There and back again: Walla Walla wanderings and a heartwarming return

Feeding hungry goats (and a couple of hopeful pigs) at Walla Walla’s Frog Hollow Farm. From left, Kevin, Stevie, Patti and Lillian.

SOMETIMES THE BEST WAY TO APPRECIATE my small island is to get off it for a few days.

Spending four recent days with daughter Lillian visiting friends in Walla Walla was a wonderful getaway.

Our longtime sailing friend, Patti Lennartson, her daughter, Stevie, and Stevie’s partner, Kevin, were our hosts in the land of dry wine and sweet onions.

It included a visit to delightful Frog Hollow Farm, bordering the Walla Walla River southwest of town, where acres of organic produce is offered on a you-pick basis, including their specialty, row after row of heirloom tomatoes of many shapes and colors, from red to orange to purple. The you-pick price: a wallet-pleasing $1.50 a pound for anything in the field.

A well-sipped mojito, and pre-dinner produce from Frog Hollow.

We left with bagfuls of tomatoes, butternut and delicata squash, eggplant, kale, and fresh herbs. Most of it went into our dinner that evening, all grilled outside and served alongside fresh wild-caught coho salmon. Our pre-dinner happy hour featured tortilla chips and homemade guacamole washed down with mojitos custom-made by Kevin, a former bartender, using fresh-picked mint from the farm.

Once again, when spending time with good friends, we failed to starve.

On the road home, with sunshine and moderate temperatures, Lil and I chose to take the scenic route over 5,430-foot Chinook Pass, inspired by my old friend and newspaper colleague Gregg Herrington’s recent AAA magazine article touting the appeals of the various Cascade passes.

Lillian at Tipsoo Lake, Chinook Pass.

Mid-September traffic was happily sparse. We munched a picnic lunch at uncrowded Tipsoo Lake in Mount Rainier National Park, then walked around the lake as the mountain played peekaboo through clouds. Along the way, we nibbled sweet blue huckleberries and hyperventilated over the intoxicating perfume of the alpine firs, one of the iconic joys of the Pacific Northwest.

Home again at the Nuthatch, I pulled the bedspread off my bed and replaced it with a quilt sent home with me by friend Patti, former president of the Walla Walla Valley Quilt Guild. Years ago, my mother had bestowed on my late wife, Barbara, a stack of colorful quilt squares that her mother, my Grandmother Sadie Archer, had sewn but never put together into a quilt before her untimely death caused by a heart condition in the early 1920s.

Barbara was not an experienced quilter. Patti was. So good friend Patti ultimately took on the project, hoping to present a finished quilt to Barbara before cancer took my dear wife’s life. Like many hopes, that one didn’t quite come true.

But now I’m the recipient of this beautiful piece of handwork, based on 100-year-old quilt squares sewn by a grandmother I never knew: a school teacher who on her own, as a single woman, homesteaded a parcel of South Dakota prairie before marrying my grandfather. It’s a perfect addition to the loft of the Nuthatch, already furnished with an antique rocking chair and a rustic lowboy dresser that belonged to Grandma Sadie.

Galley Cat enjoys the new bedspread sewn with 100-year-old quilt squares. In the background, Grandmother Sadie’s rocker and dresser.

I sense with certainty that, in spirit, my mother and wife both are looking on with big smiles. In these rapidly cooling first days of autumn, that quilt sewn by a friend’s loving hand warms my return to the island.

The San Juans pivot from Dog Days to delight

A Red-breasted Nuthatch grabs a sunflower seed from the feeder outside Nuthatch Cabin, where maple leaves are already turning yellow as the season progresses.

IT’S BEEN A PRETTY PERFECT AUTUMN DAY on Center Island, which feels odd considering it’s the middle of August.

If you’d asked me three days ago I’d have told you it was definitely the Dog Days, though Galley Cat doesn’t much cotton to that terminology. It was hot, seemingly airless and — thanks to wildfires in British Columbia — smoky. From my deck, the setting sun blazed crimson as it dipped below Lopez Island.

But today we’ve definitely had what my late Aussie-raised spouse used to call a cool change: Highs in the 60s rather than the upper 80s. There was a distinct rumor of (dare I speak its name?) fall as a goosebumpy breeze murmured through the leaves of the big Douglas maple that grows out of the rock on which Nuthatch Cabin perches.

Autumnal, also, because that maple’s leaves are already turning yellow and starting to drop, though that seems more a symptom of rain deprivation, I’d say from years of observation. Last summer, wet by San Juan standards, the tree stayed green until around the September equinox.

