Chilling on Center Island

P1240150.JPGA female downy woodpecker chows down on a suet block to keep up its energy in our cold weather outside The Nuthatch cabin.

IMG_7955TO SHOW YOU HOW COLD IT IS: I had to bring a case of beer in off the back porch so it wouldn’t freeze solid.

It’s the coldest day of the year so far at our island hermitage. The thermometer outside was stuck on 20 degrees F. when we got up this morning, and it hasn’t risen more than 5 notches this afternoon. Adding significantly to that, we have steady northeasterly winds scouring frigid Canadian air down out of the Fraser River Valley, with frequent gusts to 30 mph, giving a wind chill effect of a decidedly unbalmy 8 degrees.

We had the season’s first snowfall yesterday, but it came and went without leaving anything on the ground, unlike much of the Puget Sound area, where we’re hearing reports of up to 8 inches.

It’s a battle to keep the cabin warm today. We hauled out our big oil-filled radiator and plugged it in overnight, but it still got down to 50 inside overnight, and despite keeping the woodstove fire banked all day, it’s only 60 degrees inside. Barbara and I are making good use of long johns and hot coffee.

Earlier, I pulled on four layers of ski togs and tramped across the island to check on the WeLike at the dock, happy to find our old runabout weathering the winds OK at one of the inner slips. But a boat on the outermost pier was coated in ice from the wind-driven whitecaps. Another had snapped a mooring line and was swinging on its bowline. Spray from Reads Bay had coated the end of the dock with a half-inch of solid saltwater ice. Time to get out the Yaktrax!

Meanwhile, we’re keeping the feeders filled, though it’s a challenge to keep up with the appetites of the local avian crowd, doing their best to keep up their energy and not turn into birdsicles.

Warm wishes, as we wish for warmth! 1-anchor

Happy Groundhog Day, it’s time to picnic

P1240093.JPGBarbara soaks up the sun on our picnic rock at Point Colville.

IMG_7955PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL SAYS SPRING IS COMING EARLY, though I suspect he’s just trying to cheer up everybody who’s been caught in the Arctic Vortex, or Wintermageddon, or Freeze-aroni, or whatever they’ve been calling it.

Barbara and I celebrate this time of year with an annual winter picnic, which we enjoyed a couple days ago at Point Colville on Lopez Island.

Our vintage runabout, the WeLike, is running again, thanks to my installation of new fuel filters, including a Racor prefilter system similar to what we’ve had on our sailboat for years. Though this engine is gas and the sailboat has diesel, I still go by what I learned many moons ago in my Portland Community College marine-diesel repair class (for readers of James Herriot, I call this my two weeks with Professor Malleson): When an engine stops running,  first check the fuel, then check the fuel, then check the fuel again.

P1240111.JPGCastle Island, center left, from Point Colville. Rumor has it puffins hang out there.

Anyway, the boat got us to the Hunter Bay dock on Lopez and we enjoyed the short hike through old-growth firs to the rocky balds of Point Colville, part of San Juan Islands National Monument. The point provides many perfect “sitting rocks” for a picnic with a broad view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Range and some snowy, jagged peaks of the Cascades.P1240099.JPGName those peaks: Can you help me identify these snowy Cascade peaks seen looking east from Lopez Island? I’m guessing maybe White Chuck, maybe Glacier Peak, maybe…?

We munched Barbara’s “salad sandwiches” (an Australian thing, with sliced beets, tomatoes, lettuce and a bit of vegan cheese) and basked in the bright winter sun, which felt pretty good on the old bones this time of year.

Paraphrasing Bill Murray in one of our favorite movies, which we will watch (again) tonight (possibly several times): “Yep, spring is coming early, just about March 21.” cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Oh dear, bad beer: At least the labels looked great

IMG_7955FIRST TIMES ARE OFTEN LEARNING EXPERIENCES, and thus it was with my first batch of home brew. Oh, well. Few lovers are Casanova on the first date.

We had a spectacular sunset over Lopez Sound on Friday night, and it was the “opening date” for my bottles of Nutty Nuthatch English Brown Ale, so Barbara and I opened the first bottle so we could step out on the deck and toast the peach-melba sky.

Well, the first bottle we opened didn’t pop when the cap flipped off. It was flat. The cap hadn’t sealed.

The next bottle opened with a pop and fizz, though, so we split the bottle into 6-ounce tasting glasses, stepped out into the fresh January air and raised our brew to the sky before taking a sip.

Hmmm. Took a bigger gulp. Hmmm. Looked at each other, and in unison dumped the rest over the deck railing. It was sour and unappetizing.

“I’ve actually had worse,” Barbara said, offering cold comfort to the brewmaster.

