Glory be, what a month it’s been

Betsy Davis’s classic double-ender motoryacht Glorybe, built in 1914 and rebuilt after a 2002 fire, looks highly decorative in a May sunset while riding a mooring just off Center Island.

OH MY, OH MY, my May.

Here it’s already Memorial Day weekend, one year since my crewmates and I shoved off for our 10-week voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and I’ve had such a busy month of visiting with other friends that I need to catch up with you, loyal Reefers.

Getting too busy with friends can be a rare thing when you live on a small island nobody’s heard of. Lots of comings and goings this month. For me, that’s a good thing. Winters can get lonely when the winds howl.

Jean and Daniel Farber, May 2023 park hosts at Lime Kiln Point State Park, with an old lime kiln in the background.

Early in the month, I had a pleasant stay with friends (and Inside Passage crewmates) Bill Watson and Barbara Marrett on San Juan Island, paired with a bonus visit with old chums Daniel and Jean Farber. Usually at home in Olympia, they’ve spent the whole month of May living in a travel trailer on San Juan Island where they’ve served as interpretive park hosts (and ruthless wranglers of invasive blackberry vines) at Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Daniel, who retired from a distinguished career with Washington State Parks, once again proved his acumen as a parks pooh-bah by leading me on a walking tour rich in historical narration of Lime Kiln’s old quarries and upland trails. For example, little did I know that Lyman Cutler, the American farmer whose famous shooting of a British pig touched off the Pig War standoff here in 1859, was also a founder of the quarrying business at Lime Kiln Point, which shipped lime to be used in cement for building cities up and down the West Coast. Added trivia from my own research: After Cutler sold his interest, the mining company ultimately dissolved when one partner murdered another — proving, I guess, that it’s dangerous to be a mining baron, or a pig, on San Juan Island.

A curious red fox met us in the woods at Lime Kiln.

If you’re interested in island-living lore, my trips to San Juan Island aren’t quick or easy. I hire the Paraclete Water Taxi to take me from Center Island across Lopez Sound (3 miles, $38) to the Hunter Bay County Dock on Lopez Island, where I keep my faithful old Ford pickup, Ranger Rick (county parking permit, $25 annually for homeowners on neighboring Center and Decatur islands). I drive Ranger Rick 11 miles to park in the public lot (72 hours free) at the state ferry terminal, load my Rubbermaid tote (aka San Juan Samsonite) on my old red handtruck and walk it on to the next ferry bound for Friday Harbor (often waiting longer than expected because ferry runs get canceled due to crew shortages). The good news: the ferry ride is free for interisland walk-ons.

Ten days after my return from that adventure, Galley Cat and I were on the road to Walla Walla to visit my friend Patti Lennartson. Galley Cat usually vocally protests the idea of leaving the cabin overnight, and hides under a bed if she cottons to the fact that I’m packing again. But once she was in the car and set loose from her carrier to be a free-range travel cat (as free as she can be in a Honda Civic), she seemed fine with it. As usual, she often stretched from the passenger seat to put her front paws on the dashboard to watch the world go by. I think she likes high speeds. Crossing Snoqualmie Pass, she seemed fascinated by snowy peaks, as only makes sense for someone who has spent 99.9 percent of her 11 years at or near sea level. (She lived on a boat half her life.)

Latina dancers whirl and twirl at the College Place Block Party, near Walla Walla.

Walla Walla was sunny and hot. But Patti had the A.C. cranked up in the guest room, and Galley and I enjoyed a dose of extra Vitamin D when we got outside. Along with Patti’s daughter Stevie and her partner, Kevin, we drank some good Walla Walla wine, watched a Latin dance troupe at a street fair in College Place, ate good tacos and wood-fired pizza with fresh asparagus, and generally had a fine time.

Dancers balance beer trays on their heads in College Place. That’s talent.

Came back to lovely 65-degree days on my island, where the wildflowers are almost played out. The blue camas (with edible bulb) is almost done, though the appropriately named death camas (whose foliage and bulb are poisonous) is parading white stalks of flowers in a come-hither display. Happily, Galley ignores the siren call. She likes plain old grass.

Just when I was going to get down to work replacing planks on my deck, a delightful respite presented on Wednesday when dear friend Carol Hasse, another of my Inside Passage crewmates, texted to ask if she and shipmates on the beautiful, century-old wooden motoryacht Glorybe, moored that day at Jones Island, might put in at Center Island on Thursday.

