat. Smoke soon billowed from their barbecue and added spice to the autumn air. The sun was so warm we had to drape a towel to make some shade — an OK problem to have in October above 48 degrees north.Barbara sets out sandwiches and soaks up some sun.
We worked a crossword, shot some photos. An hour later, another sailboat motored in past Boulder Island so we slipped our buoy to make room and headed home with a friendly wave.
Back at the cabin Barbara napped in the loft with a warm cat while I got out my Finnish ax and stepped down our salal-bordered path to split some wood as the sun sank in the sky and set Lopez Sound aglitter through our screen of big firs.
Dinner was Barbara’s Singapore Noodles, with a movie, a glass of wine and a little bit of popcorn later as a half-moon lit the sky outside.
Six months ago yesterday was my last day in the newspaper office, I just realized. Did we make the right decision to retire as we did? Maybe so. Maybe so.
In the other gardens
And all up in the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!
Pleasant summer over,
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.
Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!
— Robert Louis Stevenson
Gone are the goldfinches: A fat spotted towhee helps clean up birdseed fallen from our feeder.
OCTOBER MARCHES ON, and as I approach six months of retirement I’m starting to tune in more keenly to the natural cycle on our little piece of the San Juan Islands in a way I never could during 15 years of coming for only one weekend a month.
Now I see changes every day as I climb the path to my writing hut or sit in the big wicker chair in our living room and look out the window to the birds at the feeder. More and more, I’m appreciating the soothing, Walden-like existence at our Nuthatch cabin.
It seldom gets very hot on our island, even in midsummer, but it does get dry. By August the woods were crispy — you could hear it as you walked in the parched duff of dead grass and dry needles.
Now, after a few weeks of frequent rain nature is bouncing back. Thick moss that had dried out like the bristles of a scrub brush is now again plush and emerald-colored. Tiny wild strawberry plants in our yard are back by the hundreds after disappearing into the dust all summer.
On the rocky knoll where I write, delicate ferns and the spiky foliage of dormant wildflowers have reappeared overnight. In a smaller and more subtle way, it’s akin to the spectacular desert blooms you hear about in California and the Southwest — just add water and nature goes berserk.
After autumn rains, soft fronds of fern have emerged among the fallen leaves and rejuvenated mosses on our rocky knoll.
Our bird life has changed with the season, as well. The goldfinch families have moved on and the chickadees that could clean out our feeder in hours are far fewer. In their place we have an immigration explosion of spotted towhees (no oaf-in-chief can put up a border wall to keep them out, thank goodness). The big birds with a splash of robin-like red around their breast and distinctive spots on their wings frequent the understory — skittering around in our salal so loudly at times it makes you wonder if somebody is sneaking up on you through the bushes. They fill the air with a whining call that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes as “a catlike mew.”
They’re entertaining, big enough that their landings keep the boughs of the wild currant that grows out of the rocks just below our deck railing waggling as if in a high breeze. And they seem to prefer to pick up the birdseed that other birds have knocked out of the feeder, so they help clean up our deck. (I’ll get you guys a little tiny pushbroom if you’d just get those last bits out from between the cedar planks…)
Seeming to prosper after an unplanned pruning by a rogue deer, our nasturtiums are putting on a final show of colors of the season.
We’re also enjoying a final, belated showy bloom from the nasturtiums on our deck, in autumn colors of yellow and orange, happily defying any hint of frost to come.
I hope you’re enjoying this season as much as we are.
HERE WE ARE ON THE FINAL DAY OF SEPTEMBER in the Year of Our Gourd. It’s a rainy and cool Sunday on our rock and I’m calling it: the official end of the gardening season on Center Island.
It’s time to report back on how our garden grew, since I know you loyal readers (both of you) have been on the edge of your seats since I posted that piece about our horticultural hopes for what heretofore has been, well, a rock farm.
To sum it up: Good thing we weren’t counting on filling the freezer.
For those of you, ahem, vulgar enough to keep score in such matters, I mentioned that we harvested 102 big ripe tomatoes from my brother’s New Mexico garden recently (and here they are in living color).
From the tomato plants that a friendly neighbor bestowed on us on Center Island, we enjoyed, uh, one ripe tomato before we left for Taos.
