Island energy provides a jump charge on days of woe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are luxuries one comes to appreciate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where good friends are a wonderful thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even

Madrona in the snow: Looking from Center Island toward Decatur Island during my morning walk.

OH, WE’RE HAVIN’ A HEAT WAVE, a tropical heat wave… Well, it got up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit today on Center Island. After a couple of days this week when the red stuff in the outdoor thermometer didn’t budge above 15, that’s saying something. Not much, but something.

Christmas arrived in the San Juans along with a blast of Siberian cold, snow and wind that hasn’t quite ended.

With all that in the forecast last week, daughter Lillian and I canceled our long-planned Christmas rendezvous with friends at the Washington coast. Instead, Lil and her friend Bianca, a former college roommate with whom she remains close, joined me at the Nuthatch for a quiet and cozy celebration with plenty of good food, mulled wine, games, puzzles and favorite old movies. We went caroling at the island farm (“Good King Wenceslas” was our forte) and had a snowball fight on the airfield.

Lillian, left, and friend Bianca on a snowy Feast of Stephen, also known as December 26.

We didn’t wake up to a white Christmas, but by evening the flakes were falling fast, allowing us to enjoy the magic of dimming lights inside the cabin and turning on outside lights above the front wall of windows to experience a mesmerizing eyeful of what I call “Snow Theater.”

Thoughtful friends and family remembered me with many cards and gifts. It was a good Christmas, but as many surmised, it wasn’t easy without my sweet wife and Lillian’s dear mum. Christmas was Barbara’s favorite time of year. We did our best to honor the standard she set and replicate the joy she brought to it. Of course it wasn’t the same, but it was the best way to show our love.

Tracks in the snow told who’d been there before me, whether two-legged or four.

Monday I braved snowy highways to return Lillian and Bianca to Seattle. I returned via water taxi to my island on Tuesday to learn that many neighbors had frozen pipes. (Mine are OK.)

This morning dawned quiet and sunny. Winds were light, the air remained frigid and the snow wasn’t melting. A perfect morning to bundle up for an invigorating tramp around the island with my camera. It was fun to try to read prints in the snow. Was that a deer crossing the road? A fox treading the path behind my knoll?

The continuing cold has helped quash a planned visit by friends for the New Year’s holiday. So Galley Cat and I will be partying alone as we welcome 2022. For me, the year to come holds the adventure of a 10-week voyage with some other chums on a 37-foot powerboat up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and the hope that we might all be able to resume safe travels to faraway places, one of my joys in life. For Galley, there’s probably hope for more runs up the knoll. Maybe better-quality kitty tuna. Her needs are simple. I think we can work on that.

Whatever your wishes, here’s hoping.

I was only ever a Cub Scout, but ‘Be Prepared’ is my new motto

Mr. Toad, named for the road-terror hero of “Wind in the Willows,” ferried rounds of fir from a wind-downed tree on Tuesday.

SOMEBODY COINED THE TERM ‘CAR-WASH RAIN’ and the description was apt. Drumbeats on the roof. Sheets of water down the windows. It was like being in a dimly lit tunnel from which you could barely see out. Like a drive-through car wash.

But this wash and waxing wasn’t over in three minutes. The “atmospheric river,” or Pineapple Express, or whatever label the KOMO Weather Woman affixed on the latest low-pressure tantrum to blast Washingtonians with its Super Soaker, started the drenching Sunday afternoon and didn’t let up for the better part of 24 hours by my clock.

I’m a little fuzzy on the timing because for the latter part of that storm most of the Nuthatch’s clocks weren’t working.

Oh, I forgot to mention the Monday winds, gusting to 60 mph, that blew down trees and doused electricity to our island and several others in the San Juans.

Shortly after my power went out and clocks went dark at 1:23 p.m., Orcas Power and Light Cooperative, which electrifies all the San Juans, emailed me to let me know my power had gone out at 1:23 p.m. I thought it very efficient of them. Maybe I hadn’t noticed all the lights go off, the Internet go down, the heater fan stop and fridge go silent. Of course, I didn’t get the email until after my Internet came back on hours later.

Actually, I was the first Center Islander to report the power failure to OPALCO’s outage line. The phone is the first thing I reach for when things go dark. They can’t fix it if they don’t know about it, right? While our island’s utility wires are underground, our power comes via an underwater cable that originates in Anacortes and first crosses Decatur Island, where lines are on poles and subject to falling trees.

After phoning, my second move was to refill my indoor firewood rack and kindle a blaze in the woodstove. With my electric heat pump no longer magically pulling warmth from the howling winds outside, the cabin would quickly chill.

My next thought: Last time the power failed, in a storm last January, it stayed off for 18 hours. Long enough for the fridge to warm and the freezer full of food to start thawing.

So I stepped out to the shed and hauled out the gas-powered portable generator that got its first tryout in January. While I had already given it a pre-winter test run a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t refilled the gas tank. The good news: I knew I had a spare 5-gallon jug of gasoline. The other news: Said gas jug was aboard my boat, on the other side of the island.

Now, one thing I’ve learned in my long years on this planet and in my few years on this island is that it’s not a great idea to go out in a raging windstorm. The quick lesson on that comes from the loud thunks every few minutes on my metal roof as branches fall. Usually they are small branches. Sometimes they are not small. And they come down fast.

