One year and counting — with goldfinches

P1250026(1).JPGIn his splashy mating-season plumage, a plump male goldfinch — perhaps fattened up on a diet of street tacos? — perches on the blooming wild currant in front of Nuthatch cabin.

IMG_7955TODAY MARKS THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Barbara’s final day of work at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library. My one-year mark for departing The Seattle Times comes next Tuesday. For us, the time has flown as quickly as the goldfinches that have just returned to the San Juans from their Mexican wintering grounds.

When I returned from a Seattle visit last week — a hectic round of doctor checkups (all’s well-ish, for an old fart) and auto maintenance (airbag recall on the Honda, new sparkplugs, etc.) — Barbara passed along news of an exciting event while I’d been away.

“The goldfinches have returned!” she told me, beaming like a Super Moon. (You might even say she was all atwitter.)

It’s symbolic of how our lives have changed since we ditched our office jobs and moved to Nuthatch cabin. We measure the passing of the seasons by the birds at our feeders and the flowers in our woods. (Barbara has suggested I start going by “Henry David.” I’m not sure.)

The other day she proclaimed, “I love that we get to see the whole season of flowering on our wild currant,” rather than just a couple of days worth of blooms during the monthly visits we used to make when we were job-bound. (How do you like that for a term? It’s part of our new paradigm.)

The goldfinches are a happy recurrence. Last summer, as loyal Reefers might recall, we saw the bright yellow males and their paler mates raise whole families here. It was obvious when the new hatchlings emerged, awkward in flight and sometimes falling into the water feature on our deck, which is popular as a bird bath in warmer months.

Goldfinches, notable as Washington’s state bird, are one of our favorites, adding a cheerful splash of color to our woods.

I think we can take another year of this.  1-anchor

Center Island in bloom

P1250001Our first wildflower of the season: A calypso orchid — also known as a fairy slipper — bloomed a few steps from the Nuthatch cabin’s back door yesterday. The fir cone at its base gives you an idea of the flower’s diminutive size.

P1240983.JPGWe’re also enjoying a bumper crop of daffodils this spring. They are a popular garden flower in the San Juans because deer won’t eat them.

P1240981.JPGAnd the wild currant that sprouts straight out of the rocky cliff in front of our deck continues to put on a show. Here’s hoping your April is as colorful. 1-anchor

A getaway from paradise?

P1240711.JPGA bride on horseback? Or Galadriel in an amateur fantasy film? We could only speculate as she trotted along Cannon Beach, with Tillamook Rock Light in the background.

IMG_7955NO PLACE IS PERFECT. But on sunny afternoons when I’m ensconced in my writing hut on the rocky knoll and Center Island deer are bedded down in the grass 10 feet outside my window,  I might be forgiven for falling back on an old cliche: This ain’t paradise, but you can see it from here.

But sometimes the best way to appreciate a place is to leave it. So where do we go when we need a getaway? Most recently, we ran away to Cannon Beach, Oregon.

We just enjoyed a long weekend there, and like the spring-break throngs who joined us, we still think it’s among the best Northwest beach towns.

Originally, we had booked the trip there to celebrate Barbara’s birthday in February.  But the Snow Apocalypse (as a local meteorologist dubbed it) intervened, so we had to reschedule. As it turned out, we ended up celebrating both Barbara’s birthday and my April birthday with a wonderful few days with our daughter, Lillian.

P1240933From left: Lillian, Barbara and Haystack Rock.

We indulged in lots of good food (such as pesto pizza from Pizza a’fetta, and Lil’s luscious lemon-Brussels sprout linguine) and maybe a little too much good wine. (If you’ve not sat at a picnic table in the sun at the edge of a gorgeous Pacific beach and played card games with your favorite people while guzzling mimosas on an April Sunday morning, Dr. Travel will write you a prescription for it right now.)

My family has always loved playing games together. The latest generation of commercially packaged games, which our 27-year-old daughter discovers for us, are a long drive past Marvin Gardens and Baltic Avenue. This trip Barbara and I fell for Sushi Go!, a silly card game in which players match up sashimi (three sashimi = 10 points), tempura, nigiri and more. I don’t even much like sushi, but this game was a kick in the wasabi.

Lillian also introduced us to Mysterium, a non-competitive board game in which players collaborate to figure out who killed the butler. There is no Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but they’ve probably been guests at the same mansion.