But, hey, another was starting to turn a promising pink. We had high hopes for a warm Indian Summer and a rousing finish to the crop upon our return.
Dream on, Farmer McGregor.
We assumed that our island’s munch-mouth deer wouldn’t get bold enough to clamber up on to our cedar deck, which is three steps above ground level, so we left the bucket-grown tomato plants there while we were gone, and our conscientious cat sitter kept them watered. Apparently all was fine until the day we returned to find that a daring deer had indeed climbed on to the deck, like that morning, and positively denuded the tomato vines. Nothing left but sticks. Sigh.
Our experiment with growing pole beans and snap peas from large pots on our upper deck — off the loft, a place no deer could reach without pole vaulting — held promise. Both batches of plants happily climbed the arbor I had strapped to the deck railing and curled and coiled toward the sky on the supplementary maze of strings I stretched here, there and everywhere.
The only problem was that the upper deck gets only about 25 minutes of sunshine a day, thanks to our towering Doug firs. I guess there’s a reason farmers don’t leave trees in the middle of their fields, eh?
So it was pretty much the end of August before the peas and beans even flowered. (I’m sure I saw them shiver occasionally, just out of the corner of my eye.) So far, our bean harvest has totaled: 9. Snap peas: 2. Sigh.
A friend recommended lettuce as a fall crop for our cool, marine-climate island. He even passed along some of his favorite artisanal lettuce seed, which I dutifully sowed six weeks ago in a large planter of rich nursery soil.
Germination rate: Zero.
I’m sure they were wonderful seeds. I think our place just has too much shade and too many cooling breezes. Too bad we can’t bottle some of that and sell it in Phoenix.
For next year, we’re thinking seriously of putting up a little greenhouse. Not just for starting seedlings, but for growing tomatoes and a few other veggies all summer long in a warm, deer-free environment.
And, who knows, we might even put a couple beach loungers in there for those cool July days when we want to work on our tans. Hey, we’ll grow mint for the mojitos.
THE “LAND OF ENCHANTMENT” HAS ITS MOMENTS, especially the wide, wide, blue sky, seen in the panorama from my brother’s back porch outside of Taos.
Barbara and I are back from a week of red rocks, 95-degree days and immersion in the world of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was our first visit to New Mexico, prompted by my brother Doug’s move there last February.
Now, the cool September mornings on Center Island have never felt so good, but we enjoyed a dose of Southwest sagebrush, piñon pines and Pueblo culture.
O’Keeffe, known for her sensuous paintings of New Mexico landscapes, flowers and bleached skulls found in the desert, spent much of her later life at Ghost Ranch and the nearby village of Abiquiu, about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe.
I enjoyed a hike with Doug at Ghost Ranch up to Chimney Rock, which included a view down on O’Keeffe’s former ranch home. The next day we toured the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, for an interesting look at the life of this creative and reclusive personality.
Another highlight was a drive up to Taos Ski Valley, at almost the same 10,100-foot elevation as Camp Muir on Mount Rainier, to see the golden aspens turning color.
We also helped harvest Doug’s rather ostentatious (by Center Island standards) tomato crop, grown with the aid of many drip hoses and long, hot days. The morning we left Taos, we picked 102 ripe tomatoes, some of which went to neighbors and many of which went in his fridge, aimed toward a large batch of spaghetti sauce — and perhaps a bit of saucy New Mexico salsa.
IT’S A SOUL-SOOTHING SUNDAY on Center Island. Cool and cloudy, with light rain freshening the air with a scent like newly laundered sheets hung out to dry.
The post-Labor Day exodus has happened, and the island is quiet. Thirsty trees and parched moss are soaking up the life-giving liquid and the whole place has a nurturing feeling of rest and regeneration after a summer of crowds and dust.
For me, it’s lumberjack season.
The hints of coming winter have prompted me to put down my journalist’s pen — usually just a blue Bic — and pick up an orange-handled Fiskars splitting axe that I swing above my head like a mad conductor carried away by Tchaikovsky.
The Finns know how to make cutting implements. One good whack often renders a nice piece of firewood no longer than 15 inches so it fits in our Lopi wood stove.
