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.