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.

Keeping wind in a writer’s sails

Boats navigate the roiling waters of San Juan Channel, off Lopez Island’s Shark Reef Sanctuary. We watched as gray whales cruised the same waters, spouting and tail-slapping.

BARBARA WANTED ME to keep writing.

For my 65th birthday, five days after she passed away, I got the gift of a packet of reporter’s notebooks, the slim, coil-bound pads that every journalist carries in a pocket — all over the world, in my case. They aren’t easy to come by if you don’t work for a newspaper, but Barbara had found them online and ordered me a bunch. She planned to give them to me at the birthday party she didn’t get to attend.

It would be easy to pack it in and stop writing. She represented so much in my life that was good and happy and comfortable. And I like to write about the good, happy and comfortable parts of life. I don’t like learning that it’s hard to insert contact lenses when your eyes are full of tears. I don’t like waiting to awaken from this bad dream so I can hear her call me to dinner.

But Barbara, Nuthatch Cabin’s friendly ghost, would want me to write about the good parts, so that’s what this post is about — a visit from an old buddy who didn’t hesitate to come running when I needed company. A week ago, my friend Ken Brinkley came up from Portland for a five-night visit.

It reminded me of a painful time 15 years ago when I went to Ken’s side after a sailing tragedy took the life of his wonderful 18-year-old son, Andy. I asked him to come now, in part, because I knew he’d been through the kind of grinding grief I’m facing.

It happens that I met Ken for the first time in these islands. It was the 1980s, and a group of colleagues from The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, where I worked for 10 years, took a party weekend at Rosario Resort, on Orcas Island. (Incidentally, it was a stupid place to party. I seem to recall a late-night visit from a sheriff’s deputy.)

Ken, who was married to one of my co-workers, stood up at a meal gathering and asked if anybody else was interested in hiring a sailboat for an afternoon on the sparkling waters of East Sound. I was the only one to raise my hand.

My friend Ken at Shark Reef Sanctuary.

It was the start of a 35-year friendship. Barbara and I later joined Ken and his (now-ex) wife in chartering a larger sailboat in the San Juans, an adventure that eventually led us to acquire Sogni d’Oro, the sailboat on which we explored these islands every summer for decades, and sailed to Mexico in the mid-1990s.

Just having company at the Nuthatch this past week was a blessing. I did all the cooking, with tips I’d learned from Barbara (vegan barbecue rarely tasted so good) and a menu prepared with the help of daughter Lillian, who had returned to Seattle and work. Ken pitched in and helped me with rough and tough cabin chores that had been deferred for months. The hard work was a good distraction from sadness. He brought a bulging satchel of old movies. (All VHS tapes! Ken is 10 years older than I.)

After a trip to the Lopez Island dump on Sunday, we took a sack lunch and hiked to gorgeous Shark Reef Sanctuary, where we sprawled on a sunny cliffside and watched gray whales spout and tail-slap among the roiling tidal waters off Cattle Point. The morning Ken departed, we sat at a favorite Center Island bluff with a view of the snow-draped Olympic Mountains and sun-dappled Lopez Sound, where an otter dove and played. I’d never seen either of those creatures in those places. I think Barbara is pulling strings for me now.

It’s just me and the cats in our cabin for the next few days. The loneliness can be grueling, but I have other visits in the offing. Sometimes an old friend, ready to listen and ready to help, is life-saving nourishment for an emotionally starving man.

Barbara wanted me to keep writing. Here I am.

An old friend from college, Kathy Pruitt, sent this poem that gives her comfort when thinking about loved ones who have passed away.

Finding you in Beauty

The rays of light filtered through
the sentinels of trees this morning.
I sat in the garden and contemplated.
The serenity and beauty
of my feelings and surroundings 
completely captivated me.
I thought of you.
I discovered you tucked away
in the shadows of the trees.
Then, rediscovered you
In the smiles of the flowers
as the sun penetrated their petals
In the rhythm of the leaves
falling in the garden
In the freedom of the birds
as they fly searching as you do.
I'm very happy to have found you,
Now you will never leave me
For I will always find you in the beauty of life.
-- Walter Rinder

The flying boat of Center Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October in my viewfinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling hard for autumn on the island

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

I SURE DIDN’T EXPECT TODAY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smoky, somber San Juans September

A Great Blue Heron hunting for its breakfast was a lonely figure in the smothering mix of fog and smoke off Center Island on Tuesday.

SEPTEMBER IN THE SAN JUANS is passing in fog and a cloud of smoke.

Our islands have been spared the tragic, record-breaking wildfires that have plagued the West, but we’re not immune to the veil of choking smoke carried on southerly winds from Oregon and California. Barbara and I have been mostly sheltering inside for days on end, with no view beyond the trees in front of our cabin. Some days we hear the ferries blowing their foghorns, but there’s no fog, just smoke. Other days heavy fog combines with smoke, reducing visibility to yards.

Foggy dew beads up on a spider web on the Center Island dock railing.

Autumn is quickly approaching, but it’s all a blur. Like most of 2020 in our collective consciousness. Our hearts go out to people who’ve lost their homes and businesses. Friends in Talent, Ore., had to evacuate. Flames spared their home, but two blocks away looks “like Hiroshima,” they tell us.

We’ve had a few hours of light rain in the past 72 hours, giving the sky a rinse, but we’re not out of it yet. Keep fingers crossed for a good, old-fashioned Northwest September rainstorm, the kind that used to make back-to-school time such a damp and dreary thing when I was 12. It sounds pretty good right now. For all of us.