‘Trawler 101’ and keeping busy with a birthday

Osprey, the Nordic Tug that friends and I will take to Alaska in late May, sits at anchor by a spring waterfall edging pretty Inati Bay, Lummi Island. A productive weekend aboard helped us get to know the boat.

This post is available on audio. Listen to my Cantwell’s Reef podcast.

EVEN ON A REMOTE LITTLE ISLAND, with no job to go to and no stores to shop at, weeks can get busy. Which is why I’m only just now writing about the training cruise my fellow voyagers and I took 10 days ago aboard Osprey, the charter vessel we will point toward Alaska six weeks from now.

The four of us who will be on the first leg of the cruise are all seasoned sailors, which is one reason we needed a shakedown outing. The bulk of our many sea miles has been aboard sailboats, some of it long ago. So it was a smart idea to spend a weekend with a training skipper to help us learn the ropes (and the anchor, the engine, the modern navigation instruments…) of our 37-foot Nordic Tug trawler.

It was just an overnight out of the boat’s Bellingham base. We had hoped to get out to Sucia Island in the San Juans, but like the conscientious sailors we are, we took a close look at the weather forecast. Or I should say that Carol Hasse, our shipmate from Port Townsend, looked at the weather forecast, using SailFlow, a weather app she checks multiple times a day, a habit formed while sailing Lorraine, her no-frills 25-foot Nordic Folkboat sloop, built in Denmark in 1959.

(I should say that “Hasse,” as her friends often call her, is something of a legend in the Northwest boating community, having operated her own highly respected sail loft for many years. Aboard Osprey, her encyclopedic knowledge of everything nautical has already earned her the nickname “Sea Goddess.”)

Monitoring SailFlow, Hasse reported that a spring storm with gale-force winds would be visiting our corner of the Salish Sea about the time we headed home Sunday. So rather than fight the weather for so many miles on our homeward leg we stayed closer to the home dock, crossing Bellingham Bay to put in for the night at pretty little Inati Bay on the eastern shore of Lummi Island. For practice, we anchored with a tie to a log on shore, keeping our stern facing a waterfall that chattered onto the narrow beach. We had the quiet cove to ourselves for the night. Nice.

Training skipper Tim Hoving gave us a thorough grounding (in a good way, not the hitting-a-rock way) in becoming Ospreyites. Before leaving the marina, we took a detailed tour of the engine room. Then we each took the helm to back-and-fill the boat for a 180-degree turn in close quarters, and took turns docking, both at the helm and working the mooring lines. Once anchored at Inati, we staged a man-overboard rescue, using the trawler’s topside boom and tackle to hoist the “victim” back on to the boat. (We weren’t so heartless as to make the victim dive in to that frigid water; Osprey’s dinghy was our rescue platform.)

After Barbara Marrett’s delicious dinner of shrimp pasta, our day on the water ended perfectly with a DVD viewing in the boat’s salon of — what else? — “Captain Ron.”

The Sunday morning return to dock involved, as predicted, plenty of rocking and rolling. With Bill Watson at the helm through the worst of it, the boat proved itself reliable and stout. One hiccup: The china cupboard in the galley popped open more than once on a bumpy swell, sending coffee cups shattering on the counter. Tim added “stronger cupboard latch” to a short list of fixes needed before the boat heads north Memorial Day weekend.

Magnified with a close-up lens, a tiny Calypso orchid, or Fairy Slipper, blooms on the hillside behind Nuthatch Cabin.

My past week was pleasantly filled with a visit from daughter Lillian, who arrived on my birthday and prepared a tasty dinner attended by my favorite next-door neighbors, The Mad Birder and his wife, Carol. The menu included toothsome jack-fruit tacos laced with pickled peppers and oven-toasted broccoli bits followed by a sugar-free birthday cake, tangily tasty with orange zest and topped by chocolate frosting. Keto ice cream gilded that lily.

Another highlight of last week: The tiny magenta Calpyso orchids, wildflowers affectionately known as Fairy Slippers, bloomed on my rocky knoll. Buttercups and pink Sea Blush are coming on quickly.

This week, my brother Doug visits from Santa Fe. Plans are to barbecue salmon one night and grill vegan burgers another. Maybe take WeLike for a spin on Lopez Sound. The fun rarely stops when you live on a small island nobody’s heard of.