P1240853.JPGA spearmint-colored anemone sifts nutrients from saltwater at the base of Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Intermingle all that with long walks to the base of Haystack Rock to peer at anemones at low tide and watch for the arrival of spring puffins; a bit of kite flying; and poking around favorite old shops (Dueber’s gift shop is still there) and a few new ones (Voyages toy shop carries a party pack of Sushi Go!). Instead of birthday cake, we shared a giant banana split, complete with marshmallow fluff and maraschino cherries, in our Captain’s Quarters room at the oceanfront Schooner’s Cove Inn.

No deer outside the window, but plenty more to spice up a long weekend.

And after more than 500 miles of round-trip driving, subjecting our poor cats to “boarding school,” and shrinking the Cantwell family savings account a bit, boy are we glad to be back home on our rock.

But for the salty memories, the change of pace, reinvigoration of the soul, even my education about sushi — we’re glad we went. 1-anchor

Eagles are mating, salmon is grilling, the moon is super — it’s spring on our rock

P1240315.JPGBald eagles nuzzle after getting frisky in a treetop in view of our Nuthatch cabin. Female eagles are usually about a third larger than males, so that might be a female on the right.

IMG_7955A FEW YEARS AGO WE HAD AN EAGLE’S NEST on Center Island. Maybe again this year?

A little research tells me that eagles tend to nest not far from where they fledged, in a place with high, perchable treetops, near water, with relatively little human activity. We’re ticking off the boxes. Bing, bing and bing.

After seeing few bald eagles here in recent years, they’re back. Recently I saw five of the big birds whirling around a crab boat that was dumping bait in Lopez Sound. Often, we’ve seen a pair soaring and circling high over our island. Their high-pitched, trilling “skree, skree” call has been a common, adrenalin-spiking addition to our island soundtrack. A high Douglas fir treetop within sight of our cabin seems to be a favorite perch.

Yesterday, we spotted two big eagles snuggled together on that tree. This morning, they were back, and there seemed to be some hanky-panky going on, with lots of squawking and flapping about on that precarious perch. Could it be love?

Today we welcome spring, and it seems the eagles know all about what’s supposed to happen in springtime in the wild world.

With sunny-day temperatures approaching 70 degrees F., our island suddenly smells green, lush and deliciously alive, after a long spell of winter.

Barbara and I celebrated last evening with a salmon barbecue on our deck. I also tossed on the grill a few Manila clams and an oyster that a neighbor kindly donated from his low-tide harvest this week on an island beach.

Tonight, we’ll watch for the Super Worm Moon, which makes a rare appearance on the equinox. Why “super”? Why “worm”?

  • It’s called a super moon — the last one of 2019 — when a full moon is at its closest point to Earth, or perigee, along the moon’s slightly elliptical orbit. That makes it appear about 14 percent bigger and about 30 percent brighter than average full moons.
  • March’s full moon is called the Worm Moon because March is when the frozen soil thaws and earthworms reappear, to the delight of robins everywhere.

Welcome spring with us. It would be a great night to make like Edward Lear’s owl and pussycat, and dance by the light of the moon. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Here’s my retirement performance evaluation

P1240046.JPGLooking through a screen of scenic madronas toward a nature preserve on neighboring Decatur Island: One of the tranquil scenes from our frequent walks circling Center Island.

IMG_7955THE YEAR-ROUND POPULATION of our 176-acre island has swelled to more than 20, and not all are of the leisure class like Barbara and me. Some telecommute, others divide their time between Center Island and a Seattle office. So I recently heard a discussion of workplace performance evaluations.

If you, too, have been part of the great unwashed who have had to work for a paycheck, you’ve likely run up against a system of ratings in which you have to kowtow to a boss who gets to decide whether you regularly meet or exceed “expectations.”

As an official Old Fart (somewhere I have my membership card), I am nostalgic for the days when we would all just work hard, do our best, and any employer with half a wit to rub together could see that we deserved a raise every year.

But in the post-Reagan years, everything was turned over to the bean counters and there had to be — what’s the magic word? — a metric for work performance. Most of us have had brushes with some sort of performance evaluation system that seemed designed by the kind of person who would pluck the eyeballs out of a road-kill ‘possum, just because they could.

Now, having ditched the office almost a year ago, all that is behind me. And I’m happy to say that I’m the sole judge of what kind of day I’ve had.