Always say yes, friend Daniel and I have pledged, when serendipity knocks. So I got on the phone to island buddy Dan Lewis, who didn’t hesitate when I asked if his mooring buoy might be available. It was a perfect bluebird-sky May afternoon when Hasse, Glorybe skipper Betsy Davis, and fellow crewmate Ace Spragg came for a happy hour and fish-taco dinner on the Nuthatch Cabin’s deck (which will have new cedar planks soon enough).

From left, Betsy Davis, Ace Spragg and Carol Hasse depart my island.

Hasse, as anybody who has set foot on a sailboat in this hemisphere probably knows, recently retired from a renowned sailmaking business in Port Townsend. Betsy, former director of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, these days helms the NorthWest School of Wooden BoatBuilding in Port Hadlock when she isn’t at the wheel of Glorybe. Ace is that school’s education director after serving 11 years as sailing director, among other salty hats she wore, at Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. All this pedigree talk is simply to say that over beer, wine and a bit of good grub, we had a boatload of good nautical chat to share. I loved Ace’s stories about her idyllic childhood days of building and piloting rafts on the Chesapeake Bay (and constructing a five-story treehouse from which she and other kids dropped eggs — and anything else that seemed interesting — just to watch them splat).

The thing to remember is, friends don’t let friends work too hard. Tomorrow I get busy on the deck. Have a memorable Memorial Day.

The avian gold standard

NOT MY BEST-EVER Goldfinch photos, but worth sharing. These migratory songbirds are such a delight when they arrive in crowds, brightening the scene in early May. Another treat will come in June or so when new fledglings appear at the feeder: miniature, brightly feathered, not quite yet knowing where their feet are — a bit like human newborns. But could you fly at the age of 11 days?

Peek-a-who? That’s a Purple Finch, no slouch in its showy crimson feathers, peering around the corner of the Nuthatch Cabin’s well-used feeder. But a recently arrived American Goldfinch steals the show in its splendid lemony plumage.

Glorying in a few days of spring

Sailboats sit at moorings on Fisherman’s Bay, just off Lopez Village, as seen from my lunch spot.

THE OFFICIAL, FARMER’S ALMANAC-SANCTIONED spring equinox might not be until 2:24 p.m. PDT Monday. But spring arrived today in the San Juan Islands.


The sky was clear, the seas were calm, the thermometer pushed 60 degrees, and Center Island’s docks were nearly full. All over my island people were outside hammering, hoeing, washing down and tidying up — doing all the celebratory puttering that comes with the end of a long winter.

I celebrated a few days early by relaunching my 1957 runabout, WeLike, on Thursday. It had sat forlornly on a trailer since November. Doing my part as a spring-inspired islander, I checked over the boat’s electrical system, added fresh fuel, drained the water strainer, ran the bilge pump and gave the boat a good scrub.

Then I buzzed over to Lopez Island yesterday for a blissful day of normal stuff you do when it’s not winter.

At Isabel’s Espresso, I sat outside on the deck and read a book while I sipped a good coffee. I stopped in at the supermarket for fresh produce. I took a sack lunch and strolled out to a favorite bench at Fisherman Bay Spit, where rogue daffodils were starting to bloom in the pasture of a long-deserted farmstead. I ducked into the public library and checked out a real book. What a delight! One gets overly reliant on Kindle when you live on a remote island.

Galley Cat, too, is reveling in the warmer days, gamboling up and down the rocky knoll. Returning inside today after an hour out inspecting the grounds, she smelled all sun-washed and fresh, like linen sheets that had dried on a clothesline.

It’s supposed to rain on Monday, the Weather Service says. But for a few days, we got a jump on the season of renewal, in all its glory. Hallelujah.

Practicing catch-and-release with my cabin’s chimney. (Sheesh)

A Dark-eyed Junco like this explored my chimney and woodstove this morning.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Will S. wrote, and as I breathed a sigh of relief this morning I decided he was right.

But this is definitely the year I replace my chimney.

Being Daylight Savings Sunday, I was lolling in bed reading John Grisham and finishing my coffee and avocado toast at what some might call a late-ish hour of the morning. But I had that “spring ahead,” lose-an-hour-of-sleep excuse for lolling.

That’s when I heard the skittering.

For a moment I tried to convince myself it was a Nuthatch — the bird for which my cabin is named — outside messing about in my metal roof’s gutter, as they often do. Getting a sip of water, perhaps; the drainage isn’t all that great.