Forever in our hearts: Barbara Alice Cantwell, February 10, 1955-April 1, 2021❤️

A favorite photo: Daughter Lillian, left, with her mum and my darling wife, Barbara, atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where we celebrated Barbara’s 50th birthday in 2005. They were throwing their arms in the air in reference to a famous tower-top dance scene from the 1957 Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire movie “Funny Face.” Barbara never looked happier.

The power of a San Juan spring

Wild-currant blossoms welcome visitors to the Nuthatch.

MY WILD CURRANT is madly blooming this spring. It’s a good tiding.

From the time Nuthatch cabin became ours in 2003, one thing I loved was the red-flowering wild-currant shrub that grew out of the rocky face just below our front deck. Its many clusters of dainty, trumpet-shaped blooms bobbed enchantingly above the deck rail and added a welcome early-spring splash of color to our view of woods and water.

Hummingbirds loved the flowers, and I mounted a bird feeder on the rail there so eager nuthatches, finches, juncos and towhees could use the currant’s branches as a perch while waiting their turn for a sunflower seed. It was akin to the queuing area at airport security. Always busy. And when fruit emerged later in the season, something of an avian snack bar.

I liked the wild currant so much that I planted another inside a deer fence next to the cabin’s front steps about 10 years ago. I gave the new planting plenty of water to get through dry summers. It grew large, with many branches and attractive foliage. But it didn’t flower much. Maybe just one little cluster of blooms each spring.

Meanwhile, after many seasons of enjoying the cliff-dwelling currant’s spring color, watering it in summer, seeing it get big and eventually rigging a supporting sling so it wouldn’t pull out of the rock, I waited in vain for new buds to emerge one February a few years ago. Barbara and I kept watching and hoping for a revival that sadly never came.

Its cliff-hanging location was a blessing and, probably, a curse. That hungry deer couldn’t reach it was likely the only reason it survived as long as it did. Yet the challenge of drilling roots into rock and finding necessary water probably doomed it.

Narcissus flowers add to the spring color outside the cabin.

Its gnarled old branches cobbled with lichen and bearded with moss, the dead shrub almost fell to my axe. But I stopped before the first swing. Why take it down? The birds continued to use it as a staging platform. It still served a purpose, and even without flowers or foliage it was pleasing to the eye.

Inside that deer fence, I planted another red currant next to the first. Tiny by comparison, it nonetheless produced a modest display of flowers the past two springs. Perhaps it finally shamed its big brother, which this spring has produced a robust display.

The new plants’ blossoms are more pink than red, whereas the cliff dweller wowed the eye with blooms of deep red to magenta. But this year’s dozens of flowering clusters have renewed my faith in the power of springtime in the San Juans.

To all my Northern Hemisphere friends, savor this season of renewal, whatever touches your heart.

NEW: This post available in audio. Listen to my Cantwell’s Reef podcast.

Island hopping across the continent for a late-winter refresher

The new World Trade Center, originally known as Freedom Tower, dominates Manhattan’s skyline as you walk westward on the pedestrian pathway across the venerable Brooklyn Bridge.

I CALLED IT MY “NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT” TOUR. And Friday when I told my Center Island friend, Monique the farmer, that I’d just returned from New York City, she grinned and agreed. “Wow, you can’t get much more different from little Center Island!”

This journey, my first real travel experience since the COVID plague froze us in our tracks two years ago, came about quickly and without much planning. My old friend Daniel Farber told me a few weeks ago that a cousin had offered him use of her vacant Brooklyn Heights apartment, and that he and wife Jean planned to make the pilgrimage from their Olympia home to spend the entire month of March there. It had a guest room. Would I like to visit? After a long and quiet winter on Center Island, I didn’t take long to say yes.

Free lodging in one of the world’s priciest cities. A free air ticket, thanks to my Alaska mileage account. Good times with good friends. The pandemic seeming to ease. The math was easy.

When I talk about island hopping, I understand that Manhattan is really the well-known island of New York. But Brooklyn is on an island, too (the west end of Long Island). I’d never set foot in Brooklyn before. So I told Daniel I’d come for three nights and all I really wanted to do was explore Brooklyn on foot and eat lots of good deli food.

We did that, and more.

Wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve always treasured first-morning impressions. I love to get up early and walk to a viewpoint or a beach, a bustling market or a famous park, and fill my mind with pictures the way colored-chalk scrawlings enliven a sidewalk.