For example, the other day I was sitting at my desk in Wee Nooke, my cedar-sided writing hut on the rocky knoll behind our cabin, and working on the latest mystery novel on which Barbara and I are collaborating, a continuation of the Murdermobile series. My eye was suddenly caught by a deer wandering by my window. The doe meandered around the knoll, oblivious to my presence, and then plopped down in a sunny bed of thick, emerald moss about 10 feet away, proceeding to take a nap.

As I continued tapping at my keyboard, I took great pleasure in looking up every few minutes to see my fuzzy woodland companion still there, at peace. It was a simple thing, but rarely have I been filled with such a sense of well-being.

Little moments such as that fill our days. Bringing coffee to my sweetie in bed most mornings. Walking the circle road around our island together, spying a peeping flock of golden-crowned kinglets. Buzzing over to Lopez Island in our fun old runabout. Sharing a good curry Barbara has whipped up in the cabin’s modern kitchen. Snuggling together under the covers on a cold night.

All those things exceed my expectations. I think I’ll keep this job. 1-anchor

Happy Washington’s Birthday. A new beer god is born.

P1240232.JPGThe latest home brew: Ready to sip, with sunset and pretzels.

IMG_7955YES, THAT HEADLINE SAYS “BEER GOD.” If you can’t hyperbolate in your own blog, when can you hyperbolate?

Part of making the transition to a new life in which one doesn’t set the alarm clock is the unearthing of skills long hidden behind the veil of working for a paycheck. As loyal Reefers* (*see blog title) know, home brewing has been an aspiration of mine for almost half the years I’ve been aspirating. Only now did I get around to it.

The first effort was a flop. Unwelcome bacterial beasties apparently got in to my batch of Nutty Nuthatch Brown English Ale, rendering it sour and unpleasant.

Second time around I was absolutely obsessive about sanitizing every bottle and piece of equipment — two or three times — and it paid off.

Last evening I popped the cap on my first longneck of Nuthatch Brewing’s Chinook Way Full-Hopped IPA. And I’m not too shy to tell you it was spicily, amberly, artisanally, intoxicatingly good.

Notes of cinnamon and caramel blended with the light flowery scent of the Chinook hops that are partly responsible for the beer’s name. The other factor is that “Chinook Way” is the name of the modest one-lane gravel road above which our Nuthatch cabin perches. (Somebody apparently once had overly grand ideas for this tiny island, just as the founders of Anacortes long ago gave their city wide, wide avenues to accommodate the traffic that has only now arrived, or how Port Townsend was convinced it would become a bustling commercial seaport at the Pacific end of the transcontinental railroad.)

Announcing my brewing success on George’s birthday has a certain aptness. Fun fact for February 22: By the start of the 19th century our first president was one of the largest producers of whiskey in the United States.  (We magnates of the spirits industry believe in sharing the glory.)

So, I’m motivated to make another batch of beer. Who knows, maybe by the 22nd century Center Island will be the base of a giant American brewing empire.

And if “hyperbolate” — which I would define as “the overzealous application of hyperbole” — isn’t a word, it should be.

It would also make a good band name. 1-anchor



After the storms: Broken dock… and overdue library books?

P1240222.JPGRecent winter storms on Lopez Sound tossed and flexed the Hunter Bay public dock until it snapped in the middle, marked by a hastily erected blockade. Our remote island, seen in the middle distance, just got more remote.

IMG_7955WE’VE HAD PLENTY OF GREAT TIMES on our island since moving to the San Juans full-time last spring. But it hasn’t been all beer and skittles. (And who would eat those icky-sweet Skittles with beer, anyway?)

The latest challenge blew in with the northeasterly winds a week or two ago, when one of the big state ferries plying Rosario Strait reported gusts of 90 to 100 mph. Coming from that direction, the wind had miles of open water to churn as it blew southward down Lopez Sound, colliding smack dab with the Hunter Bay county dock. That’s where we tie up when we want to visit our neighboring island for grocery shopping, library visits, garbage disposal and so on.

The waves pitched the dock up and down so hard that it broke in two, like a brittle twig snapping in the middle. Timbers broke and steel rebar twisted like shoelaces.

The outcome: Where four or five 20-foot boats could moor previously, now there’s room for only one boat on the shore side of the broken dock. The rest is closed off by a wooden barricade.

