Holiday multi-tasking on the mainland

The aisles are empty for our early arrival at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Daughter Lillian gathers her energy for a busy morning of holiday shopping.

I WON’T ASK FOR TOO MUCH SYMPATHY. Living on a small island in the San Juans isn’t too painful, I admit.

But this remote life with no stores, no garbage pickup, and no bridges to the mainland has its challenges. Anytime I leave Nuthatch Cabin for an overnight outing requires days of planning and preparation. And once I’m walking among the landlubbers, I’m a multi-tasking fiend. Especially as winter sets in.

Friends have expressed curiosity about my shopping and travel routines, so here’s an example from a recent four-day visit to the Outside (as bush-living Alaskans call the rest of the world).

Getting there

  • SEVERAL WEEKS in advance, I trade emails with friends or family to see if a guest room is available for me and possibly Galley Cat.
  • FIVE DAYS in advance: I text Paraclete Charters, my preference of the two local water-taxi services (because their boat has a cargo area protected from the elements). I request a booking for passage back and forth to their base at Skyline Marina in Anacortes. It’s a 35-minute boat ride from my Center Island dock, though that can be considerably longer when they stop at other islands. Rather than take my vintage runabout to Anacortes, I rely on the water taxi for the 5-mile crossing of Rosario Strait, which can kick up nasty any time of year. My Paraclete friends and I trade notes about preferred travel times; they make two or three round-trips to the islands each day. Once we’ve settled on an itinerary, they confirm my reservations.
  • A FEW DAYS AHEAD, I figure out how many cargo totes I’ll need. I pack one with bagged trash, to deposit in a mainland dumpster. Another carries snacks, cat supplies and a few food items; I usually try to contribute to a meal at my host’s home. I have a lot of grocery-shopping needs this time. I seem to have run out of everything at once, and winter is coming. I feel like a worried squirrel whose store of nuts is low. I bring a large hard-sided ice chest to transport frozen foods and an empty 18-gallon plastic tote to hold other groceries on my return trip. While nearby Lopez Island has a sizable supermarket and a well-stocked natural foods store, inflated island prices encourage me to do the bulk of my grocery shopping on the mainland. A small soft-sided suitcase takes my clothes, plus a soft-sided cat carrier for Galley Cat.
  • TIME TO CLEAN HOUSE. I hate to come home to a messy cabin. Out comes the vacuum, the broom, the duster and the spray cleaner. Galley, not a fan of roaring machines and spritzing spray bottles, flees outside for an hour.
  • PACKING clothes and supplies takes up the day before my departure. When Galley is to accompany me on a trip, I do packing the day before leaving. She is generally a good traveler on road trips, but by far prefers that we stay home by the fire. When the suitcase comes out and I start cleaning like a fiend, she knows she’s about to be scooped into her travel carrier, so she hides under a bed. Prying her out can be like wrestling a grumpy Tasmanian Devil from its den. So, on departure morning, 30 minutes before it’s time to load my baggage on to my golf cart for the trip to the dock, I pop her into the bathroom and close the door so as not to be chasing her frantically around the cabin when it’s time to catch the boat.
  • ON THE BOAT RIDE, when not looking out the window at Stellar sea lions that hang out on Bird Rocks, I write a check for the $38 fare (one-way) and text my Farmers Insurance agent letting her know I’ll be using the car for a few days. She takes my Honda Civic off the “storage” rate and I pay an extra $3 a day for insurance while I use it.
  • ROOM AT THE INN: After I drive south for a couple hours, sister- and brother-in-law Margaret and Tom Hartley host me and Galley at their comfortable home in Shoreline, just north of Seattle. I enjoy good company, a delicious home-cooked dinner and a DVD viewing of “Love Actually.” Galley stays in the guest room to avoid conflicts with my hosts’ tabby.