The night after my evening arrival, Daniel had slept poorly, so I let him snooze as I finished my coffee and slipped out the door onto Hicks Street, a row of dignified old brick apartment blocks. Directly across the street from ours, tucked between two residences, squatted an ancient firehouse that looked like Ghostbusters headquarters. In three quick blocks of walking, with a left on Montague Street, I was on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, an 1,800-foot-long walkway cantilevered over the hillside with a spectacular view of Lower Manhattan and the East River. A swivel of my head took in everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge. The air was crisp, the sky was blue, colorful ferries skittered everywhere, and the 1,776-foot World Trade Center spire, originally known as Freedom Tower, dominated the stupendous island scenery. It’s America’s loftiest skyscraper.

Brooklyn Bridge guy wires frame Lower Manhattan.

Once everyone was up and about, we walked miles that sunny day, through interesting residential streets crowded with authentic brownstones the color of a russet potato fresh from the earth. Pausing to admire the gorgeous Brooklyn Public Library, we ended up at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and lunch in Crown Heights.

Tropical blooms brighten the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s conservatory.

More than one night, we blissfully dined on Mediterranean-style food from two Atlantic Avenue institutions, Sahadi’s deli grocery, run by a family from Lebanon, and a Syrian bakery called Damascus. The smokiest, richest baba ghanough (their spelling) this side of Beirut. Spicy and delicious Za’atar chicken. Dips and spreads, pies and pastries.

The second day of my visit was cold and cloudy. When not pouring rain it was snowing. We hopped the subway to Manhattan and wisely spent the day indoors, first touring the Whitney Museum of American Art in the West Village. Highlights: a special exhibit of African-American artist Jennifer Packer’s studies of people with haunting faces and clothed in colors so vibrant that you had to wonder if the paint was made from human blood and maybe the zest of mandarin oranges. Another favorite for Daniel and me was a historical montage and film of a whimsical, miniature kinetic circus created by Alexander Calder. It showed me a whole new, quirky side of this artist known for monumental, plaza-filling sculpture.

We spent the afternoon, delightfully, as part of the studio audience at a Rockefeller Center taping of NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” The former “Saturday Night Live” comedian spent off-camera time chatting amiably with the crowd. (And yes, they really do have strobe-like signs that flash “APPLAUSE” when they want you to clap.) Sorry, I don’t have any photos; the not-so-amiable handlers in fancy suits made it clear that if you took a photo in the studio you would (A) be forced to erase it, and (B) get thrown out.

Perhaps the thrill of the trip was my final morning, well in advance of my 5 p.m. flight home, when Daniel and I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Blue sky had returned. We arrived at the bridge as the sun flooded the skyline of Manhattan, ahead of us. The 1.1-mile span is an engineering wonder, built over a period of 13 years between 1870 and 1883. Its arched 272-foot Gothic Revival towers make it a colossal work of art.

Unlike most bridges, the pedestrian pathway is suspended in the bridge’s center, above the traffic lanes, separating you from the noise and rush of cars. Striding along, it felt like a peaceful walk in the sky as we gazed at the continent’s tallest building framed by a galvanized spider web of suspension cables. The bridge carries 10,000 pedestrians a day, but we never felt crowded.

Daniel at the less shiny end of the financial district’s bull.

Once on Manhattan, we wandered through the Wall Street district, past the fabled bronze bull, and back to the river’s edge to catch a passenger ferry back to Brooklyn. (Statuary trivia: Bronze statues worldwide have parts that passersby rub for good luck, such as Scottish philosopher David Hume’s big toe in Edinburgh, or John Harvard’s left foot at Harvard University, and consequently those parts are always shiniest. The shiniest part of the Wall Street bull: its beefy testicles. God bless ballsy America.)

Back to Seattle on Thursday. Back to Center Island Friday. Saturday morning I took a home COVID test. It was negative. I love my little island, but the effect on my morale of a getaway to someplace completely different: Definitely positive.

Center Island’s February surprise

A snowy morning frames a view of Lopez Sound and Lopez Island as seen from the southwest corner of Center Island.

I’VE OFTEN REMINDED OTHER ISLAND FOLK that February can throw just about anything our way, and after a springlike month that had us all scoffing at Punxsutawney Phil’s Groundhog Day prediction of more winter ahead, Center Islanders woke up this morning.

To snow on the ground.

It was one of those surprise snowfalls that began well after dark last night. And unlike rain, heralded by its rooftop patter, snow parachutes to the ground unannounced. So one had to be really paying attention to avoid a gee-whillikers moment when first looking out this morning.