But then I heard it again: a sound like fingernails lightly brushing metal, and it wasn’t coming from outside. I recognized that sound.


I had another bird down my chimney.

Loyal Reefers might recall a couple Novembers ago when this happened before. That time, I got paranoid about what was in my chimney, imagining anything from a hapless bird to a squirrel or raccoon (or, as several merciless readers suggested, a skunk).

At that time, try as I might I couldn’t figure out how to open up the chimney and release the creature, which had fallen into the lowest reaches of the woodstove’s metal flue, the eight feet or so that connect the stove with the cabin ceiling. The chimney has a conical cap up top and I expect it was screened when it was new, but the screen has probably disintegrated with rust and heat over the years. Rising high above my rooftop, it’s not easily inspected.

Unable to catch-and-release that first time round, I went with Undesirable Choice No. 2: Refrain from building a fire and let nature, uh, take its course. It was several days before the skittering stopped.

Eventually I discovered a way to remove the fire bricks at the top of the woodstove and was able to remove the poor dead sparrow.

As I lolled in the loft this morning, I resigned myself to another unpleasant days-long “death watch.”

But then I realized: Now I know how to open up the stove from inside. I could try to get the bird out. If I could free it from the chimney, maybe I could capture it in a large trash bag and set it free outside, hopeful that it wouldn’t be caked with soot and creosote. I had to try.

Meanwhile, Galley Cat, who usually snoozes the morning away on her heated cat bed downstairs, had come up to the loft to see me. Vocal and wide-eyed, she was clearly trying to tell me something.

Descending the stairs and crossing the living room, I saw what she was trying to communicate: “Pops!” (she calls me “Pops”)… “Pops, there’s a birdie in the woodstove, you can see it in there!”

Sure enough, this bird was no longer caught in the chimney, it had squeezed its way down past the firebricks and made it into the stove’s main chamber. There it was, clearly visible, fluttering behind the glass: a very unhappy Dark-eyed Junco. For goodness’ sake.

OK, Rescue One, suit up and respond to an avian distress call at 1366 Chinook Way.

Adrenaline flowing, I grabbed a trash bag from the pantry. Plopped the feline in the bathroom, behind a closed door. (She was certain she could help. I demurred.) I hoped to bag the victim as I cracked open the stove door, but in case it got past me I opened wide the glass slider and a side door.

Happily, the Junco wasn’t caked with creosote. It remained perfectly mobile, which it proved the moment the door was cracked. Despite my best efforts with the trash bag, I had a Junco flying around my living room.

Unfortunately, it didn’t find the open doors. It bumped against one of the big front windows, then flew through the kitchen and thumped against a window by the sink, where it decided to stay and flutter about.

Now, I have to say this for that bird. Whether or not it knew I was trying to help, it did me one huge favor. Anybody who has heard the sad tale of the duck that got into our sailboat’s V-berth, which ended with a very long afternoon at the laundromat getting our bedding de-ducked, will know these things can end badly. I’ll just say it bluntly: No matter how frightened it may have been, the Junco did not shit inside my house. Thank you. Were the roles reversed and a giant songbird was chasing me with a trash bag the size of Mount Constitution, I can’t promise I’d have been so reserved.

Anyway, I sidled over to the kitchen with my trash bag opened wide. The bird tried to take cover in a potted plant sitting behind the sink, but I swooped and scooped.

As first, I didn’t think I’d caught it. Songbirds don’t weigh much, and under the feathers there’s not a lot of bulk. I very lightly gripped the bag closed while I searched around the plant and among the dishbrushes. My home invader wasn’t there. So I carefully peeked into the plastic bag cradled in my fist and saw a pair of fragile bird feet sticking out. It wasn’t struggling, perhaps just resigned to its fate.

Keeping my grip loose, I quickly strode out onto the deck, put the bag down and opened it wide. The Junco flew away, and I don’t think it stopped until it hit Lopez Island.

All’s well that ends well. But, sheesh, it’s time to get a chimney with a screen.

Fleeing my rock for the City of Subdued Excitement

Sailboats scoot across Bellingham Bay.


When I flee the seemingly endless winter on Center Island and seek a place with more live humans, I guess you might call me an “off-my-rocker.” Kind of goes along with living in a cabin called the Nuthatch.

Anyway — forging prosaically on — when I need to get away and have just a day, I like to go to Bellingham.

This week I decided a necessary grocery-shopping trip would be a good opportunity for a northward pilgrimage to the City of Subdued Excitement, as Bellinghamsters like to call their town.