At least it looked good. I was proud of the bottle labels I’d created using my daughter Lilly’s artwork of a nuthatch, which also graces a sign at our Nuthatch cabin’s front door.P1240087.JPGIf looking good was all that counted, this would have been boffo beer.

Not sure where I went wrong with the beer, though temperature control could have been a factor. The instructions said to let it brew in a dark place with temps ranging from 60 to 75 degrees. We don’t have spare closets in our cabin, so the best solution I could come up with was to nest the gallon brew jug deep in a bin of bath towels in a corner of the bathroom, where I kept an oil-filled radiator set to 63 degrees. But I think the beer still got too cold one frosty night. P1240085.JPG

Ah, well, mustn’t grumble, as the Brits say. I’ve already brewed a new batch, an IPA this time. And I ordered a new case of bottles with special flip-down, wire-sealing caps like you see on some European beers, to help ensure a proper seal.

Keeping fingers crossed, trying to hold my mouth right, scratching a stay and turning three times. We’ll get this right. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Fly me to the moon (or the ER)

P1240011.JPGAir mail, Center Island-style: When UPS packages come on the San Juan Airlines plane, the pilot hops out and totes them to our mail shack. The Nuthatch cabin is about 200 feet into the woods from the far end of the field in this picture.

IMG_7955AIR TRAVEL WAS A KEY PART of my life as a travel writer, and planes and helicopters continue to play a role now that I’m living at The Nuthatch cabin on a little island in the San Juans. The roles are different, however.

While Barbara and I still fly away to interesting places now and again, the primary purpose planes play in our daily lives is to deliver packages sent via UPS and FedEx. (The U.S. Postal Service delivers to Center Island by boat.)

Even if I’m sitting in my favorite wicker chair in our living room I know when the orange plane from San Juan Airlines is delivering our UPS packages. We can clearly hear the pilot buzz our grass airfield to clear it of grazing deer before he lands. That little orange plane sounds like a RAF Spitfire strafing a beach.

With the popularity of Amazon Prime, the volume of packages delivered to our island has soared. We even use it to order cat food and bird seed, both of which we go through a lot of.

Helicopters, too, are now part of our lives, though we hope to never see the inside of one. That’s because we just signed up as members of Airlift Northwest, a UW Medicine-affiliated air-evacuation service, which serves our islands with helicopters based in Bellingham and Arlington. For $79 a year, they’ll cover whatever air-evac cost isn’t covered by our personal medical insurance in the event of an emergency. From Bellingham, a helicopter flying 150 mph would cover the 25 miles to our island in 10 minutes.

It seems a prudent precaution when you live in a place where the only medical equipment consists of the DIY defibrillator in our clubhouse and the bandages in the bottom drawer in our bathroom.

Best wishes, loyal readers, for good health and never needing a helicopter ride. 1-anchor

Even big boys need toys

IMG_7955A COMMON PIECE OF ADVICE you might hear if you’re approaching retirement: Don’t make major plans for your first year. Don’t plan to save the world. Don’t plan to be elected mayor. Don’t plan to master the piano and have your first recital at a major concert venue.

Instead, just give yourself a year to get accustomed to the strange new reality of not going to work every day.

As advice, it’s not a fit for everyone, and not a perfect fit for me, but it has its merits.

I have ambitions about volunteering to help with trail work this summer on Lopez Island, or helping out with the food bank, or volunteering to help with the recycling operation at the Lopez Dump.

But so far in the 9 months since ditching the daily work world, I’ve found plenty of demands on my time, just to get established in our new home. And, unashamedly, I’ve felt the need to indulge in pastimes and hobbies I just didn’t find time for in my previous life.

Yesterday I bottled my first batch of home-brew beer. It will be ready to drink in two weeks (I’ll let you know how it comes out). Last week, while Barbara was in the city for medical appointments, I took over the dining table to work on a Revell car model that I got for Christmas.

P1240033.JPGThe “fleet” atop our fridge: pink Cadillac, Mini Cooper, VW Love Bug, Karmann Ghia, classic hot rod and a ’57 Thunderbird.

Model building has been an on-again, off-again hobby since I was a kid. It’s something my daughter, Lillian, and I have done together since she was a youngster, and we have a collection of half a dozen completed models sitting atop the fridge in our cabin. We’ve never obsessed about perfection — sometimes the glue goes all over — but it’s been a fun father-daughter activity over the years. It’s a total geek fest, during which I can feel my blood pressure drop like mercury on a January night.