OK, it was just an inch. Nothing to flap about, but a late-February surprise nonetheless. I worried about the narcissus that is starting to bloom in the side yard.

The nice thing was that by dawn the sky had cleared to that watery, light blue you get only in winter, as if someone put a capful too much bleach in with the baby boy’s blanket. As the sun came up while I sipped my first coffee, from the Nuthatch’s front window I saw an accenting blush of pink like watercolor paint brushed boldly across the treeline of Lopez Island. Below my front deck, the salal thicket sparkled.

Galley Cat is no fan of snow, though she didn’t let the cold, white stuff stop her from a paw-mincing climb up the rocky knoll with me to inspect the Back 40. Frosty toes sent her scooting back inside as soon as the cabin door was open, however.

My writing hut, Wee Nooke, is a cozy retreat among the snow.

It was a good week here, with a four-day visit by daughter Lillian, who brought her cat, Tiberius, along for the first time. Galley growled at the feline interloper, and Tibbers spent a lot of time hiding under a bed in the loft. But by visit’s end there was a tolerant sheathing of claws. If only the Russians could follow their example.

Tomorrow, Galley and I head across the water to visit Friday Harbor friends for another session of planning our upcoming Alaska voyage, and to meet another crew member. Take heart. More sunshine is in the forecast, and March is coming soon.

Mr. Fix-It rides again on Center Island

The doughnut-shaped part that needed replacing sits atop my tool box in the cargo area of my golf cart, Mr. Toad. As always with a DIY repair, kitty supervision was key.

FEW THINGS ARE MORE SATISFYING than repairing something yourself, especially when you live on a remote island with no Mr. Fix-It shops just down the road.

It’s especially satisfying when you’re fixing something about which you know very little, such as my golf cart, Mr. Toad. And the fix works.

I’ve never been a golfer. Until a couple years ago, when Barbara needed more help getting around, I never had reason to own a golf cart, though the electric-powered flivvers are the preferred method of personal locomotion on Center Island, where covenants prohibit personal vehicles powered by internal combustion.

I still prefer to walk (the only way you get to see the Golden-Crowned Kinglets mobbing trees along the airfield), or ride my bike, which I do for exercise when the weather is nice. But my golf cart, which dates to the Clinton Administration and is named for the speed-happy amphibian of “Wind in the Willows,” comes in handy when it’s time to lug trash to the dock or transport groceries back to the cabin.

After buying Mr. Toad in summer 2020, my first big fix came last fall, replacing the bank of six 6-volt deep-cycle batteries, which cost almost as much as I paid for the whole darn buggy. But the new batteries gave me the needed oomph to get up hills again.

Then all was fine until recently, when a new problem became apparent. Instead of accelerating slowly and smoothly, Mr. Toad began hopping in short bursts. No matter how carefully I trod the accelerator, either it wanted to sit still or go full-tilt, which seemed perfectly fitting for its fictional namesake who was imprisoned for his reckless driving. But it didn’t make for a relaxing ride to the clubhouse.

I can occasionally be clever with tools (see “A tool chest full of memories on Father’s Day,” June 2019). After taking a community college class in marine-diesel repair years ago, I never had to pay for someone else to repair my sailboat engine. But I knew bupkis about what made golf carts go, other than the batteries.

Here’s where the internet earned its keep, which is a big admission coming from me, Mr. Luddite 2022. I asked Google, “Why is my golf cart going herky jerky?” Within minutes I was watching a YouTube video in which a well-fed, jovial little man in Texas told me all about my E-Z-GO golf cart’s inductive throttle sensor and showed me how to change it.

From online research, I found other possible fixes, including a part that cost $400. But the inductive throttle sensor could be had for $23.99 on Amazon. I always like to start with the cheapest likely fix and go from there. I hit the order button. The part would arrive in six days.

The Chinese-made part was sold by a company that inexplicably calls itself 10LOL. That’s the numeral “10,” followed by the letters “LOL.” I wonder where some of these Chinese companies get their names, and who is advising them. Don’t they know that in the U.S.A., “LOL” stands for “laughing out loud”? Maybe the Omaha-based marketing consultant who helped them pick that name is laughing all the way to the bank.