Bad news for us outer islanders who rely on the dock as our lifeline to the “bright lights” of Lopez. The dock was already often full on busy weekends in the islands.

I phoned the frazzled county engineer, whose main message to me was that his crews were desperately overworked after the big storm. Understandable. He took down my name and number and said someone would get back to me.

I followed up with emails to the engineer, the county manager and the county council, just so everybody would know about the dock’s damage. So far, we’ve no idea when repairs might happen. It could be months.

We’ll get by, but life on this remote island just got more remote. And, hey, I have library books that are due in a week. 1-anchor

P.S. Skittles, besides being a fruity American candy, was a popular English pub game akin to bowling, thus the old saying “beer and skittles” referred to leisure time with your drinking buddies.

P1240209.JPGBarbara stretches her legs, tramping in recent snow along the Center Island air field.

Happy snowy birthday, Barbara

P1240161.JPGThe birthday girl models the “grumpy cat” sweater she just finished knitting.

IMG_7955YES, I’LL STILL FEED HER, yes, I still need her, now that she’s 64.

As Barbara’s elder sister Ann, in Brisbane, wrote to her, “Now’s it’s your turn to put up with that stupid song for a year!”

Today’s my sweetie’s birthday. In 1955, five weeks before her due date, Barbara Alice Burns was born at Northgate Hospital in Seattle. In the Eisenhower administration, as the Cold War was getting serious, her parents had just moved from Massachusetts to North Seattle, and she made her debut at the shopping-mall hospital only because it was the closest to their new rental home when Barbara’s dad frantically put his ready-to-pop wife in a cab while he stayed home with their other four little ones.

“Obviously, I was born to shop,” Barbara has always said, tongue-in-cheekily referring to her birth hospital, now replaced by acres of mall parking.

This weekend, we were supposed to be celebrating with daughter Lilly in an oceanfront inn at Cannon Beach, Oregon, but the weather gods said, “Not so fast!” Phrases such as “snow apocalypse” filled the weather forecasts, convincing us that hours of driving wasn’t a good choice.

Happily, Barbara and I managed a quick overnight trip to Seattle to share some celebration time with our daughter, returning to Center Island before travel got too nasty.

P1240167.JPGIf you can’t wear sox like these when you’re 64, when can you wear them? Barbara models some birthday gifts.

As it turned out, the snow mostly bypassed our island, where we got less than 2 inches. What we got instead were more windstorms and frigid temperatures, so island life has been challenging enough in recent days. Meanwhile, Lilly got five inches of snow at Shilshole Marina where she lives with her cat, Tiberius, on our cozy old sailboat, Sogni d’Oro.

Several more inches of snow is expected across the region starting this evening (it has just started as I write this). So we might get our share of white stuff.

P1240173.JPGBucky and friends come by The Nuthatch looking for handouts in the cold of winter.

This belated winter blast has caught our island’s natural world offguard. An obviously pregnant doe has been hanging around our cabin, and when she came by yesterday I asked Barbara if she had any food I could put out for the Mama to Be. My wife handed me a bagful of small carrots and broccoli florets that we’d snacked on earlier. I tossed the carrots to Mama Deer, who eagerly chewed them down. I didn’t think broccoli would appeal to a deer, but at Barbara’s urging (“Folic acid is important for her!”) I tossed them as well, and they were gobbled right up.

P1240159.JPGDaffodils from our yard bloomed when we brought the premature buds in from the snow.

We’ve had many woodpeckers at the suet block hanging from one of our small firs, and today a big Northern flicker. Just before the snow arrived, Barbara stepped outside and cut a handful of daffodils that had already budded out in our side yard, ready to bloom in the next couple weeks. They were so tightly budded we weren’t sure they’d actually flower when brought inside, but their chances outside didn’t seem good. Happily, they’ve opened just in time to decorate the birthday dinner table. Some are small blooms, because they were preemies, just like Barbara. But they’re still beauties. Just like Barbara. 1-anchor

When I get older losing my hair, Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a Valentine, Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?
You’ll be older, too. And if you say the word
I could stay with you.
I could be handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?
Every summer we can rent a cottage, in the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear.
We shall scrimp and save.
Grandchildren on your knee: Vera, Chuck and Dave.
Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say: yours sincerely, wasting away.
Give me your answer, fill in a form, mine for evermore.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?
— John Lennon / Paul McCartney

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