In any case, this day has felt pretty blissful. Gray and chilly at first, it was a good morning for staying inside and treating Sunday like a proper day of rest. In my case that meant having a scrambled egg on avocado toast with my second cup of coffee while watching the Christmas episode of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series “Grantchester” (a great binge watch if you’re into British vicar-turned-sleuth themes).

Later, telephoning a Walla Walla friend, I wished I could share some of the island freshness. There, wildfire smoke was causing abysmal air quality and the temperature was 102.

Glenn, the grumpy cat cookie jar we bought years ago on the Oregon Coast, covets the 42 oatmeal cookies I baked. He’ll get them soon enough.

The sun broke through here by midday and it was so nice I couldn’t help myself going out to scrape lichen off the deck I’m refinishing. I can say I redeemed my determination for a restful Sunday by setting the timer on my phone so that I didn’t work longer than 30 minutes.

Then, well, I did some work in the kitchen, but only because my incorrigible sweet tooth demanded that I bake a batch of my diabetes-friendly oatmeal cranberry/chocolate chip cookies (using Stevia sweetener, sugar-free chocolate and Skagit Valley-sourced whole-grain flour, so they’re really more of a health food than a confection, when you analyze it).

Now it’s late afternoon. I’m sitting in the Nuthatch’s living room next to the open slider with that delicious breeze wafting in as birds outside flit back and forth between the feeder and the deck’s bamboo water fountain. I’m sipping a tot of good New Zealand sauvignon blanc and listening to the fountain’s gurgle, the breeze’s soothing whispers and the sublime orchestral soundtrack to the old Robert Redford production of “A River Runs Through It.”

The only thing that would make it a hundred times better would be if I were sharing it with Barbara instead of just the cat.

But one of the nice things people said about my sweet wife was that she knew how to make herself happy while making others happy around her. I’m trying to take a lesson from that.

I still have bad days as well as good days. But life, like summer, goes on.

Look closely to find the deer who enjoyed this restful Sunday resting among the tall grasses, salal and wild roses in the front clearing outside the Nuthatch.

Living (and baking) off the fat of the land

The “before” picture: Raspberries from Hayton Farms on Fir Island, the fertile island nestled between the North and South forks of the Skagit River where it flows into the Salish Sea.

SURPRISINGLY, LIVING OFF THE FAT OF THE LAND, as George and Lennie aspired to in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” isn’t too hard on my small island in the summer. Having the fertile Skagit Valley as a neighbor doesn’t hurt.

Returning from a visit with friends in Portland and Olympia earlier this week, I stopped at two favorite purveyors of such “fat”: the Hayton Farms berry stand on Fir Island, where freshly picked organic berries of just about any variety are offered from June to August, and the Pleasant Ridge Farm stand, a short distance north of the North Fork of the Skagit River.

The “after” picture: Raspberry-Apple Crumble, destined for a family barbecue in Seattle.

I picked up a four-pack of fresh raspberries at Hayton Farms and a couple of summer squash and some kale at Pleasant Ridge, a self-serve farmstand that Barbara and I patronized for years. Besides offering bins of some of Skagit’s best sweet corn it has the added charming feature of a field of you-cut zinnias (50 cents a stem) behind the barn. Somehow I got into being a fanatical zinnia grower when I was about 10, and I’m always cheered by these simple, vividly colored blooms ranging from lemon yellow to rich claret.

The squash I supplemented with a pretty orange pepper from my neighbor Monique, proprietor of the Under Sail Produce Stand on Center Island. (The name derives from the old Hobie sail she and husband Chris have rigged up as a shelter for the stand.) Together the summer vegetables went into a tray bake I contributed to a Wednesday dinner with neighbors Carol and John “The Mad Birder” Farnsworth. It nicely complemented the Mad Birder’s salmon cakes and Carol’s pasta dish.

The raspberries are also for sharing. An hour ago I pulled a raspberry-apple crumble out of the oven, my intended contribution to a family barbecue tomorrow in Seattle. Back on the water taxi for me and Galley Cat in the morning.

The dessert is my second outing at baking berry crumbles, a simple treat that my brother Tom liked to create while he was visiting. Barbara was always the Nuthatch’s baker and head chef. I was glad for Tom’s inspiration.

So, the Nuthatch is perhaps a bit like George and Lennie’s dream of a little place where they could live “off the fatta the lan” and maybe keep rabbits (Lennie’s idea). But I don’t need rabbits. Galley Cat, who ducks in and out of my writing hut for another kitty treat every five minutes, even as I write this, keeps me busy enough. Bless her fuzzy little heart.