The new part looked just like the old one: a doughnut-shaped piece of hardened black plastic, about two inches high, topping a small platform with a couple of electrical hookups. It didn’t look like anything that should make a difference to how my golf cart accelerated, but it did the trick for that well-tummied Texan. I said a Hail Gary (most fix-it guys on YouTube are named Gary) and proceeded.

Happily, the part came with detailed, illustrated instructions that showed every step needed to make the replacement in my model of golf cart. Even though it involved time-consuming removal of a lot of bolts to access the part, which hid in a little box beneath the floor mat, I was done in an hour.

I took Mr. Toad for a test drive. The acceleration is once again as smooth as a frog pond on a sultry August afternoon.

I feel like such a master of the wilderness.

Island energy provides a jump charge on days of woe

Boaters wave as they churn past my lunch spot on the cliffs at Lopez Island’s Shark Reef Sanctuary on Saturday.

A BIG PART OF MY ISLAND ADVENTURE and this ride you’ve all been on with me is how I’m adjusting to being here without my beloved wife of 41 years, whose corporeal life ended in the front room of Nuthatch cabin in the wee hours of last April Fool’s Day.

I’ve tried not to dwell on my grief too frequently in these lines, but it’s like the 800-pound mortician in the room.

I’m not a fan of solitary living, but I’ve come to realize that the quiet months I’ve had here, with few physical or emotional demands other than playing with my silly cat, have helped me start to come to terms with my wife’s death. It’s not a matter of healing from the devastation of Barbara’s loss. I’ll always feel that. But along with generous support from friends and loved ones, this quiet and lovely little island has allowed me to renew my energy to cope.

This past Thursday, February 10, was Barbara’s birthday. It was a rough week for daughter Lillian and me. Others who’ve lost life partners had warned me early on of the brutal challenge of “firsts” — first Thanksgiving without her, first Christmas without her, and so on. So, as we did with those holidays, Lil and I planned a special observance that would temper the sadness. Last Sunday, a few days in advance of her actual birthdate, we spent a day together that Barbara would have loved, experiencing some of the best of Seattle.

My daughter and I met at the new Northgate station and took light rail downtown. We grabbed coffees and enjoyed a long amble along the waterfront to the Seattle Art Museum’s sculpture park. After retracing our steps and exploring shops along the way, we lunched at Ivar’s Fish Bar. Barbara, whom I believe now has influence on these things, gave us a pristine, springlike day, so we sat at an outdoor table in the sun, watched ferries come and go, and fed french fries to the gulls. (It’s a longtime Seattle tradition, sanctioned by Ivar Haglund himself. No gulls were grievously harmed in the writing of this blog.)

After lunch, we ventured up the hill to the main galleries of Seattle Art Museum and toured a special exhibition of work by Imogen Cunningham, one of Barbara’s favorite photographers. Afterward, we snacked on luscious cannoli at DeLaurenti’s in the Pike Place Market.

It was a good day in honor of Barbara. However, come Thursday, as I was back on Center Island, her actual birthday weighed on me. Along with the approaching one-year anniversary of losing her good company, these particular firsts are forcing me to put aside denial. With melancholy reluctance, I’m fully recognizing this loss is forever.

Friday, I finally got my boat, WeLike, back in the water after it had sat on its trailer since November, waiting out thrashing winter winds. Yesterday, with more sunshine to brighten my outlook, I motored over to Lopez Island. As a reward for starting on the first crank, Ranger Rick, my loyal Ford pickup, got a wipedown to remove accumulated bird droppings, and we toured the island. I sipped a strong brew and read my newest Dana Stabenow book on the deck at Isabel’s Espresso. Got a few groceries from the market. Then steered toward the trailhead at Shark Reef Sanctuary, the best place I know for restoring peace to the soul.

A sailboat ghosts past the Cattle Point Lighthouse on the southern tip of San Juan Island, as seen from Shark Reef Sanctuary.

I had the mossy cliffs edging San Juan Channel all to myself, looking down at the rocky, kelp-pantalooned islets just offshore where sea lions and shorebirds abound. I munched a sack lunch and scanned the panorama, from sun-dappled swirling currents below Cattle Point Lighthouse, across the way on San Juan Island, to the snow-blanketed Olympic Range to the south, beyond the sprawling Strait of Juan de Fuca. I listened to an alto chorus of Black Oystercatchers gossip and squabble on the rocks. I waved to a passing powerboat, churning slowly against the tidal change. I let the peace seep in.

Black Oystercatchers love the kelp-carpeted rocks at Shark Reef.