OK, I mean, right there — not only does the place have a great self-deprecatory, tongue-in-cheek slogan, but residents go by a name that conjures a vision of a town full of anthropomorphized rodents driving around in little cars. I appreciate a community with a sense of humor.

They also have almost as many craft breweries and brew pubs as Bend, Ore., which everyone knows adds significantly to the quality of life.

When my family returned from a 1990s sailing trip to Mexico after two years of being off the grid careerwise, Barbara and I realized we could start afresh wherever we chose. We hoped to make a go of it in Bellingham, a congenial college town on a beautiful bay, a half-day’s sail from the San Juans and practically in the shadow of Mount Baker and its razzle-dazzle ski area.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Newspapering was my life, and I did get hired and worked for one day at the local daily, the Bellingham Herald. But I was young, a bit cantankerous, and just returning from the freedom of the wild seas. That first day on the job, after I’d expressed enough disagreements with the corporate policies of the Herald’s parent company, Gannett, one of America’s worst newspaper chains, the newspaper’s H.R. director and I mutually agreed that it just wasn’t a match made in heaven. So my family sailed south into Puget Sound and I ended up at The Seattle Times. A happy ending, as it turned out.

From a viewpoint along Chuckanut Drive, the road to Bellingham offers panoramas of islands and saltwater in a varied palette of blues.
Chuckanut Drive curves

But I’ve always enjoyed visiting Bellingham, about which I wrote numerous travel stories for the Times. These days I like going even if only for a quick trip to the sole Trader Joe’s in Northwest Washington. From the water-taxi dock in Anacortes, it’s an easy hour’s drive.

I got a pleasant sunny day for this trip, and I found time to get off Interstate 5 and chug northward on scenic and serpentine Chuckanut Drive, the original northbound road that skirts the base of the Chuckanut Mountains, a foothill spur that geologists say is the only place the Cascade range meets the sea. It adds only about 15 minutes to the trip, but it’s a superb quarter hour. Starting from the Samish Flats, where I saw a fluttering flurry of snow geese, my red Civic snaked along boulder-strewn cliffs, passed chattering waterfalls and skirted moody panoramas of islands and saltwater.

An overwater boardwalk is part of the waterfront trail crossing Bellingham’s Boulevard Park.

Reaching town, I navigated the old-town Fairhaven district and pulled off at Boulevard Park. A narrow strip of land between the bay and the main north-south railroad tracks, the park offers shoreside benches, picnic tables, a kids’ playground and a waterfront path and overwater boardwalk that stretches miles into downtown. It’s my chosen stop when I pack a lunch. On breezy days, I’ve watched kiteboarders fly high out in the bay. The park even has a good, locally run coffee shop. Very civilized.

After lunch, my day was devoted to grocery shopping. But if you’re there with more time, Bellingham has a bunch of fine museums, dedicated to history, art, and even electricity (the eyepopping Spark Museum); a distinctively spired performing arts center (the 96-year-old Mount Baker Theatre); a variety of pleasant walking trails (such as a waterfront amble on Lake Whatcom), and the aforementioned breweries.

The excitement, though tastefully subdued, is earned.

Source: Google Maps

Febrrrr-uary ends frostily

Cottony clouds crowd the Cascades on a recent sunny but cold day. Looking east from Center Island across Decatur Island to Rosario Strait.

DECEMBER TOOK A JAB AT IT, but February has again tussled its way to the title as the San Juan Islands’ winter month with the most unpredictable and weirdest weather.

We’ve had hail (pelting down like a million icy little meteorites on my deck, more than once). We’ve had frigid Fraser Valley gales (combined with big tidal swings that make crossing Rosario Strait to Anacortes a rocking, sloshing, life-challenging adventure, more than once). We’ve had blowing snow, we’ve had frosty nights. And, yes, we’ve also had pristine sunny days, such as today, most of which have never warmed above freezing. And, oh my, the starry nights.

Galley has donned a cunning Argyle sweater against the February cold.

“I’m done with the cold,” the Mad Birder grumped on a recent visit. He moved here from California, which by rights might make him bitter about our February freezes, but today Los Angeles has blizzard warnings, so go figure.

Extreme cold tends to keep us otherwise hardy islanders indoors by blazing fires much of the time. By now, with the month of March parading our direction as if to a John Philip Sousa composition, our feet are decidedly itchy.

