Thorny issues in the San Juans: unexpected cactus and a lovelorn bear

P1250972.JPGA blooming miracle? Actually, it’s Western Washington’s only native cactus, which prospers in the dry San Juan Islands. Note the green bug investigating the upper flower.

IMG_7955CACTUS IN MOSSY WESTERN WASHINGTON? Really? Did we take a wrong turn at Albuquerque? Sometimes you just have to go see for yourself.

So the other day we asked fellow islanders Dan and Lisa Lewis if they’d take us over to their favorite beach on neighboring Decatur Island and show us the cactus they insisted existed.

We piled in to their big RIB, which stands for “rigid inflatable boat,” meaning it’s basically a Zodiac but with an aluminum, v-shaped bottom that helps it get up and plane. With a 50-horse Suzuki on the transom it scoots faster than a bird-feeder-raiding raccoon pelted by pine cones.

Barbara packed sandwiches for our exploration party and on the way to the dock we stopped by the Center Island farm stand for a carton of fresh ruby-red strawberries. Sweetest you ever tasted.P1250935.JPGStrawberries from Monique and Chris Maas’ Center Island farm helped fuel our explorations.

In less than 10 minutes from the Center Island dock our friend Dan powered the RIB’s prow up on to a sandy tombolo, a driftwood-strewn, tide-washed isthmus connecting rocky headlands at the south end of Decatur Island. This was the showpiece of San Juan Preservation Trust’s 56-acre Kimball Preserve, set aside in its natural beauty for perpetuity. Looking out on the rushing tidal waters of narrow Lopez Pass and to Rosario Strait beyond, the beach is sheltered by the headlands and can be peaceful even on a windy day.

P1250942.JPGBarbara hides behind her sandwich as we lunch with Lisa and Dan Lewis on the tombolo in Kimball Preserve.

We perched on logs and folding chairs and devoured lunch while trading stories, such as the time the Lewises forgot to tie up their RIB here and looked up from a beach log to see their tide-snatched ride disappearing around the point.

That was (unfortunately) also the occasion when they discovered the cactus, as they scrambled in panic to keep their boat in sight. Lisa’s sandaled feet bore the prickly testimony, she recalled with a groan. Eventually, a passing boater returned their RIB, but only after current had sent it shooting out toward the wide waters of Rosario Strait.

After lunch, we went to see the flora phenom. Wandering out on the western headland on an old deer path just above the waterline, we skirted twisted old fir snags that looked to be perfect perches for eagles. Wildflowers slowed me down as I pointed my camera every which way. “There’s a camas flower, the blue one!” I called. “Camas, Washington, was named for it, and Indians used to eat the roots,” I told Lisa and Dan, who formerly lived in the nearby Oregon town of Boring, one of America’s great place names. (My other favorite Oregon town name: Drain, as in “circling the.”)

P1250982.JPGWildflowers abound in Kimball Preserve on Decatur Island.

Emerging on rocks bristling with reindeer lichen, Dan and Lisa soon brought us to a wide panorama of water and islands, looking in at Lopez Sound. And at our feet, wide patches of ground-hugging prickly pear cactus.

“And look, this time it’s blooming!” Lisa cried, stepping gingerly.

Sure enough, this was cactus-flower season. Big blossoms of lemon yellow softened the thorny visage of the pincushion-like plant. An unexpected bonus for us Sunday-afternoon explorers.

It was testimony to what we already knew: Thanks to the Olympic Mountains rain-shadow, our island home gets more sun and a lot less rain than drizzly Seattle (about 20 inches per year here, about 36 in the city). Dan and Lisa had stumbled (literally) on a patch of Opuntia fragilis, or brittle prickly pear, the only cactus native to Western Washington. It is found around Sequim, Port Townsend, Whidbey Island and the San Juans. There is actually a small group called the Cactus Islands northwest of us, between Speiden and Johns islands. Be careful landing your inflatable on those little rocks.

Before heading home, Dan pulled out his phone and showed us photos of a bear recently seen nearby on Decatur. It was a rather famous black bear that had swum between islands from Whidbey to Fidalgo to Orcas to San Juan to Lopez to Decatur. It finally swam to the mainland and roved as far as a neighborhood in Mount Vernon, 23 miles away, before being captured June 1 by wildlife officers and transplanted to the North Cascades. Distinctive markings convinced officials it was the same bear. The theory: Yogi was looking for love in all the wrong places.