Most days I smile, some days I weep. But I’m not despairing. Barbara wouldn’t want that. As long as I need to, I’ll take one day at a time. And this salty, soothing, serene place helps me recharge.

Old friends + soaring birds = High spirits in the magic Skagit

Swans flap over the Samish Flats in the northern Skagit Valley as mists shroud the Chuckanut Mountains and Cascade foothills.

‘WOO HOO!’ CAME THE ASTONISHED CRY from everyone in our band of birders as a low-flying flock of Dunlin flash-mobbed us earlier this week on Fir Island.

“Flash mob” is a perfect metaphor for a flock of these medium-sized, long-beaked shorebirds that typically fly at high-speed in cigar-shaped formations. Mystically coordinating pell-mell flight in perfect unison, as they change direction their white breasts can glint as brightly as a lighthouse beam shining across the surrounding marshes and saltwater flats. Thus the “flash.”

In this case, scores of Dunlin strafed our winter-swaddled group of 10, zooming just a few feet above our beanies.

“I’ve never had that happen before!” exulted Woody Wheeler, Seattle-area birder extraordinaire, who was acting as our informal guide for the day. He was among a group I accompanied on a day of winter birding around the Skagit Valley. Some were new friends, others old pals I’d not seen in a few years.

Our day alternated between moody mists shrouding the Cascade foothills, blueberry sky and bright sun, drenching showers and pelting hail. We saw dozens of Bald Eagles, thousands of Snow Geese, entire orchestras of Trumpeter Swans. It was February birding in the magic Skagit.

Snow Geese, unworried the day after hunting season ended, carpet the Samish Flats.

Woody is a natural guide, offering nuggets of knowledge to chew on, even in the face of frigid winds. Starting our day on the Samish Flats, as we looked out at a fallow field where 50 or so Trumpeters waddled he offered this food for thought.

“We are looking at what was equal to the entire American population of Trumpeters in the mid-1930s,” he told us. “That’s right, the population had dwindled that much. Who knows why?”

From the Skagit Valley’s “Eagle Tree,” a Bald Eagle seems to smile for the camera.

Lead shot, from shotguns, several of us guessed. (Nope, that’s a more modern problem.) Oh, I know, feathers for women’s hats in the 1920s, someone else suggested. (Good guess, but wrong.)

In fact, the overhunting of swans had started in the 18th century, when swan quills were prized as writing implements. “In fact, our Declaration of Independence was probably written with a swan quill,” Woody suggested.*

The Skagit is a winter birder’s paradise. Our spotting started with a Merlin on a treetop as we met up outside Breadfarm bakery in Edison. On the Samish Flats, we saw a dozen eagles and a giant nest in what’s locally known as the Eagle Tree, and a Rough-Legged Hawk.

To quickly identify a “Roughie,” as they’re commonly known, Woody advised to look for the head that is like “a Styrofoam ball with a beak.”

“That light-colored head is a giveaway,” he noted. “Like Marilyn Monroe,” someone else chirped.

Woody smiled. “And to continue the Marilyn theme, look for the mascara!” A dark eye-ring finishes in a swooping arc toward the back of the bird’s head.

Christi Norman, left, and Hilary Hilscher, next to her, created the Great Washington State Birding Trail for Audubon Washington. They still enjoy visiting sites they mapped 20 years ago.

A few moments later, another Roughie hovered in place above a stand of cattails. “Look, he’s kiting, he’s kiting!” Woody called. With short, quick wing flaps, it hung in the air as if gravity had been turned off, peering down for possible prey.

Cries of excitement rippled through our little crowd every time our car caravan pulled off the side of the road or into another Fish and Wildlife site.

“There’s a harrier!” Woody called, as a big hawk with an owl-like face soared above us.
“A marsh hawk!” exclaimed my friend Hilary Hilscher, using the bird’s common name. Hilary was one of two former Audubon Washington employees who together drove all over the state to formulate the Great Washington State Birding Trail, created 20 years ago as a guide to the state’s best birding sites. Her cohort, Christi Norman, was also along with us this day.

At the West 90 site managed by Fish and Wildlife, we saw a field white with thousands of snow geese, filling the chill air with a cacophony of honks and hoots. “They weren’t hanging out here a few days ago, there were hunters,” Woody told us. Our day out was the first day after waterfowl-hunting season ended. “They know!”