I’ve devoted an hour on several recent afternoons to splitting some of the many large rounds of Douglas fir that we’ve stacked up over the past two years from trees that have come down on our property. Our island community has a gas-powered hydraulic wood splitter I could rent that would probably finish the job in a day. But I get such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from stacking wood I’ve cut myself. And instead of gas fumes, I just breathe the sweet perfume of pitch and sawdust.
Wood is our primary source of heat in The Nuthatch, and this will be the first winter in which we’ll have burned a fire every day instead of just on our monthly visits. I have no idea whether we’ll have enough firewood. So I chop. And when I think about winter and get a little nervous, I go chop some more.
It’s therapy, of a sort. And it beats the heck out of sitting in an office. Come December, I’ll let you know how the wood supply is holding up.
Meanwhile, in the immortal words of the Monty Python crew, I’m a lumberjack, and I’m OK. (And I am not hanging around in bars.)
“Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” — Henry Ford
NEXT WEEK: Posting from New Mexico, as Barbara and I visit my brother who recently moved to Taos. I’m told the jackrabbits are Paul Bunyan-size, and one can enjoy a game of “Spot the Coyote” while quaffing morning coffee on the deck.
ADMITTEDLY, WE OCCASIONALLY broke out into some von Trapp Family singing, because how can you not when confronted with the alpine wonders of the North Cascades on a sunny day at the end of August?
Daughter Lillian (who is just about to turn 27) and I took off together for a couple days of pre-Labor Day camping and hiking that was a delightful chance to renew our bonds while enjoying some of the most magnificent mountain scenery anywhere.
I was a little shocked to realize it was Lilly’s first time crossing the North Cascades Highway, testimony to the fact that boats and water-borne vacations have dominated my family’s life in the past couple decades. Now that we live closer to that part of the world, we plan to make up for lost trail time.
We had originally planned to go for a couple nights of backpacking in the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness, southeast of Mount Baker, but the fact that Lilly was getting over a cold and the weather forecast for the area was damp and in the 40s put the kibosh to that plan. So I cooked up a last-minute Plan B, which involved car camping at Klipchuck Campground, in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near the west end of the sunny-and-much-warmer Methow Valley.
Wildfires were burning within 20 miles or so to the north and south, but I counted on predicted west winds to keep the area smoke-free, and hoped that the campground’s relative obscurity (it’s a mile off Highway 20) and its first-come, first-served policy would allow us to find a campsite on the Thursday before Labor Day.
Still, I was a little edgy about finding a campsite so we didn’t tarry as we drove across the high mountains that day. But not to worry. We arrived on a sunny afternoon to find only 3 of the 46 campsites occupied. We took our time choosing our favorite! And not a puff of smoke to be seen the three days we were there.
That first night, I let her beat me at a round of Munchkin, one of her favorite fantasy card games (I did at least win the Potion of General Studliness). We played late into the night at the picnic table by lantern-light, before retiring under a sky lit up by the Milky Way.
The, ahem, peak experience was our day hike on Friday. We tackled the challenging but
oh-so-worth-it Maple Pass loop trail, circling pretty emerald-green Lake Ann and soaring to ridgetops offering in-your-face encounters with too many rugged mountaintops to count. It was a little more than 7 miles, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain on tracks often resembling mountain-goat paths. Having camped not far away the previous night, we got a relatively early start when it was mostly just us, the “meep”-ing pikas and a few curious Clark’s nutcrackers.
We sang a hiking song or two, nibbled blue huckleberries near the lake, admired late-season wildflowers and sat on a rocky promontory to munch on multigrain Wasa crackers topped with ripe avocado, roasted-pepper hummus and dijon mustard (the perfect hiking lunch).
At the tiptop, elevation 6,650 feet, we watched discreetly from a distance as a young man obviously asked his happily tearful sweetie to marry him. As they passed us on the trail later we offered congratulations.
At hike’s end, Lil and I trundled back to our campsite to soak our feet and chill some beer cans in nearby Early Winters Creek. (Let the name guide you as to the water temperature. Froze the feet but got the beer nice and cold!)
It was a great trip, and I finally got to break in my new Vasque hiking boots, a parting gift from my friends at The Seattle Times. (Sure footing all the way, and not a blister. Thanks again!) Back on Center Island now for Labor Day. Cheers!