Into the social whirl (with a tale of ‘Nudes and Prudes’)

Blooming daffodils paint the valley floor east of Best Road in the Skagit Valley. The golden blooms are peaking this week.


With just me and the cat and not a lot of neighbors around, I’m sharply aware of the necessity of scheduling off-island time in the off-season. Dear Barbara was happy to be a hermit. I’m more of a social animal. On a small island nobody’s heard of, it’s a challenge.

Due to a variety of circumstances, some recent plans got postponed (Galley Cat had a bad cold, then my daughter had a bad cold, etc.) Now, several social occasions and road trips have become stacked on top of one another. Not complaining, but I’m flapping as fast as I can.

Dave and Jill Kern on the dock at Joemma Beach State Park, on South Puget Sound’s Key Peninsula.

It started with me and Galley road tripping through daffodil fields of the Skagit Valley last Thursday on our way to the Kitsap Peninsula. We spent three days there at the end of last week with Dave and Jill Kern, old friends from my days at The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. From their home near Port Orchard, my hosts and I had a fun road trip exploring the nearby Key Peninsula, a remote backwater that is home to communities such as Home (yes, that’s the town name), a tiny burg on a shallow bay of South Puget Sound.

Today, Home is a quiet assemblage of pleasant waterfront domiciles, but it was founded in 1895 as a utopian community for free-thinkers, anarchists, nudists and adherents of free love. The community’s founders chose the remote location, hidden from the rest of the world, for a reason. But after a self-proclaimed anarchist assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, the Home anarchists drew the ire of self-styled patriots in nearby Tacoma who almost descended on the community with pitchforks and torches. (Home was spared only because a steamboat operator refused to transport the vigilantes). As years went by, fractures grew within the community, with Home residents staking out various moral grounds, leading to factions being labeled “Nudes and Prudes.” (Read the Wikipedia entry, it’s a hoot.)

Dave and Jill had no idea of the colorful history just down the road from them. I had fun sharing the story that I had learned from an earlier sailing adventure in the area.

Galley and I returned to the Nuthatch on Saturday evening, and I was up and about early the next morning to hop aboard WeLike for a trip to Lopez Island. I was invited to brunch with friends Lynn Thompson and David Foutch at their holiday home overlooking Outer Bay on the southern tip of Lopez. Besides gorging with my friends on tasty pastries and muffins from Holly B’s Bakery and Barn Owl Bakery, along with fruit salad, flagons of good coffee, and Lynn’s tasty quiche with goat cheese, I got to meet new friends Ande and Scott Finley, Lopezians who are active with Transition Lopez Island, a coalition of locals working toward a regenerative, resilient future. The conversation was lively. They told me about vacationing in their electric car. I told them about my Center Island neighbor who is building an electric-powered, carbon-fiber hydrofoil catamaran.

Lopez friends and Eddy the Springer Spaniel pause at Lopez Island’s Iceberg Point monument commemorating the Treaty of 1908, which finalized the boundary between the United States and Canada.

On a hike around nearby Iceberg Point we saw wood ducks, harbor seals and the season’s first wildflowers.

This coming Saturday Galley and I hit the road again for three nights in Vancouver/Portland to visit more friends and have a reunion with my brother Tom, whose 10-week cabin-sitting experience for me last summer helped convince him to return from Arizona to the Northwest. I’m having breakfast with him in his new Portland digs on Sunday. Dinner with friends that night. A day of walks and exploring with another friend on Monday.

Whew. This butterfly’s wings are getting a workout. After a quiet winter in my island cocoon, it’s a good thing.

A satin flower, Olysynium douglasii, was among the first blooming wildflowers on Iceberg Point on Sunday.

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.

The social whirl of a San Juan Islands winter

Lynn Thompson walks Lopez Island’s Iceberg Point, looking out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and across to the Olympic Mountains.

VISITS WITH FRIENDS count double when it’s mid-winter, you live on a remote island, and you might not see another human some days.

So I didn’t hesitate when my chums Lynn and David invited me over to their Lopez Island digs earlier this week.

There was talk of lunch, and maybe a Scrabble game. And if the weather was conducive to an outdoor trek, their holiday home is barely more than a puddle-jump from the trailhead to Iceberg Point, one of the most popular and scenic hiking spots in the San Juans.

I got lazy and left my boat, WeLike, stored on its trailer, choosing to hire a water taxi for the 2.5-mile crossing of Lopez Sound on Monday. But I did get the chance to give a good run to Ranger Rick, my Ford pickup that is parked at Lopez’s Hunter Bay County Dock. As of this year, Ranger Rick is old enough to vote. He needs to stay limber.

A lenticular cloud caps 14,411-foot Mount Rainier as seen from Iceberg Point.

I trundled some trash and recycling to the Lopez Dump, one of the island’s social centers, sipped a coffee on the deck at Isabel’s in the village, and picked up a few items of fresh produce at the market before heading to my friends’ place.

Lynn had cooked up a tasty carrot-ginger soup, served with some good Barn Owl Bakery bread. I contributed a bowl of my famous blueberry-apple-walnut cole slaw, of which David ate thirds. And we sipped some nice wine while I admired their newly renovated kitchen, deck and carport.