During a lunch stop in a picnic shelter at Bay View State Park, Woody’s binoculars spotted goldeneyes, buffleheads and black brant swimming on Padilla Bay. Our final stop of the day, at the Hayton Reserve on Fir Island, in the Skagit River estuary, we saw some male Green-Winged Teal, North America’s smallest dabbling duck, their natty cinnamon-colored heads accented with a swoop of iridescent green around the eye. Also Wigeons, Northern Pintails, and all those Dunlin. And where marshlands are so rich in prey, there are raptors. In treetops and atop stumps, we saw roosting Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon, another harrier and a Red-Tailed Hawk.

A Northern Pintail swims the marshy waters at Skagit Wildlife Area’s Hayton Reserve on Fir Island.

“In fact, there’s three eagles in a row — an eagle candleabra!” one wag noted.

In the meantime, angry gray clouds had blotted out the blue sky and billowed up against the nearby foothills. As hail started to pelt us, we swooped back to our cars. With the precision of a flock of Dunlin, you might say.


*See Woody Wheeler’s “Conservation Catalyst” blog for more stories of recovered bird species you might see in the Skagit Valley.

The foggy doldrums of San Juan-uary

Dense and bone-chilling fogs can descend on the San Juan Islands in January.

THE DOG DAYS OF AUGUST have got nothing on the doldrums of January on this mossy rock.

It’s hermit season in the San Juans. It has its advantages in terms of peace and quiet. Except when the visiting neighbor at the end of the road decided Saturday was a good day for target practice with his new pistol. A quiet single guy who has always kept to himself in the 18 years we’ve been here. I ambled down to gently inquire if all was OK. I told him I was concerned because I had never before heard rapid gunfire 500 feet from my home. He assured me he could “do any fucking thing he wanted to” on his private property. I didn’t dispute that while he held a gun in his hand.

Some hermits you give a wide berth.

But other island characters can warm your winter-chilled heart. A good example is Andrew, one of the regular skippers aboard the Paraclete, the water taxi I regularly ride between Center Island and Anacortes.

Andrew has a sunny disposition no matter the weather. A big fellow in his 20s with a thatch of dark hair above a quick smile, he always hails me with “Nice to see you, my brother!” And he always spares a warm greeting for Galley Cat, who rides in her soft-sided carrier alongside me.

Before a recent sailing, Andrew chatted with our small boatload of passengers about what’s new in his life. He was glad to have snow-free weather for a while because he commutes an hour to rural Whatcom County, where he lives with his parents. He often talks about people he knows from his church, so that’s obviously a big part of his life.

He said he might be getting married this summer (I suspect COVID is playing a role in the timing) and that a Whatcom farm neighbor who’s “maybe in her 70s” — yes, he knows her from church — has offered him and his intended the rental of an apartment recently created in the top of her barn. The farm woman is an independent, live-off-the-land type who has one cow and keeps two calves, butchering one a year and then breeding the cow again. She’s eager to pass along her sustainable agrarian knowledge to the younger generation and “that’s exactly what we want,” Andrew enthused.

That day chilly fog had never lifted from the islands. A fellow passenger asked Andrew if he was certified to pilot by radar. Yes, these guys will get you there.

But as we cruised out into Rosario Strait, a wide and busy waterway plied by oil tankers and towboats, the murk didn’t quite lower to water level. In an eerie scene, visibility was good at surface level but only about the bottom 50 feet of surrounding islands peered out from beneath the fog. It was like a ferry-sized barber clipper had given Decatur Island a cottony bowl cut. The San Juan uplands were taking the rest of the season off.

Now I sit in my cold writing shack, wearing half gloves while I type, nudging half-frozen toes closer to the radiator while I listen to k.d. lang’s lilting and soulful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It perfectly complements my January mood.

Robert Burns, 1759-1796

But tomorrow things are looking up. I’m invited next door for a Burns Night supper at the home of John “The Mad Birder” and Carol Farnsworth. We’ll celebrate the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, a shirttail relative of my dear late wife, Barbara Burns Cantwell. We’ll eat some good food. We’ll read a little poetry, and perhaps listen to an online Burns tribute by the Mad Birder’s former Ph.D. supervisor, Kathleen Jamie, the Makar (Poet Laureate) of Scotland. We’ll likely sip a little single malt in Barbara’s memory, and in Rabbie’s.

Sounds like the perfect close to January on this mossy rock.