A multi-tasking whirl

  • SATURDAY, daughter Lillian and I wade out into the rain on our annual day of Christmas shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, reached by a light-rail ride from Northgate. We start with Eggs Benedict for breakfast at the Athenian Restaurant, from which we gaze out the window to watch scuttling ferries on Elliott Bay. Favorite shopping stops include Perennial Tea Room, with loose-leaf teas galore, and Golden Age Collectables, which claims to be the world’s oldest comic-book store. We watch fish getting tossed, we have tea and crumpets for “elevenses,” and give a Christmas-sized tip to the busking piano man. By the time we head back to the rail station, our giant plastic shopping bag bulges with gift purchases.
  • SUNDAY, I spend the forenoon piling carts high with groceries at Trader Joe’s, Fred Meyer and Costco (the total tab: $435.90; I really was out of everything). At the car, playing something akin to Grocery Tetris, I meticulously wedge my purchases into totes for homeward transport. Next stop: Shoreline’s Holyrood Cemetery, where I place Christmas wreaths on the graves of my parents and in-laws and sing them a lonely carol. (The couples are buried about 100 yards from each other.) The day concludes with the annual Burns Family Christmas potluck at the Kenmore home of my sister- and brother-in-law, Sarah and Danny Mansour. The gathering is a highlight of the year for my late wife’s family, sharing good food, good drink and lots of socializing.
  • BUT IT’S NOT OVER YET: Monday morning at 7:45 I check in for an annual dental check-up and cleaning at Willamette Dental in Mountlake Terrace. Multi-tasking, remember? With a clean bill of dental health (and sparkling teeth), three hours later I’m the carpool driver for a couple of old friends, Kristin Jackson and Steve Miletich, on our way to a lunch gathering in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District with other former Seattle Times colleagues, Terry Tazioli and Lynn Thompson. The dim-sum carts don’t stop rolling at Joyale Seafood Restaurant. Eventually, we waddle back to the parking garage, and I buzz back to Shoreline to fetch my kitty cat and hit the highway back to Anacortes for a 4 p.m. sailing to Center Island. Among my many other purchases I’ve filled a 5-gallon jug with gasoline to add to the tank of my pickup truck next time I voyage to Lopez Island, where gas costs twice as much.

By 5 p.m., I’ve trundled all my groceries back to the Nuthatch, filled the fridge and freezer, lit a fire and poured a glass of wine. Time to rest up for the next trip to the mainland.

Meanwhile, happy holidays! May you all feast from a larder as full as mine. As a Christmas bonus, here are more colorful images from the Pike Place Market.

Fillets for flinging: Salmon and more wait for the fish-throwers to practice their sport at Pike Place Fish.
Crab priced like gold? Maybe a wise man will bring some as a gift to you on Christmas Eve.
Dazzling colors match the bold flavors for sale at a Pike Place produce stand.
The scruffy urchins of Charles Dickens’ London have a spiny counterpart on the seafood counters of Pike Place Market.
Dungeness crabs line up for a photo.

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.

Big island or small, diverse skills make life in paradise possible

Daughter Lillian and her butterflies add to the colorful scene at Akaka Falls on the island of Hawaii.

This post is also available on audio. Listen to my Cantwell’s Reef podcast.

TO MY SMALL ISLAND NOBODY’S HEARD OF, I’ve just returned from nine days on a big island that everybody knows about: the island of Hawaii, home to Kona coffee, sweet papaya, Kealakekua Bay snorkeling, and one of the more active volcanic zones on Earth.

I’ve been to the island before, at least half a dozen times. I try not to consistently label it as “The Big Island,” in deference to locals who disdain that tourism-coined term for their proud and history-steeped island that gave its name to the whole archipelago, its ancient kingdom and, subsequently, the state. (I did enjoy a good snicker, however, at a T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouettes of all the Hawaiian islands and, next to this one, the slogan, “Mine is bigger than yours.”)

Daughter Lillian and I had originally booked this visit for last August as a sort of memorial to my late wife, Barbara, who dearly loved Hawaii. But then COVID’s Delta variant raged. We heeded Hawaii’s governor when he implored tourists to stay home.