I think we need that bear for the next Olympics. Sounds like a medalist swimmer to me.

I just hope he’s found a girlfriend after all that looking. 1-anchor

IMG_1711 - Copy.jpgA weary black bear walks the beach on Decatur Island after touring the San Juans in a fruitless search for a mate.


Don’t be a maroon, try rowing in June (is it here so soon?)

P1250884.JPGWe glide out of Swantown Marina on National Learn to Row Day. Jean Farber perches in the bow (left), with me just behind her. Daniel Farber is amidships in the burgundy sweatshirt. My wife, Barbara, was our event photographer.

IMG_7955THIS OLD DOG LEARNED A NEW TRICK on a recent visit to our friends Daniel and Jean Farber in Olympia.

“It’s National Learn to Row Day, and the local rowing club is offering free lessons on Budd Inlet, want to try it?” enthused Jean, a soon-to-be-retired teacher whom I had never suspected might become an aficionado of the oar and the eight.

So we headed down to Port of Olympia’s Swantown Marina on a calm and cloudy morning at 8:30 to sign up for a spot on a 10:40 a.m. outing with Olympia Area Rowing (OAR).

The Olympia club, based in an impressive little warehouse chock full of rowing shells of every size and construction, has been doing these recruiting demonstrations for years, and they were a model of good organization.

We started with a guided tour of their facility and learned that the big fiberglass, eight-person shell we would take out was valued at about $30,000, so they politely requested we not wreck it.

We then jumped on to ergometers for a warmup session and lesson on how to sequentially pull with our legs and back while not tangling the oar in our knees as they pumped up and down (tougher than it sounds!).

P1250854.JPGOur vessel bore the name “Salmon & The Seal,” with corresponding Salish tribal images.

Four experienced club rowers, plus a veteran coxswain, then joined four of us newbies in the boat, so each of us would have a model to mimic as we learned the technique. Jean and I were in the bow; Daniel was in seat 6; Barbara was our on-shore photographer.

After 45 minutes on the lovely smooth water that morning, with the state capitol dome on the horizon, I can’t say our crew was quite a well-oiled machine (a few oars splashed and we weren’t always in sync). But we returned the boat in one piece and all learned the basics. Jean, the new water nymph of Budd Inlet, said she wanted to sign up for more.  cropped-1-anchor.jpg

P1250923.JPGHappy on the water: Intrepid rowers Brian, left, and Jean.

Perfect picnic spots are one of the finer things in life

P1250827.JPGLolling in the shadows of a tree and reading a good book is a fine way to let your picnic lunch digest at Fisherman Bay Preserve on Lopez Island.

IMG_7955WE CAN SEE LOPEZ ISLAND from The Nuthatch cabin, and when we get island fever, we go visit.

A picnic lunch is often involved.

Lately, we’ve returned more than once to a perfect picnic spot with a view of the entrance of Fisherman Bay, with Lopez Village on the far shore. It’s an old farm site, with only the rock fireplace and chimney surviving from the farmhouse, plus a few ancient apple trees and a lovely wide swath of meadow that slopes down to the water. The property is a San Juan County Land Bank site called Fisherman Bay Preserve — The Spit. That’s all I’m telling; beyond that, you’ll have to find it on your own.

Perfect picnic spots are supposed to be hard to find. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

P1250791.JPGBarbara passes the old farmhouse site as she carries a crusty baguette from Holly B’s Bakery, one of our favorite haunts in Lopez Village.

P1250805.JPGWild bushes of Nootka rose surround our picnic site, with their sweet aroma pungent on the breezes. Come visit, and we’ll take you there.


Free is a very good ferry fare

Friday Harbor ferry.jpgWalk-on passengers get ready to board a state ferry in Friday Harbor. Between islands, walk-ons need no ticket, we’ve learned.

IMG_7955THIS WEEK WE DISCOVERED a good trick to know if you live on a remote island: how to play tourist without it costing more than a trifling bit of gas money (to get there, anyway).

We visited Friday Harbor, the San Juan Islands’ most popular tourist town, had lunch with a friend, did a little shopping, and got back home in time for dinner, letting someone else do most of the piloting.