David asked for tips on blogging, because he’s helping his octogenarian father publish some writings about vintage family photos, a nifty idea. I offered a few strategies, not all of which worked. The sky outside was cloudy but dry and the wind pretty calm, so Lynn and I then took their energetic Springer spaniel out for a hike on Iceberg, which we had all to ourselves.

The southernmost point of Lopez (and of all the major San Juan Islands), Iceberg Point offers a stunning view across the 21-mile-wide Strait of Juan de Fuca. Surprising on this overcast afternoon, on the far side the Olympic range was clearly visible below the clouds. To the southeast, Mount Rainier peeked (peaked, should we say?) over the top of Whidbey Island. I’ve rarely seen it from here in summer; winter parcels out its little surprises.

Scrabble had to wait until next time, as I had a water taxi to catch.

As January met February, that was my social whirl for the week. Today, winter gales are back, the trees are dancing a bugaloo, and nobody’s coming or going from Center Island in the San Juans. Stay warm, friends.

A thankful time before the storms

Chris Noel and Lillian Cantwell on the edge of San Juan Channel at Lopez Island’s Shark Reef Sanctuary.


But before the snow flies, Galley Cat and I enjoyed a Thanksgiving that evoked the true meaning of the day, with an enjoyable visit from daughter Lillian and her new partner, Chris. Lil is vegetarian and he eats vegan, so turkey wasn’t on our menu. Instead we fired up the charcoal barbecue — never a bad turn of events at the Nuthatch, in the view of this chief cook and bottle washer — to grill Beyond Meat burgers. For a Thanksgiving spin, we added sage to the plant-based “meat” (meet? mheet? mieht?) and a dollop of cranberry sauce on the buns. Sweet-potato fries and oven-crisped green beans were our sides. For dessert: Lillian’s homemade pumpkin pie. (The woman has the gift of pie crust, a skill that will serve her well in life.)

We played games by the fire. We watched favorite movies. The day after our fanciful feast we hopped aboard WeLike, the eldest but most colorful watercraft of the Cantwell fleet (turquoise was popular in 1957), and buzzed over to Lopez Island for a hike through woods to one of my favorite San Juan destinations, Shark Reef Sanctuary. As we looked out from a mossy cliff, whitecaps churned the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca, harbor seals and cormorants lounged on offshore rocks, and wind-riding bald eagles pirouetted above our heads.

Lil and Chris returned to Seattle on Saturday morning, and I soon set about preparing for winter. The weather forecast for this week frequently mentions the “S” word (snow), along with robust winds, pelting rain and nighttime temperatures below freezing.

I hoisted a brown triangular rain tarp between trees to help ease winter’s assault on the Nuthatch’s Electronic Personnel Transport, aka Mr. Toad, my 26-year-old golf cart. (A toad-size carport is still on the to-do list for coming summers.) I climbed aboard Center Island’s big orange Kubota tractor and pulled WeLike on to its trailer for winter storage, safe from battering waves. After spraying the boat’s canvas top with waterproofing gunk (to use the technical term), I snapped on the window covers and refreshed the boat cabin’s dehumidifiers with new calcium-chloride pellets.

So, let’s see. The woodshed is stacked high. The pantry is stocked. Extra cat food is on order. Tomorrow I will test-run the gas-powered generator and be sure the emergency candles are someplace I can find them in the dark, should it come to that.

Winter’s coming. On a small island nobody’s heard of, you gotta know when to hunker down.

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.

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.

Small steps to small pleasures

FEW THINGS FEEL MORE HEALING than sitting on the old wooden porch of Isabel’s Espresso in Lopez Village and sipping a strong drip coffee with three Stevias and a dollop of half ‘n half — the diabetic widower’s special, I guess — on a blue-sky morning in May. It’s bloom time for the island’s wild hawthorne and dainty white bells of salal. I sniff a heady perfume of flowers and fir pollen on the lazy swirls of fresh air that haven’t worked quite hard enough to be a breeze.

Just sitting, doing something normal, and reading one of author Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries, set in the Alaska bush. Barbara’s not with me, yet she is, in my choice of reading. For years my wife tried to convince me I’d love this sassy Aleut detective, Kate, with a half-wolf dog named Mutt. Dumbly, I resisted, until last fall. Now I’m on Book 13. Two things I’m glad Barbara lived to witness: Trump’s humiliation and my Kate Shugak conversion.

It’s heartbreaking that Barbara’s not sharing in this simple pleasure, just sitting on a sunny deck, reading a good book and sipping a cup of something hot and reviving. But I milk a little enjoyment from knowing she’d have loved it, too.

Neighbor John, the Mad Birder, astutely summed up for me the paradoxical elements of grief. To paraphrase: You don’t honor your loved one by succumbing to a lifetime of emotional paralysis. Barbara wouldn’t wish that on me, and would hate to be the cause of it. Yet how can I stop thinking of her and loving her, and wouldn’t it be wrong to stop missing her?

It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s wrong that she isn’t with me, but somehow it’s right that I should find a small pleasure sipping my coffee on the old wooden deck while devouring a good book that Barbara turned me on to.

I love you, sweetie. With a tear in my eye, I love you.

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.


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.”