Faced with a use-’em-or-lose-’em situation with the air tickets, we committed to late April for a visit that included four nights with my niece, Frances Hartley, and her family. They moved from Tacoma to the charming windward-side community of Honoka’a on Hawaii Island in July 2020, at COVID’s height. A brave couple in their 30s, they bought a home online, sight unseen.

In the subsequent two years, Fran and her husband, Arwain, and their two young children have carved a comfortable niche in the community. Another child is due in August.

Our first day we spent with their family and friends at a sunny beach park celebrating their son Bodhi’s 6th birthday.

My niece Frances Hartley, center background, with daughter True, 3, watches as Fran’s son, Bodhi, celebrates his 6th birthday with a whack at a piñata handmade by a friend for his beach party.

I enjoyed those days getting to really know my niece and her husband. There are interesting parallels to living on islands, whether on a 172-acre dot in the San Juans or a 4,000-square-mile volcanic wonder in the Pacific. On my island, with no stores, no trash disposal and lots of firewood to cut, you must be a person of many skills. Arwain and Fran’s new life is similar. With its remote location and limited resources, Hawaii is an expensive place to live. Good-paying jobs are sparse. Happily, they are well-suited to it, with multiple talents. Fran is a trained lactation specialist who helps new mothers feed their babies in the healthiest way. Arwain is a man of many skills: university-trained computer-design engineer, day trader, home builder, bartender and more.

A showy heliconia bloom hung next to the shower stall in a lava-rock grotto outside my niece’s Hawaii home.

In addition to their comfortable old Hawaiian-style home high on a hillside overlooking the ocean, they’ve acquired two parcels of property with the intent of organic farming. After wading with machetes into one acreage to hack down invasive sugar cane and other “weeds,” they discovered scores of coffee trees, obviously planted years ago. Through such serendipity, they plan to become coffee farmers, among other hats they’ll wear. They invited Lillian, recently trained as a barista, to come back and help sell their wares at farmers markets when the time is right.

I volunteered to pick the coffee beans by hand. Me and Juan Valdez.

Their coffee wouldn’t be Kona, but Hamakua Coast-grown. There’s always room for a new coffee region among aficionados of America’s favorite breakfast bean, right?

If coffee farming doesn’t work out, Fran and Arwain can grow vegetables for the island’s many restaurants. If that doesn’t swim, they’ve several other potential income streams to tap. It’s the island ideal. Want to live in paradise? Diversify.

In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we drove to the end of Chain of Craters Road to see Hōlei Sea Arch.

Once we left Honoka’a, Lillian and I enjoyed circling the island, gaping at waterfalls, exploring a spooky lava tube, and poking along winding roads where dangling jungle vines tickled our foreheads as we drove in our rented convertible. On a bittersweet kayak paddle on Hilo Bay, we released a sealed bottle full of memories of Barbara, written by friends and family. On a catamaran tour to Kealakekua Bay, we snorkeled among teeming schools of tropical fish. I’ve never seen so many yellow tangs, like a lemony legion of finned ballerinas pirouetting on the tidal surge.

Back on Center Island, Galley Cat and a carpet of sea blush flowers welcome me home.

I love to visit such places. Yet I’m always happy to come home to Center Island. While I was away, the wildflowers bloomed. My rocky knoll is awash with a pleasing pink wave of sea blush. Buttercups and the first spiky flowers of blue camas add to the splendid scene.

And in three weeks I’m on a 37-foot boat headed to Alaska. It’s my season for the 49th and 50th states. Better catch my breath — and pack some warmer clothing.

The creature in my chimney

The Nuthatch’s galvanized metal chimney soars high into the air. Could any critter climb it?

FOR THREE DAYS, I’VE NOT BUILT A FIRE in my woodstove. For three days, something’s been living in my chimney.

It’s not good.

I was up in the loft on Tuesday, napping maybe, when first I heard it. A sort of metallic skittering noise. Without looking, I blamed Galley Cat, who was down in the front room. I lamely hollered a protest that she should stop scratching whatever new furnishing she’d found on which to sharpen her claws.