I have done a few things other than binge-watch all four seasons of “New Amsterdam” in recent weeks. On a day when the earth wasn’t frozen I finally dug a hole in which to plant the five-foot Charlie Brown fir tree that had been living in a root-bound pot on my deck for many months. Daughter Lillian brought the tree up a couple years ago. It was Nuthatch cabin’s Christmas tree in 2021. When much smaller, it had served as her Christmas tree on the sailboat in 2020, after being dug up on Auntie Sarah’s Camano Island property. So it’s a well-traveled little tree, finally properly planted and surrounded by deer fencing next to the porch of Wee Nooke, my Center Island writing hut.

Wee Nooke’s newly planted tree.

Wee Nooke needed a new tree. We originally erected the 36-square-foot cedar shed in the shade of a sizable shore pine that leaned artfully over its roof until the pine blew down a few winters ago. Had the tree fallen about 10 inches to the left my Nooke would have been transformed from man cave to matchsticks. If the Charlie Brown tree ever gets big and old enough to blow down, I am confident I won’t be around to be squished. Always look on the bright side of life, I say.

I bottled a gallon of beer this week, brewed on the Nuthatch’s stovetop a couple weeks ago with the help of Lillian and partner Chris when they were up for a quick visit. The beer fermented in a jug next to a miniature electric radiator beneath an upturned plastic storage tote behind my bed. I got to drift off to sleep to the comforting “boop-boop” of the jug’s venting gases that told me the yeast was happily working its magic.

Made with a popular strain of pungent, citrus-scented hops called Cashmere, this brew is dubbed Cashmere Blonde. Lillian educated me that cashmere wool comes from Cashmere goats, so I found an image of a wildly-horned, blonde Cashmere goat to go on the bottle label. The ale will be properly bottle-aged in time for me to quaff with Lil and Chris on their next visit, possibly while we brew another batch, in mid-March.

Meanwhile, if robins are harbingers of spring (a highly dubious assumption, I see them here in December) (but I digress)… If robins are harbingers of spring, we should be headed for warmer days. Yesterday I saw about a hundred of the red-breasted harbingers pecking for worms on the grassy field that is Center Island International. So I guess “seeing red” isn’t always a bad thing.

Until spring has sprung, Galley Cat and I send warm thoughts your way.

The latest label from Nuthatch Brewing.

Boatyard daze: Pondering the future with a salty old friend

Daughter Lillian shines our sailboat’s green stripe as the boat perches on stands in Seattle’s Canal Boatyard. Unintentionally but appropriately, the boat’s color scheme of green, white and red mirrors the Italian flag.


Naw. What kind of a question is that?

I’m enjoying a lazy day back on my island after six days away, four of which were spent in hard physical labor at Seattle’s Canal Boatyard during the necessary every-three-years haulout of my beloved old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro.

Daughter Lillian and I sanded and repainted (two generous coats) the boat’s ample, full-keeled bottom, among other tasks. A modified-epoxy, copper-infused antifouling paint is key to keeping barnacles and long streamers of kelp from taking up residence on the hull of Sogni d’Oro, whose name is the Italian version of “sweet dreams.”

The Cantwells haven’t a drop of Italian blood, as far as I know. But my late wife Barbara and I had enjoyed memorable travels in Italy in 1989, the year we made the boat ours. (“Bought” isn’t the right word.) At the time, we were smitten with all things Italian. These things happen.

If nothing else, the exotic name is a good dockside conversation starter with folks who ask “what’s that mean?” and “how the heck do you say it?” (“SO-nyee DOH-ro”). My daughter and I still say it to each other when we bid each other good night.

The boat means much to me and Lillian. My family lived aboard the sailboat for the better part of 25 years. When Lil was born in 1991, Barbara and I brought our little girl home from the hospital to a marina on the Columbia River in Portland, where we lived at the time. In the mid-’90s, we took a great sailing adventure to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. The full-keel boat was meant for ocean cruising, and given the right wind and sail handling, she charged through waves like a sea-going locomotive. On one memorable passage, hundreds of leaping dolphins surrounded us as we plunged through the seas.

Once settled in Seattle, for 20 years we threw off the mooring lines and spent two weeks every summer exploring every cove and cranny of the San Juan Islands. It’s how Barbara and I fell in love with these islands and ended up retiring here.

When her mum and I moved to Center Island in 2018, now-adult Lillian moved back aboard Sogni d’Oro at Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina. She and her cat, Tiberius, are the boat’s liveaboard stewards now — with a healthy bit of elbow grease and wallet-loosening from Papa come haulout time.