Galley Cat, my sole housemate these days, trots across the rocky knoll behind the Nuthatch cabin.

Joy in June

A young colt gets a nuzzle at Horse Drawn Farm, where they take that name seriously.

THERE’S JOY TO BE FOUND if you look around. Sometimes you can almost taste it.

It’s June at Horse Drawn Farm, where I took my brother Tom this week during a one-day marathon tour of Lopez Island’s greatest hits (the Brian version).

Besides stocking up on peppery-fresh arugula and tremendously large stalks of crimson rhubarb, we got to see a draft-horse colt nuzzling its mama. The farm’s name is no joke, they really plow their fields with these beautiful examples of equine splendor.

Tom, who has come to stay for a while from his home in southern Arizona, called our day on Lopez one of his best days in years.

My brother Tom Cantwell with a bag of fresh produce at Horse Drawn Farm.

A nice spinoff benefit I’m looking forward to after dinner tonight: the strawberry-rhubarb crumble he baked, using berries from Center Island Farm and sweetened with stevia-based brown sugar.

Sounds like a mouthful of joy to me.

Good friends and nurturing islands

My friend Daniel looks northwest from James Island. Cypress Island is at right, on the far side of Rosario Strait.

EVERY ISLAND IN THE SAN JUANS has its own character. Even a 10-minute hop over the water in WeLike can be like a little vacation.

My old friend Daniel Farber and I put that to the test when he was visiting earlier this week. Daniel and I grew up less than a mile from each other in the Seattle suburbs, went to the same high school, and were housemates while attending The Evergreen State College. He was my best man when Barbara and I married in 1979.

His visit was part of my continuing determination to accept kind invitations and offers of companionship to help me weather my grief at losing my dear wife. It was a month ago today. It seems like yesterday.

But good company helps. We packed a lunch and zipped southward on the blissfully calm waters of Rosario Strait to tie up to a San Juan County Land Bank buoy in Lopez Island’s pretty Watmough Bay. Raptors swirled above us, catching updrafts from the soaring, rocky cliff of 470-foot Chadwick Hill as we munched our lunch. Only one person lounged on the sandy beach. Otherwise, we shared the little bay with a pretty sailboat rocking gently at anchor.

Filled with food, we cast off and turned back northward for a 15-minute run to James Island, a marine state park not much more than a frisbee’s throw from neighboring Decatur Island.

It’s only a few hundred feet across a narrow saddle of forest from one side of James to the other, between two bays equipped with a boat dock and mooring buoys. Daniel and I hiked out to a viewpoint with a wide panorama of the Washington State Ferries route and the high ramparts of Cypress Island. We were the only people wandering among empty campsites that will likely be bustling in a few weeks. I skipped stones from the beach piled high with myriad little agates and tide-polished rocks the size of a martini olive in shades of red, green and ocher.

Back on my island, I saw that the wildflowers called sea blush were frosting our knoll with pink. I found a few calypso orchids, the tiny flowers also known as fairy slippers. Having bloomed when I wasn’t looking, they were already fading.

Daniel left yesterday morning. Today, as I returned from an outing with my chainsaw to bring home firewood from the community log pile, a splash of orange caught my eye among the shadowy woods. I looked up to see a small glass vase of nasturtium flowers hanging on a tree at the side of our back drive.

A glass vase of nasturtiums hangs from a tree bordering our back driveway.

It thrust me back to four Thursdays ago. My island friend Dan Lewis was driving the community pickup truck. I rode shotgun. Barbara’s siblings Julie and Sarah crouched in the truck bed to ensure that the backboard stretcher to which their sister’s blanket-wrapped body was strapped didn’t slide out the back as we made our way to the community dock. From there, Dan’s fast boat would take us across the strait to Anacortes to meet a driver from a nearby mortuary. It was part of the gritty reality of a life’s end on a remote island. My love chose to finish her days here in view of towering trees and sparkling saltwater rather than in a cold and sterile hospital.

As the truck mounted the small hill behind Nuthatch cabin that day, I saw first one, then another, then another vase of fresh flowers hanging from trees along the drive. I instinctively and immediately knew it was the work of our dear neighbor, Monique, the island’s farmer, who had visited Barbara the previous afternoon, holding her hand and whispering comforting words as she faded. The whimsical display of spring blossoms added an air of love and grace to our sorrowful cortège.