Here’s how it works:

We take our boat, the WeLike, from Center Island to the Hunter Bay public dock on Lopez Island, just a couple miles across the water, and tie up for the day. From there we take our stored pickup truck, known as Ranger Rick (yes, it’s a Ford Ranger), to the Lopez Island ferry dock and park it in the free day-parking lot. Then we walk aboard the Friday Harbor-bound state ferry for the hour-long ride, with stops at pretty Shaw and Orcas islands.

Turtleback Mt.jpg

A nice view of Orcas Island’s Turtleback Mountain (with the turtle head on the left), as seen from the state ferry.

What we didn’t realize before: Washington State Ferries doesn’t charge walk-on passengers traveling from one island to another in the San Juans. It’s not worth their trouble, I guess. So “ha, ha,” say we! Now’s our chance to get back all the ferry fares we paid over the years, like when we lived in Bremerton and worked in Seattle.

And because Friday Harbor is quite walkable, you don’t need a car. Or if you wish to see more of the island, you can hop on one of two island shuttles, and have lunch in Roche Harbor. Or go crazy and rent a moped (maybe next time).

It beats taking our own boat that far and having to find (and pay for) dock space. We’re retired folk, you know. Squeezing pennies until Abe screams is becoming a finely honed new talent. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

ferry view.jpg

It’s still the islands’ quiet season, as this view from the ferry’s stern testifies, with nary another vessel in sight.



If we can make it there, we’ll make it anywhere

P1250495.JPGAs more skyscrapers rise, the rest of Manhattan doesn’t look so far below anymore, from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

IMG_7955FROM 35,000 FEET OVER MONTANA – We island-dwelling hermits re-earned our merit badges as urban navigators this morning, departing on foot from our hotel on New York’s Upper West Side at 5:30, when the only other people on the Broadway sidewalks were a few guys washing down shopfronts with garden hoses and one early-rising hot-dog vendor just starting to get his relish, mustard and ketchup organized for the day.

From 79th Street, we made our way south on the No. 1 subway to Penn Station, then caught the commuter train to Newark Liberty International Airport, transferred to the airport tram, and sat down to wait at our Alaska Airlines gate by 7:30 a.m., each with a cup in hand of the hot, brown, taste-free liquid that masquerades as coffee in New Jersey. A whole hour to spare before boarding our flight home to Seattle, and we didn’t have to ask directions once.

We’d seen a lot the previous day, on our final full day in the big city. Best choice we made: Going to the top of the Empire State Building (Barbara’s first time) at 9 in the morning, just as the sun was burning away morning clouds. No lines for the elevator at that hour. And the golden morning light was still good for photos. Barbara and Lillian got a kick out of looking down at rooftop gardens on buildings all around us. I got a kick out of checking my watch to see how quickly the elevator rocketed upward (79 stories in less than an ear-popping minute).

P1250591.JPGLillian and I explore the High Line, a former above-the-street rail line preserved with lovely plantings and outdoor art, near the Hudson River shore west of the Empire State Building.

The next adventure on the agenda Lil had set out for us was a trek on the High Line, the former elevated rail line – now an above-the-streets walking path — that has become a major hit with residents and visitors alike. The 22-block walk retains many of the old train tracks and ties, lined with public art and lovely plantings of forget-me-nots, hellebores and more. We found a private bench among leafy trees and picnicked on salads and olives from Zabar’s deli, with blooming trilliums at our feet. Delightful, and unexpected.

Late that afternoon, we finished our day with a tour of the T-Rex special exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History on the edge of Central Park. It was one of the better interactive exhibitions I’ve seen about the king of lizards. Lil and I had fun playing with a sound mixer that let us experiment with what the dinosaur’s roar might have sounded like (we blended bits of sea lion, some bison bellows, crocodile grunts, and even some loon laughs — the dinos were related to birds, after all). We also got a kick out of a virtual-reality set-up that had us donning goggles and manipulating handsets to help “assemble” a T-Rex skeleton, which then came to life before our goggled eyes and gave us a few good thrills and chills. (I had to duck when it tried to bite my head off.)

P1250720.JPGTwenty-seven-year-old Lillian measures up to a four-year-old T-Rex at the American Museum of Natural History.