Melting snow for the toilet, saving Annas, and other winter fun

A well-chilled hummingbird returns to my feeder shortly after fresh, warm sugar-water replaced the solid block of ice last week.

IT’S 50 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT OUTSIDE, MY TOILET FLUSHES WITHOUT HAND-PRIMING and my hummingbird feeder isn’t freezing solid every few hours.

These are luxuries one comes to appreciate.

Last we visited, my neighbors’ pipes were iced up but all was well at the Nuthatch. However, on the coldest days I watched through my kitchen window as our overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds were frustrated in efforts to find nourishment from the feeder that had turned to solid ice. My soft heart breaking, twice a day I brought in the feeder and replaced the ice with fresh, warm sugar-water.

But on the day before New Year’s Eve, the hummingbirds weren’t the only ones frozen out. After a wind-chilled week when outdoor temperatures topped out between 15 and 25 degrees, Center Island’s community water system succumbed to the shivers. Buried pipes and various other parts of our reverse-osmosis supply system froze up. In the space of a couple hours the output from my kitchen and bathroom faucets turned from a trickle to nothing.

Our water guru, Sean, confirmed via an email blast that the outage was island-wide. He offered an apologetic explanation that boiled down to this: The solution was up to the weather gods, not the water guru. We just needed warmth. Patience would be key.

Taking the “toilet tank is half full” view, there was good news: I had long ago stored two 5-gallon plastic jugs, filled with emergency water, on my back porch. I brought them inside to thaw. And somehow water was still flowing at our community clubhouse, about a half-mile from me. That blessing was mixed: As a caution against exhausting the water supply the caretaker had closed the shower and laundry room.

We also had a few inches of snow on the ground, which wasn’t melting. A good source of more emergency water, even if it needed to be boiled, I told myself. The blood of my homesteading pioneer ancestors surged through my veins.

But my South Dakota grandparents’ weary genetic material failed to remind me that when you fill a giant pasta pot with snow from the deck and melt it atop the woodstove, you end up with only about 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Speckled with dirt and floating fir needles, it was good only for toilet flushing.

With a toilet that uses 1.6 gallons per flush, that didn’t accomplish anything fast. After a few melted potfuls I, uh, flushed away that strategy.

The long and short of it was that after four days of no showering, infrequent flushing and more than one trek across the island to refill my water jugs amid frigid winds gusting to 50 mph, I texted the water taxi, packed up Galley Cat and bugged out last Monday like a MASH unit fleeing advancing troops.

Here’s where good friends are a wonderful thing.

Lynn, a former Seattle Times colleague, and her husband, David, had earlier invited me to their Lopez Island vacation home for a brunch. With a little hint-dropping on my part and typical generosity from Lynn and David, that turned into an overnight visit, including two delightful hikes (the sun came out!) on beautiful Iceberg Point, with panoramic views of the wintry Olympics and thrashing waves off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The gamboling accompaniment of their highly energetic Springer spaniel pup added joy.

The next day I drove Ranger Rick, my reliable teenaged pickup, to the far end of Lopez, parked in the 72-hour lot and toddled aboard the state ferry to Friday Harbor (fare-free for interisland walk-ons). I carried Galley in a soft-sided carrier slung over my shoulder, with all my cat supplies, clothes and other gear packed in a Rubbermaid tote strapped to a hand truck for easy rolling on and off the ferry. The kitty cat and I planned a couple nights with Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson, partners in my upcoming voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska. We would further plan our 10-week itinerary, which begins Memorial Day weekend.

We buckled down and did a lot of studying of charts and guidebooks, filling out a detailed spreadsheet of where we hoped to visit. We also found time for hikes, a fun board game, good food and an evening binge-watch about Vikings invading medieval Britain.

Looking down from a wintry hike up Young Hill, in San Juan Island National Historical Park, as snow began to fall Wednesday on San Juan Island.

I had planned to return home Thursday. The National Weather Service predicted up to an inch of snow Wednesday night for Friday Harbor but with rapid warming and rain the next day. Didn’t sound like a problem.

We awakened Thursday to 5 inches of wet snow. Beautiful but not travel-friendly. My hosts kindly put me up another night.

Galley and I have been back at the Nuthatch since Friday. Glad to have hot showers and a flushing toilet. Still drinking bottled water until Sean gives the all-clear on the latest water-sample test, but that’s a mere hiccup among this feast of creature comforts.

Maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of our good fortunes once in a while, whether we’re hummingbird or human. Stay warm, friends.