But when I was downstairs fixing dinner the noise came again. Galley, at my feet, gave me one of those sideways looks reserved for the righteously indignant. “Not me, see?”

No, I quickly ascertained. The skittering noise was clearly coming from inside the metal chimney rising above my woodstove.

“What the hell?” I muttered. Mice, I first wondered? I’m in a cabin in the woods. I wage battles to keep mice out. I’ve been victorious in that effort for many months now. I have a whole drawer full of anti-mice devices and mice-fighting aids, some not as nice as others. When something goes skitter in the night, mice leap to my mind.

But no, this was coming from inside a distinctly smooth and vertical metal cylinder, part of a closed system whose only opening is some 25 feet in the air, high above my roof. Mice can climb walls, but can they climb smooth metal surfaces? Would they want to? Seems unlikely.

A bird must have flown down the chimney, I decided. Probably some hapless little chickadee that happened to land at the top and perhaps found that the conical cap gave shelter from the wind and rain. Maybe the chimney was still warm from a recent fire. Might have been inviting.

Surely the top of that chimney is screened, though, I told myself. Yes, my cynical other self responded, it was probably screened 20 years ago, but rust and heat have their way with metal, you know?

The skittering noise came and went over the next three days. I reasoned that the little bird had fallen in to the chimney’s narrowest lower section. About eight feet of pipe, some 8 inches in diameter, rises above the stove before transiting the ceiling. The poor thing likely had insufficient room to flap its wings to fly back up to the top.

Could I free it somehow? I peered inside the stove and saw a series of perforated metal baffles between the fire chamber and the chimney. No access. An examination of the pipe above the stove revealed no obvious way to open it up. And, in any case, the specter of a frightened, frantic, soot-caked songbird swooping around inside my home wasn’t high on my “fun” list.

I stepped outside to see how the chimney was attached to the roof. A circle of at least two dozen bolts circled its base. I’ve been meaning to replace that upper chimney, which had been damaged by a fallen tree a decade ago, its cap dented and a supporting strut bent. But it would require opening the metal roof as with a can opener, a task suited only to a summer week without rain, not the middle of the wettest November on record.

Though we were experiencing our coldest nights of the season, I resolved not to build a fire until well after the noise had stopped, meaning either that the bird had escaped or, sadly, expired. Letting it die on its own, and at its own hand, if you will, was surely ethically better than subjecting it to death by smoke inhalation or, worse yet, roasting?

My brother called from sunny Arizona. As I related my problem, he asked if it might not be a squirrel building a nest in there. I shuddered at the thought. A dead bird wouldn’t smell much, or block the flue. But a squirrel?

I tried to put that fear aside, however. I’ve seen squirrels climb straight up tree trunks, but surely even they couldn’t climb the exterior chimney’s sheer galvanized surface. It’s way up in the air, well out of jumping distance. Building codes generally require that chimneys be two feet higher than any part of the roof that is within 10 feet of the chimney. On my high, sharply sloping roof, that makes for a very tall chimney.

In ensuing days, as I’ve sat in my big wicker chair watching a video or working a crossword, not six feet from the woodstove and that recurrent skittering, I’ve had plenty of time to get paranoid about it. Whatever is in there, why have I heard no cries of anguish? No twittering, no squeaking. It’s not nest-building season, but what if something is building a nest in there? It hasn’t complained because it has been happily coming and going from the top of my chimney, thinking, “All right! How cozy is this?

The thought seized my fevered brain. I leaped up and dashed outside in my robe this morning and stood for 10 minutes craning my neck to peer at the chimney’s peak to see if any industrious critter was popping in and out.


This afternoon, the skittering seems to be on the wane. I feel bad about it. But I’m just hoping that whatever expires in there is small enough that it won’t stop me from building a warming fire when I need it. We’re talking about life and death in the wild woods.

Please don’t let it be a raccoon.