In recent years, the boat has mostly been “dock sailed,” as sailors snickeringly describe it when a vessel doesn’t leave the marina. It’s a matter of some regret for us. But sometimes rocks poke up in your life’s plotted course.

For me, these four days in the boatyard were like an intimate reunion with a salty old friend. In our head-to-toe Tyvek painting suits (which on a warm day feel a lot like wearing a portable sauna), Lil and I scraped barnacles from the prop and restored the bronze shine. We applied $500 worth of paint. We hand-cleaned and polished the fiberglass topsides and the gleaming green stripe beneath the teak cap-rail. Lillian sanded and refinished 32-feet of rub rail. Everything below the waterline got inspected, cleaned and restored.

In the Travelift’s slings, a spiffed-up Sogni d’Oro sails through the boatyard on the way to relaunch. A somewhat unnerving development since our last haulout: The boatyard’s new Travelift is operated by remote control. Nobody sits in the driver’s seat.

Someone asked if this might be my last haulout. It’s a lot of work. I’ve always insisted on doing it myself, and ain’t nobody getting any younger. I love my good old boat, but, I admit, Lil and I discussed whether it might soon be time to find someone new to love her.

For now, I’m still basking in the glow-slash-exhaustion from all that we did to spiff her up.

I do still have a lovingly restored 1957 runabout, a 10-foot plywood sailing dinghy, an 8-foot inflatable Zodiac with outboard, and a two-person inflatable kayak. I still have boats to “mess about in,” as Kenneth Grahame memorably put it.

Too soon to say. In the end, I might just find someone new to love my island cabin, and move back aboard Sogni d’Oro. Lots of sweet dreams happened there.

It’s gettin’ too goldurn modern on this little speck o’ dirt

Here’s the high-falutin’ street address for my cabin on the cowpath loftily called Chinook Way.

WHAT ARE THINGS COMING TO on this island that nobody’s heard of?

From the time that hopeful real-estate magnates subdivided this 172-acre rock into half-acre lots in about 1960, until just a few years ago, nobody felt the need for street signs.

On the island map, Nuthatch Cabin’s gravel cowpath was called Chinook Way. Another was Makah Street, another Haidah Street, and one was Wishkah Lane, which pretty much sums up the Greater Center Island traffic grid. People knew what road their cabin was on. Nobody needed to mark the roads with signs.

Most folks marked their property with the lot number from the original plat, because when you invited some new fellow you met on the dock to drop by for a beer, he needed some way to find you.

Then, a few years ago, bureaucracy arrived on our remote isle. The county made us post street signs.

OK, fine. Some island do-gooder got out his jigsaw, cut the letters from wood and cobbled together some pretty innocuous signage.

Now, Friday Harbor’s latest thing is a push for each of us to post a county-assigned house number — not the lot number — in front of our cabins. Sheesh.

They say it’s important so that emergency services can find us.

A minor point to make: We live on a little island with no fire department. No fire engine or medic unit is ever coming here, unless maybe the whole island is aflame. And by the time anybody gets a fire truck here on a barge, the place will just be a smoking ember among the Read’s Bay eelgrass.

As for law enforcement? I think a sheriff’s deputy has been on the island twice in the nearly 20 years since Barbara and I bought here. When it does happen, half the people on the island know in advance. They are at the dock to meet the sheriff’s boat, wave their arms and point the way to the trouble.

So far, posting your street number isn’t mandatory. Nonetheless, at the foot of my front path yesterday I planted a shiny new 7-inch by 10-inch reflective metal sign, delivered by Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service to the mail shack at the end of Center Island International Airport (aka our grass airfield).

Call it caving to peer pressure, maybe. Or thinking about the seconds that might be saved if I have a major stroke and use my Airlift Northwest insurance to call for a helicopter evac.

Or just call it being a good citizen. There are still some of us out here.

It doesn’t mean we can’t grumble.

It takes a little magic to accomplish chores with no stores

A pry bar is my friend as I rebuild the Nuthatch’s deck. That, and lots of bug repellent.

IT’S LIKE PAINTING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, maintaining my little piece of the rock. I start a project at one end, and by the time I’ve made it to the far side, it’s time to start over again.