After a delicious dinner of gourmet tacos at Cafe Frida, Barbara chose to put her feet up back at the hotel while Lil and I strolled through blooming gardens of bleeding heart and fragrant azalea among the rocky landscapes of Manhattan’s Riverside Park. As we watched the sun set over the Hudson, where sailboats bobbed at moorings, it was a happy conclusion to an urban adventure on an island very different from our own. 1-anchor

Sailing across New York

P1250313.JPGRidiculously tall new skyscrapers tower over New York’s Central Park, where model sailboats take a more modest scale.

IMG_7955MY DAUGHTER HAS ALWAYS LOVED SAILING but little did she know it could be so much fun on a pond in New York’s Central Park — when the boat is radio-controlled and not much bigger than a skateboard.

I could hardly tear Lillian away from the controls as our half-hour rental wound down.

We weren’t sure we’d be able to sail at all; the pond was wind-free as we arrived shortly before the rental operation’s 11 a.m. opening. But at 10:55, a ripple broke the mirror-like calm that reflected some of the ridiculously tall and skinny skyscrapers that are now being constructed in Manhattan. We took the controls of Sailboat 800 (we renamed it the Rosabella, after a favorite sea chantey) and enjoyed piloting the boat all over the pond.

P1250378.JPGA classic yacht carries sightseers past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

Later in the day we watched a lifesize sailboat — carrying tourists — skimming a bigger body of water as it passed the Statue of Liberty and nearby Ellis Island. From Battery Park at the south tip of Manhattan, we enjoyed the spectacle of tour boats weaving in and out among these iconic landmarks of American immigration. Barbara recalled that her grandmother from Hungary came through Ellis Island as a young woman of 19, determined to make a life here.

No walls kept her out. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but her family made a good life here, thanks to a nation that at that time took that statue’s symbolism to heart. 1-anchor


And now, for something completely different

P1250182Don’t get this guy mad: The 30-foot animatronic gorilla puppet called Kong had an amazing number of facial expressions, but his vocabulary mostly consisted of roars like a T-Rex. In front, the puppeteers who made him move take a bow in the glare of the footlights.

IMG_7955I’M CALLING IT “urban immersion therapy,” and our five days in New York City are definitely a change from spending the winter on Center Island.

It’s good to shake things up now and then.

My family and I definitely got a good shaking (from sound waves) on Sunday when we went to see the Broadway musical version of “King Kong.”

We considered catching a more intellectual show, but daughter Lillian convinced us when she posed the question, “How can you pass up a 30-foot-tall animatronic gorilla puppet?”

Especially one that, when riled, beats his chest and roars like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park? (See a YouTube “trailer” here.) It’s just about enough to blow you out of your seat.

The matinee was a great way to spend a rainy Sunday in Manhattan. And Monday, when the sun shone beautifully, we sailed a model boat in Central Park and went to see the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. More on that to come, with further reports from Gotham City.  cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Warm and lazy days (before heading to the metropolis)

P1250086.JPGLatest additions to the writing hut: a handpainted mailbox from the Lopez dump (who knows what will show up in there!) and a twirling butterfly wind toy from Cannon Beach.

IMG_7955BUTTERCUPS, WILD STRAWBERRIES AND INDIAN PLUM are blooming around The Nuthatch cabin this week. The redwood sorrel I planted from Swanson’s Nursery is doing well, too, with its dainty flowers like pale pink confetti. And star-petaled camas flowers mirrored the lapis lazuli blue sky on a recent visit to Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island.

Today I’m glorying in an afternoon with the door and window wide open in Wee Nooke, my writing hut atop our rocky knoll, as Galley, our little ginger girl cat, wanders in and out for Tasty Chicken Flavor kitty treats.

Thankfully, Galley seems to have given up her recent habit of bringing live garter snakes in and dropping them at my feet. Perhaps my leaping about and yelling that I REALLY didn’t want them finally convinced her. I hope I didn’t seriously wound her gift-giving good intentions, but some habits need nipping in the bud.

P1250042.JPGCamas flowers are in bloom on the banks of San Juan Channel, on Lopez Island.

Snakes aside, on Center Island we’re enjoying sunny days of bucolic delights in advance of something completely different: On Saturday, we fly to New York City for five days of urban immersion. May in the big city.

For Barbara and me, it will be our first Big Apple bite in many years. We both visited the city as youngsters and determined that once was enough. As adults, when we wanted a metropolis with world-class theater and superb museums, London was our repeat destination. But our 27-year-old daughter, Lillian, has visited New York a couple times on her own and likes it a lot. So we decided it might be fun to go for a few days with her as our tour guide. She’s planning our daily itinerary, which is a treat for this retired travel editor.