But I had Mr. Toad, the Cantwell golf cart, sporting a brand-new, $1,000 set of six 6-volt batteries installed just days earlier. (Timing can be everything.) Mr. Toad features a hardtop roof, strong enough to protect the noggin from most plummeting limbs. Happily, the pouring rain had ceased and sunshine was lighting up the wildly waving trees. What Mr. Toad lacks is doors. In rain, the going can be wet.

In the calm after the storm, the Nuthatch’s firewood rack gets refilled with wind-downed fir.

The wind-buffeted sojourn was without incident. Once I’d topped off the generator’s tank, the daylight was fading. I wouldn’t fire up the noisy, smelly generator just yet; the fridge would be fine for a while yet. But the lights had been out for hours and OPALCO’s recorded info line offered no estimated time of repair. My next thought was: What did I not want to be looking for in the dark? I dug out my battery-powered mountaineering headlamp, lost in the depths of my knapsack when last I’d wanted it. Then I distributed emergency candles strategically around the cabin, placed a lighter nearby, and retrieved my propane camping stove from the shelf high above the washing machine. (Note to self: The bamboo clothes hamper is not designed to support a 170 pound human, if that cracking sound was any indication.)

Things were getting decidedly dim in the cabin by 4:30. I pulled some bratwurst from the freezer to thaw, since I couldn’t rely on the microwave for defrosting. Then, having done all I could to prepare for the night, I decided to take my pre-dinner nap earlier than usual. (It’s called being retired. One of the better perks.) I had a good book to read, but I wanted to keep that for the potentially long evening, free of Netflix, music, the New York Times app and other electricity-dependent entertainment.

It was pitch dark outside when I awoke. Through its smoke-smudged glass, the woodstove’s low fire cast just a flicker of light on the cabin walls. I added fresh wood. Back in the kitchen, with candles lit and the ceiling flooded with light from a lithium-powered emergency automobile beacon (another treasure discovered while spelunking in my knapsack), I was just gathering items for dinner prep and about to ignite the campstove when the fridge suddenly hummed. And lights flashed on.

OPALCO, ever efficient, emailed me that my power was restored at 5:35:19 p.m. Well done, repair crews. Just in time for dinner. I was back in the 21st century. In 10 minutes, candles and stove were stowed and the microwave was doing its thing.

Today, the payoff for all that angst: A big Douglas fir had blown down across my road a few lots away from mine. The island’s caretaker cut it into big segments and cleared the way. Knowing I was on the lookout for firewood, he alerted me. (My woodshed is full, but my outdoor rack was empty.) By 10 this calm and sunny morning, I was there with my chainsaw. By early afternoon my drying rack was full of 10- to 16-inch rounds. It will keep me busy all winter splitting wood, my favorite therapy. By March, the fir might be burnable. Or at least I’ll have a jump on next fall.

Like a Boy Scout, I’m getting better at being prepared. It’s what you do when you live on a remote little island nobody’s heard of, amid nature red in tooth and claw. Or when it blows like stink.

50 words for rain on the roof?

Fallen leaves marinate in the rainwater pooling on the Nuthatch’s deck rail this morning.

CAN YOU HAVE AN URBAN MYTH about the Arctic bush? When does it become a Rural Myth?

The myth I’m thinking of is the one about Eskimos or Inuits having 50 words for “snow.” Or is it 500? Is it, in fact, just a myth?

I swerved back and forth over this fogline of thought early this morning as I lay in bed after a long night of rain.

The Nuthatch has a metal roof. Practical and durable for a wet climate. Safer than wood shakes in the summer fire season. It happens that my bed in the loft is situated such that my head is right up against the inside of that roof, with only some knotty pine, a bit of insulation and a veneer of plywood and tar paper intervening. So when it rains, I hear it.

Here’s the jack o’lantern I carved on Wednesday, before the rains. Good news in the forecast: Sunday is supposed to be dry and warm. Happy Halloween!

Usually, it’s soothing. Last night, it was pretty damn loud.

As my Pacific Northwest neighbors know, we’re having a soggy week, and it’s not over yet. For the Seattle suburbs, the National Weather Service forecasts up to 2 inches of rain tonight. There’s a flood watch in effect. Even my rain-shadowy San Juans could get another inch in the next 18 hours, they say. Normally, this corner of the continent is the drizzle capital of North America.

Last night on Center Island I heard the rain start in the wee hours and continue until I arose around 7:15. For hours on end water seemed to spray from a great firehose in the sky.

As I lay in that limbo zone between groggy sleep and hoping that Galley Cat would finally get up first and make the coffee, I came up with this list of terms for rain on my roof, based on the sound effect.

POUNDING: This is a new one I invented last night. Been to the symphony? Know what tympani are? It wasn’t a good night’s rest. Thankfully rare, though with climate change, who knows.

DRUMMING: This term is more common, denoting steady precip. Familiar in poetry and song. Think “Little Drummer Boy” and “rum-pum-pum-pum.” We get it now and then.

PATTERING: Here’s where I’m lulled to pleasant sleep, with the satisfying feeling of being safe and warm inside my cozy cabin. The trees and moss outside are finally getting the moisture they need. Common here in spring and autumn when the forecast calls for those ubiquitous “showers.”

DRIPPING: See “Pattering,” just not so definitive. The preamble, perhaps. A nagging reminder to clean the gutters, which filled with fallen leaves and fir needles in Tuesday’s big wind storm.

OK, four isn’t fifty. It’s a work in progress. But the rainy season has only just begun.

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.