After my 10-week voyage to Alaska and back, there’s plenty of deferred maintenance at the Nuthatch, the cabin whose name honors Center Island’s most common bird, with its endearing bandit-masked face and its call like a tin horn that a 19th-century child might have found in a Christmas sock. Of course, you also have to be a bit nuts to live here. No shops, no garbage trucks, no Starbucks.

The helpful meteorologist has given me day after day of pleasant sunshine the past two weeks, during which I’ve gotten back to rebuilding my slowly crumbling 25-year-old wooden deck. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has contributed a bumper crop of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, so I’ve started every day by liberally spraying my T-shirt with bug repellent. Supplementing that: the fun new handheld bug zapper, like a battery-powered handball racquet, sent me by a friend. It emits a satisfying crackle and spark every time a little blood sucker meets its maker.

My new battery-operated bug zapper adds a bit of sport to outdoor chores. Care is required, however. Instructions warn against swatting your own nose with it.

Understand, the deck rebuild isn’t a quick project. It’s in about Year Four, and it happens plank by plank. Being nuts enough to live where I do, acquiring fresh lumber generally involves a boat trip to Skagit County. Once off the boat, I trek over to the long-term parking lot across from the dock and revive my 11-year-old Civic for a trip to Home Depot or Lowe’s.

It might make more sense to have a pickup truck for this purpose, but my noble pickup, Ranger Rick, lives at the public dock on Lopez Island, waiting for my next trip to the dump. The bought-and-paid-for Civic is my mainland car. One is not made of money; one makes do.

So the speed with which the deck is rebuilt depends not only on my leisurely attitude toward home repairs, but on how many eight-foot planks can fit inside a Honda Civic four-door sedan.

Now, there is actually a bit of fun involved here. See, the rear seat of the Civic folds down so that there is clear space down the center of the car from the trunk through to the dashboard. When I wheel out into the parking lot with my cart laden with half a dozen 8-foot-long boards, pop open my car’s small trunk and stuff in the planks, one by one, I can’t help but feel like a conjurer. Penn, minus Teller. Siegfried, if not Roy. I’m sure I’ve mystified many a fellow hardware shopper.

I’ve also brought deck boards back from the lumber yard on Lopez Island on occasion, using my 20-foot runabout, WeLike. The conjuring trick is pretty much the same.

This week I’ve replaced six rotting boards. That might not sound like much but progress is evident. The old wood is generally soft enough that when I pry up the boards, the nails securing them to the frame below stay in place as the board pulls away. I then yank the old three-inch nails from the framework, which is generally in good shape. Yanking out nails that long is often a matter of throwing all my 166 pounds into leveraging the hammer claw. Sometimes it’s been a near thing that I haven’t catapulted off the side of the deck when a nail finally gave way.

There is sawing to make pieces fit. Sealing the old nail holes. Two coats of stain to delay the march of time and onslaught of weather. A spray of copper-infused preservative for the raw wood ends. It all takes time.

But the deck hasn’t fallen down yet. And it looks better after every little trip to the lumber yard.

Back on the rock: Paella with pals, and a bittersweet memorial

A bubbling vat of paella on a neighbor’s deck was the lure last week to a Center Island block party, easing my transition back to landlubberly existence.

BACK TO THE REEF, and the rock also known as Center Island.

I needed a writing hiatus for a few weeks after returning from the Alaska adventure. It’s been a period of readjustment to the landlubberly life, and to daily existence shared primarily with Galley Cat, with whom I’ve enjoyed a joyful reunion with many shared runs up and down our rocky knoll.

It took a week or so until I was waking in the morning without the inclination to jump out of my bunk, get coffee water heating on the Force 10 stove and climb down in the hold to complete the morning engine checks so we could weigh anchor.

My past three weeks of land-based confinement has hardly been solitary, though. After a couple of days reuniting with my brother Tom, who was my cabin watcher/cat sitter for 10 weeks, I was invited to lunch on Lopez Island with old friend and Seattle Times colleague Lynn Thompson and her family.

Shortly afterward, The Mad Birder and his wife, Carol, invited me next door with three other neighbors to share a bounty of Dungeness crab, freshly hauled from Lopez Sound. That led to another party two days later after neighbor Steve, a restaurant chef from Nevada, took the crab shells back to his holiday cabin to create a stock from which he whipped up a splendid vat of paella, colorfully aswim with fresh San Juan Channel shrimp, Read’s Bay crab and Center Island Farm vegetables. I was among the dozen or so neighbors who got to partake of that locavore lovefest on a sunset-view deck thanks to Steve and his wife, Dawn, the organizing force behind their family-owned eatery.