There’s talk of a Broadway show, the Empire State Building, art museums, lots of deli food, and sailing toy boats on the pond in Central Park.

Shiver me timbers. Updates to come. 1-anchor

Discover our ‘Corpse’ in paperback

P1250033.JPGHere’s the new paperback version of  “Corpse of Discovery,” a murder mystery that weaves tales of the Portland bookmobile with stories of has-been Rajneeshees, librarian love, and a death-defying paddle down the Columbia River in the path of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Our friend Stevie Lennartson created the cover art.

IMG_7955ONE OF MY GOALS over the winter was to get a start writing the third mystery in the Portland Bookmobile Mysteries series that Barbara and I have co-authored and published through Amazon under the pen name “B.B. Cantwell.” And I’ve done so. Barbara and I have enjoyed collaborating again.

Along the way, I decided it was time that our second book in the series should be available in paperback, not just as an ebook (which it has been since we published it in 2014).

So I took the time to format the text for print and finally got “Corpse of Discovery” out in paperback ($9.99 from Amazon). We got our first copies in the mail this week. And it looks pretty good.

A book shop on Lopez Island is interested in featuring our books on their “local author” shelf, so we’ll deliver some to them soon. I think both “Murdermobile” (the first in the series, originally published in paperback) and “Corpse” make fun, light reading for anybody on vacation to the islands or elsewhere. 1-anchor

20190401_010540-2Our mysteries travel well, apparently. Here’s a photo sent by our friend Jackie Smith, showing “Murdermobile” as it arrived in the post to her house on a hill in the Kalamata region of Greece. Read Jackie’s blog about her retirement and travel adventures at


How crossword puzzles help me fix the outboard (I hope)

P1250032.JPGMy nemesis, with cowling removed: WeLike’s 90-horsepower Evinrude outboard is stretching my mechanical talents. But I haven’t thrown in the shop towel.

IMG_7955MY DARLING BARBARA SAYS my addiction to the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle has honed my stick-to-it-iveness, especially since I’ve made it part of my second-cuppa morning routine at The Nuthatch. I never give up until I’ve finished a puzzle, even if 23-down is as obscure as “compacted Swiss snow” (firn).

And I don’t rely on having the Sunday paper in my hands. I have whole binders of the puzzles, which I can pick up anytime, just like Mitt Romney had binders full of women (remember that low point of the 2012 presidential debates?).

In any case, my refusal to give up serves me well on an island with no shops and no repairmen. Like when our runabout’s temperamental outboard motor acts up. Again.

I’m currently not a big fan of Mr. Evinrude, I’ve told my neighbors as they’ve wandered by WeLike, sitting on her trailer in the meadow next to the Center Island clubhouse, where she’s been stranded for weeks as I’ve been trying one little fix after another.

It’s not a huge problem for us. We use a water taxi service to the mainland for doctor’s appointments and major provisioning trips anyway. But it means we rely on neighbors’ generosity for rides to Lopez Island for trash disposal, library visits and pleasurable little stops at Holly B’s Bakery for cinnamon rolls and coffee.

I’ve changed the spark plugs (far more complicated than it needed to be, thank you Mr. Evinrude). I’ve changed the internal fuel filter and installed a new Racor water-fuel separator. I’ve rebuilt the water pump (what should have been a simple, routine procedure was a major ordeal thanks to Made-in-the-U.S.A. engineering).  When I need another part, I go online to a supplier in Denver, wait four days and it’s here.

My latest tinker: replacing the motor for the hydraulic pump that raises and lowers the outboard. Thanks to a sadistic designer who apparently got his kicks out of positioning bolts just out of reach behind a metal bracket or with not quite the clearance needed to insert an Allen wrench, I spent a whole afternoon removing one bolt completely by blind finger feel, rotating it a quarter inch at a time. I guess “stick-to-it-tiveness” sounds better than “stupidity.” (Hey, I got it done.)

So doing crossword puzzles not only helps keep your mind sharp. It apparently also helps you repair outboard motors built in Wisconsin.

It’s part of the Catch-22 challenge of living on a lovely remote island. When the boat doesn’t run, you can’t take it to a mechanic. Because the boat won’t get you there. So you just figure it out. cropped-1-anchor.jpg