Just the one hanging vase remained this morning. It looked as if fresh flowers had been added recently.

I cracked a small smile. I’ll never get over my loss, but these islands, old friends and kind neighbors continue to look out for my soul.

The flying boat of Center Island

Center Islander Chris Maas carves a turn aboard his custom-built hydrofoil catamaran.

YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’LL SEE from a little island nobody’s heard of, in a quiet month when few are around.

I was walking up our dock the other day and looked around and there was Chris Maas flying by on his hydrofoil.

Chris, co-owner with spouse Monique of Center Island’s only farm, is our resident Mr. Science. Or Mr. Greenjeans. Or both. He’s an inventor and a farmer and a sailor who can build or fix just about anything.

But quiet, and unassuming. Which is why I didn’t know he had converted a catamaran sailboat to an electrically powered hydrofoil until, well, I saw him buzzing by. Quietly.

Among other things, Chris was the world champion in canoe sailing, in the “Development Canoes” event (did you know there was a world championship in canoe sailing?), in competition held in Australia in 2008, for which he has a Wikipedia entry. Last year he launched a gorgeous wooden sailboat he built in his workshop. I happened to visit the day he was varnishing the gleaming tiller he’d fabricated out of a stave salvaged from an ancient cistern on his farm.

The hydrofoil is something he crafted in his workshop just for fun. It’s powered by an outboard motor that he adapted to run on electricity. Lifted by underwater wings similar to an aircraft’s wings, the spidery craft skims the waters of Reads Bay, off Center Island, making barely a hum.

His latest outing was to test a modification that would help the boat smoothly navigate the wakes of other passing boats.

The modification was a flop, Chris told me. So Center Island’s world champion has more tinkering to do, keeping busy in his workshop as the days get colder and quieter, on an island nobody’s heard of, where none of us really mind.

The outboard motor powering the hydrofoil is modified to run on battery power. It is lifted by underwater wings like an airplane’s.

October in my viewfinder

A Great Blue Heron takes wing from a raft of bull kelp off Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island. This was my view from shore as I sat on a rock munching my lunch over the weekend.

IT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE MONTHS in the San Juans, often sun-dappled, when it’s not all rain-washed and fresh. Mornings are often still dry enough for my aerobic bike ride, three dashing laps around the Center Island airfield. Or, when the shores and straits are misty, drippy and fog-horned, I might pull on my rain parka and the Pendleton hat that Indiana Jones would have coveted and I circle the island on foot, often toting my camera. On “dump days,” I might take a hike on neighboring Lopez Island.

I’m often surprised by my finds. Here are a few images from this past weekend. It’s a season to savor.

I saw more pumpkins than people on a recent rainy-morning walk around Center Island.

Center Islanders come up with novel ways to mark their property. Here’s a vessel that would fit right in at Shark Reef.

A windswept cemetery is good fodder for an October photo shoot. This graveyard is on Lopez Island, adjacent to pretty Center Church, built in 1887. The cemetery holds some of the island’s earliest settlers.

Falling hard for autumn on the island

OK, something went haywire during the photo download, but I kind of like the Van Gogh-like quality of this image of the big horses at Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm as they nibble grass in the equinox sunshine.

I SURE DIDN’T EXPECT TODAY.

After the recent plague of smoke, this first day of autumn turned out glorious and almost perfect on Center Island. Cool and fresh, with a mix of sun and cloud. Summer crowds gone, the island was quiet and peaceful.

Fresh breezes cleared out the wildfire smoke a couple days ago, sending it farther inland. It’s one pestilence I don’t mind sharing with the rest of the country. Let everybody worry about climate crises and maybe they’ll choose to change. After this year of COVID and smoke, a friend aptly wondered, “What’s next? Locusts and boils?”

Galley Cat and the Nuthatch cabin’s welcome toad frame a pumpkin I picked up from Horse Drawn Farm.

On my own for a couple of days while Barbara stays with her sister in the city, I buzzed across Lopez Sound in WeLike yesterday for a run to the dump and a stop at the farmstand. Today was a busy day of chores. Swept fallen leaves off the deck. Got the boat battened down for tomorrow, when we expect our first September storm, with heavy rain and high winds. Just what I wished for a week ago.

It’s OK. My sweetie is coming home on the morning water taxi, and it might just be the day for our first autumn fire in the woodstove. Maybe I’ll brew a batch of pumpkin ale.

Sometimes you don’t need a doctor to tell you when to say “ahhh.”