This latest is a model of the first car I owned. I bought the car in my senior year of high school with my earnings as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in Bellevue. It was a 1965 Chevy Impala two-door hardtop, which I called Ethel. It was a big tank of a car with a 283-cubic-inch V8 that never ran on more than about six cylinders, but it got me and friends to Lake Sammamish State Park for swimming on idyllic summer days in 1974. I bought it for $200 from a classmate’s father, who had put many miles on Ethel in his job as a salesman for Montgomery Elevator Co.P1230943.JPGThe color was supposed to be “crocus yellow,” but tends a bit more toward canary melon or cantaloupe.

At Christmas, Lil helped me with the first steps of painting and gluing. Last week, I proceeded to paint the body of the car, trying to duplicate Ethel’s pale yellow finish. (Chevrolet had called it “crocus yellow.”) But even after adding almost a full bottle of white to the bright yellow Testor’s enamel that was my base, the best I came up with was sort of a cantaloupe color. Oh, well.

“Actually, it’s probably what Ethel looked like before the paint faded,” Barbara suggested, always the one to offer encouragement.

I expect some will say, “Poor Brian doesn’t have enough to do up on that island.” But don’t feel bad for me. I’m delighted to return to one of the simple pleasures of my youth. 1-anchor

Eatin’ lucky for 2019 with John and Jenny

P1230932 - Copy.JPGHoppin’ John, a New Year’s Day dish popular in the South, is hearty comfort food that’s just as tasty on an island in the San Juans.

IMG_7955WE TRIED SOMETHING NEW for our New Year’s Day dinner: Hoppin’ John, a black-eyed pea dish from the Carolinas that’s said to bring luck and prosperity in the new year, and who couldn’t use more of that?

It also fit our vegan diet, with peas and rice as the main ingredients. To the Center Island version Barbara added peppers, carrots, celery, garlic and purple shallot along with some seasoning salt in place of the Creole spices we didn’t have in our cupboard. Some variations also feature ham hock, bacon or country sausage, among other things. Here’s a link to a classic recipe from Southern Living magazine.

P1230929.JPGChopped celery, carrot, shallot and garlic joined black-eyed peas and rice in our slow cooker on New Year’s Day.

Tradition has it that the black-eyed peas are symbolic of pennies, and a coin is sometimes added to the pot (a tooth-breaking ingredient we omitted). Another traditional addition to the dinner is cornbread, adding more prosperous overtones  because of its gold color. And there’s all sorts of other quirky culinary symbolism built up around this simple comfort-food dish.

We’re also following the tradition of having the leftovers for dinner on January 2, when the name changes to “Skippin’ Jenny,” connoting even more prosperity based on the frugality of eating leftovers instead of throwin’ ’em to the hogs. Or, on Center Island, atop the compost pile.

Bon appetit, ya’ll. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

New Year’s fun and games

P1230922.JPGBarbara dubbed this a hen party of female purple finches at our feeder this morning. As with peacocks, the boys get the flashy color.

IMG_7955WE HAVE A FLASH MOB at our bird feeder on this mild and sunny New Year’s Day in the San Juan Islands. We just counted 12 birds vying for a spot at the food trough. The forecast is for rain and winds to return for the rest of this week. One of the local avian meteorologists must have tweeted a warning to stock up on winter rations.

Barbara and I are keeping a New Year’s Day list of birds we see out our window. So far we have purple finches (male and female), spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees.

Yesterday, a New Year’s Eve bonus included two bald eagles circling high in the blue sky above Nuthatch Cabin, riding the air currents for a good half-hour without flapping a wing. It gave me a shiver (the good kind) every time the golden afternoon sun glinted off their white feathers.

As the rains return, there’s fun to be had inside. One of my Christmas treats was a beginner’s home-brewing kit, indulging a long-held goal of making my own beer (inspired some 30 years ago by newspaper colleague Michael Zuzel’s home brew, which he named “Cape Alava Ale” after a favorite Olympic Coast hiking destination, with the motto, “You can’t get any Wester”).

P1230907.JPGOh, the anticipation: Your faithful correspondent can’t wait to fill his glass from the jug of brown ale brewed in The Nuthatch’s kitchen a couple days after Christmas. The gadget atop the jug allows brewing vapors to escape without allowing foreign bacteria to get in.

Two days after Christmas, daughter Lillian and I brewed up a gallon of English brown ale, which should be ready to bottle in a couple of weeks. I’ve limited myself to small batches because we live in a small cabin without a lot of extra space for beer gear. Because beer-in-the-making likes a dark, quiet spot with controlled temperatures (as many of us do) I’ve built a cozy nest for the gallon jug in a corner of our bathroom. The jug is wrapped in towels and sits next to an oil-filled radiator that keeps it around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so the yeast can happily consume the malt syrup (creating alcohol).