Neighbor Steve, the paella king of Center Island.

As cabin-owners come and go on our rock, you never know who will be your next neighbor. Right now, we’re enjoying an amiable mix of compatible friends along our dead-end spur of Chinook Way, the grandiose name of the gravel cow-path winding through our thickets of salal and Nootka rose. Three of us are sailboat owners (four, when you count the neighboring farm). Among others is a family with three energetic boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, who added an element of fun to the block party. The kids’ mom told me they are fans of a YouTube channel called “Outdoor Boys,” and the youngest had recently learned of the edibility of seaweed. So as we prepared to sit down to paella on Steve and Dawn’s deck, this adventurous 5-year-old, expertly wielding a pair of chopsticks, doggedly ate his way through a bowl of some sort of kelp. I like that spirit.

Over good food and drink, we all pondered our island existence. Because our cabins face west overlooking Lopez Sound, with the frequent reward of a sinking sun setting the saltwater sparkling brighter than a Tiffany’s display case, we decided our neighborhood’s new nickname should be “Sunset Strip.” There was serious talk of carving a sign.

A couple days later longtime friends Ken and Kate from Portland joined me for three nights at the Nuthatch, giving me a chance to barbecue, one of the things that makes life worth living (in case you didn’t know). Hickory-smoked vegan burgers with Lebanese spice one night. The next: thick-cut pork chops with a crust of fresh island rosemary, minced garlic and romano cheese, grilled with apple-wood smoke.

All that camaraderie and good food was lovely. But stress and emotion wasn’t absent from my return to the island. On my calendar, these days led up to last Sunday, August 21, when we committed my dear Barbara’s cremated remains to the Salish Sea. It wasn’t an easy day to plan for.

Sucia Island, a 90-minute boat ride to the north, was the location. For some 20 years, my family and I would spend a couple weeks of every August poking around the San Juans in our cozy old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro. On those sojourns, Sucia Island State Park, near the Canadian border, became perhaps our favorite place in the world. In our wills, Barbara and I both requested that our remains be cast on waters around Sucia.

For a day trip with a dozen family members and friends, I chartered the Paraclete, the water taxi that I routinely use for passage to and from Anacortes. It was a day of good karma; just before arriving at Sucia, we encountered a pod of orca. For my sister-in-law Jane, who spent much of her childhood around the San Juans, this was the first time she finally saw an orca in the wild.

The picnic crowd near Barbara’s bench on Sucia Island. From here you can see far into Canada.

The Sucia visit included a one-mile hike to a new memorial bench honoring Barbara. The bench installation took more than a year to bring to fruition. The effort’s success can largely be credited to the persistent persuasive powers of my friend Daniel Farber, a retired official with Washington State Parks, along with dozens of friends and family who donated to a GoFundMe campaign. The bench’s bronze plaque reads: “For Barbara, who loved this island, from Brian, who always sat beside her.” I’m sorry it doesn’t acknowledge the many others who played a role in the bench’s creation. Barbara and I chose the wording some time ago, paraphrasing a line from a favorite old movie, to be adapted for whomever went first.

The bronze plaque on Barbara’s bench.

Barbara loved to picnic, so we all brought sack lunches and sat on the bench or on the rocky hillside sloping down to the water. Barbara’s sister Julie made a couple loaves worth of sandwiches; ham-and-pickle and chicken salad, according to family tradition. Her brother Mark brought a toothsome potato salad. For the first time in my life, I made deviled eggs, another family favorite.

After lunch, we reboarded the boat and motored a short ways offshore while snacking on chocolate-coated cream puffs, one of Barbara’s favorite desserts, baked by daughter Lillian. We toasted the memory of a dear wife, mother and sister as we scattered her ashes into the sea along with armloads of summer flowers, many provided by our friend Monique from Center Island Farm.

Daughter Lillian tries out the park bench honoring her mum.

It was a bittersweet but wonderful day. A regrettable follow-up: At least three people who made the trip came down with COVID within days. Sigh. Their symptoms are mild, thanks to vaccinations. I’m feeling fine, so far. One way or another, it seems likely that we’ll all catch this stupid bug eventually.

The Mad Birder summed up the day.

“Regardless of the consequences, Sunday was beautiful, and … the bench is soooooo perfect.”

Lillian and I have resolved to revisit that bench every summer. Barbara will be sitting beside us in spirit, I’m certain.