In coming weeks I’m also looking forward to spending time in my writing hut working on a new mystery novel. Perhaps while sipping an English brown ale. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Happy 2019, blog-keteers. 1-anchor

Winter solstice brings some peace on Earth

P1230855.JPGA winter bouquet of wild Nootka rose hips, snowberries and salal, all gathered on Center Island, decorates The Nuthatch cabin’s entry.

IMG_7955AFTER MORE THAN A WEEK OF LASHING WINDS, this winter solstice brought peace to our bit of Earth: a calm day of weak but welcome sunshine on Center Island.

Barbara and I grabbed the chance to scoot across Lopez Sound in WeLike, our 1957 Skagit runabout, to go get some fresh eggs from the red house. (A hand-painted sign at the corner of Lopez Hill Road and Center Road says simply “Brown eggs at red house,” with an arrow, so that’s where we go to pick up cartons of fresh eggs the color of creamy cocoa and leave our money in a tin outside. We’ve never seen the chickens or the farmers. It’s simply “the red house.”)

On the way there, WeLike threw us a challenge. The boat’s big Evinrude lost power 100 yards from the Hunter Bay dock. It didn’t stop, it just slowed dramatically, so we were able to creep up to the dock. Probably a clogged fuel filter, possibly easily solved. It meant we used our little 6-horse kicker motor for the return trip. A slower crossing, but we made it.

On our isolated island, we’re welcoming the solstice. The days have been so short. We notice it much more now that whim and serendipity rule our days rather than office schedules and commute times.  In practical terms, it means I have less time to chop firewood in the afternoon, or that we have to head home from Lopez by 3 if we want to be in before dark.P1230874.JPGAs seen in our tree-filtered view from The Nuthatch cabin’s deck, the winter solstice sun sets around 4 p.m. over Lopez Sound.

Tonight an all-but full moon will light up the night along with the Christmas lights that decorate our deck rail. Before bedtime last night I stepped out and saw the distinct shadow of our cabin cast by a moon that shone like a locomotive’s headlight in the inky sky above. Appropriately, the December full moon is called the Cold Moon.

Tonight we’re lighting candles and feeding a fire to celebrate the turning of the season. Like ancient Druids, we look forward to the return of longer days. On our little island, sunrise and sunset set the rhythm of our lives. 1-anchor

Challenges on Christmas Island

P1230794.JPGThe Nuthatch’s brightly lit Christmas tree, an 8-foot Nordmann fir, helps fend off the winter gloom outside. It made a long trip to get here.

IMG_7955IT’S JUST AFTER 5 P.M., pitch dark and blowing like stink, a few days before the winter solstice. It’s been blowing for a week. The 100-foot firs around our cabin are swaying like willow saplings. Branches break and fall with loud thunks on our metal roof. It’s unnerving, and a little scary.

On this isolated island in the San Juans we’re more isolated than usual. Gusts to 50 mph mean we don’t venture out on our boat, even for the quick trip across Lopez Sound, where wind-driven whitecaps do a frothy tarantella. Amazingly, we still get mail every day through the U.S. Postal Service — that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” thing apparently includes wind, though I worry about the postal contractor who risks his life crossing Rosario Strait in a small boat to deliver Christmas cards to us.

United Parcel Service isn’t so intrepid. No hunky guys in brown shorts make it out here. They contract delivery by plane to our grass airfield. From Anacortes, our packages go by ferry to a base in Friday Harbor, from which the small orange planes of San Juan Airlines fly them to Center Island. But they don’t fly when it’s too windy. We’ve had packages sitting in a warehouse in Friday Harbor, nine miles away, since last Tuesday, including some key Christmas gifts destined to go under our tree — providing they get here. Comet, Cupid, et al, where are you when we need you?

Getting a Christmas tree here was a challenge in itself. It might seem silly to buy an 8-foot tree in Seattle and bring it to this forested island — coals to Newcastle, right? — but we don’t have enough trees of the right size on our property to harvest one every December.

So we found a nice specimen at Home Depot, rolled it in a tarp like a giant holiday burrito, secured it with duct tape and lashed it to a bike rack on our Honda Civic for the 70-mile freeway drive to Anacortes, followed by a bouncy trip across Rosario Strait on the Paraclete Charters water taxi. Wrapped up like that it looked a bit like a dead body, so we referred to it as “Uncle Fred” when friendly folks helped us hoist it on and off the boat.

The nice Nordmann fir Barbara picked out this year made the trip just fine and looks dandy just inside the front window of The Nuthatch. We decorated it yesterday and today encircled it with the customary model train set. When the train whistle blows, we can’t hear the wind roaring outside. Whoo, bloody whoo!  1-anchor