This has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad December in the San Juan Islands.
A week ago Monday night, it snowed and snowed, then snowed some more. Enough to snowshoe on. Skis would have been great. Tromping around the island, as my boots sank deep, I got twice the normal exercise.
Then it froze and froze, then froze harder. The snow never melted. My firewood pile sank quickly.
Daughter Lillian, who lives in Seattle, and I had long ago planned Christmas at a little camping-cabin at Camano Island State Park, a pretty spot halfway between us, reachable by a bridge from the mainland. The trip required only an hour of driving for each of us.
Happily — even Alexander would have been optimistic — the National Weather Service assured us that a warming trend would arrive two days before Christmas. Presumably, rain would wash away the snow and ease any travel worries. Our plans were golden. I’d catch a water taxi on the late morning of Christmas Eve and Lil and I would meet up in time for the 4 p.m. check-in time, ready to whirl our way around the little cabin, trimming it with lights, baubles and bows.
Though snowy and cold, the week was going well. I’d hosted a pleasant happy hour for neighbors on the solstice. Then, Thursday at 1:09 p.m., my water-taxi service texted to tell me that they expected to cancel every trip on Christmas Eve. The forecast called for winds exceeding 50 mph, rendering the voyage unsafe. Even Santa might get blown off course.
Rebook your trip for Friday, the Paraclete Charters folks urged.
Panic ensued. Staging a portable Christmas with many of the favorite family decorations and dishes — the Santa-and-reindeer light string, the Christmas Spode, etc. — entailed hours of careful packing. I’d been counting on a full day of prep on Friday.
I would also now need a place to stay Friday night on the mainland.
Shamelessly, I phoned my next-door neighbor, the Mad Birder, and “invited myself ” to crash with my sleeping bag on his sofa at the La Conner home he shares with his wife, Carol. They had boated over to Center Island the previous week, to stay through Christmas at their cabin.
The Mad Birder, generous by nature, put up little resistance. He also agreed to look in on Galley Cat, who would be home alone for a couple nights. (Someone else had nabbed the one Camano cabin that allowed pets.) By late afternoon, it seemed that I (with help from the M.B.) had risen to the challenges the islands were throwing at me this Yuletide. I would get the Paraclete’s final Friday sailing, by which time the snow would have mostly melted away. So the plan went.
Then, at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, just as I was thinking about dinner prep, the lights went out.
My meal that night was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Usually these outages are localized and fairly quickly resolved. But a call to our power cooperative informed me that the outage was countywide, caused by a system failure on the mainland. Uh-oh. That meant fixing it was up to Puget Sound Energy and Bonneville Power Administration, rather than our quick-responding, owner-operated Orcas Power & Light Cooperative (OPALCO). Our islands don’t always top the priority list for Puget Sound Energy, owned primarily by Canadian investors.
A recorded message said the power might be out at least four hours. Outside temperatures were in the low 20s. It would be a very cold night. After I’d risen every hour on the hour to stoke a fire in the woodstove, my lights came back on 13 hours later, at 6 a.m. Friday. I could cook again, but I was bleary eyed at the start of a very long day.
Friday didn’t warm up nearly as much as forecast. By the time I needed to head for the dock with my food, gifts, decorations, camping gear and warm clothing, eight inches of snow remained on the ground. The gravel roads were still coated in compact snow and ice. No traction for my golf cart or a community pickup truck, so I loaded baggage into my pushcart and trudged slowly across the island, 3/4 of a mile through freezing rain and light snow. Two trips, the last one in the dark. I really didn’t want to cancel Christmas with my daughter.
Happily, roads in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley had almost completely thawed. I made it to La Conner with barely a hitch. The only place I got stuck was trying to pull into my friends’ driveway, still a solid mass of snow. Luckily, I’d brought a shovel.
At 8 p.m., I sat down to the sack dinner I’d brought. In a phone call to let the Mad Birder know I’d made it, he insisted I raid his liquor cupboard for a tot of Glenfiddich. This time, it was I who put up little resistance. If there’s a heaven, that man is going there.
The next day, Christmas Eve, Lillian and I made our rendezvous at the Camano cabin. It was basic, but cozy, with lights, heat, a fridge, a microwave oven and comfy beds. I set up my propane camp stove on a picnic table under the covered porch. Bathrooms and hot showers were 100 feet away.
We made the place festive, gathering fallen fir boughs for a window-sill vase and a swag on the door. Lights went up in a window and over the door. If there had been a hall, we’d have decked it. Heirloom treasures made for a holiday dinner table fancier than that place had ever seen, I’ll wager. I was glad to have trundled the Cantwell holiday trappings through the snow.
Meanwhile, I discovered that the San Juans had lost power again that morning. My kind neighbors were again sitting in the dark. Happily, power came back on just in time for their Christmas Eve dinner.
Christmas Day, my daughter and I breakfasted on almond-flour blueberry pancakes. We hiked through rain-washed woods to wander the beautiful cobbled beach, returning to the Christmas cabin to lunch on Stilton and Cotswold Double Gloucester cheeses on crackers while piecing together a new jigsaw puzzle. We played new board games before and after a savory dinner of camp-stove shepherd’s pie, which Lillian totally aced.
My dessert, Bûche de Noël, baked at home just before the power failed, was, um, a mixed success. The sponge was basically a failure — chewy and tough rather than airy and light. But if you smothered mocha-flavored whipped cream on cardboard, it would still be heavenly.
So, after all, in the end, the terrible December got better. The horrible weather didn’t defeat us. Christmas turned out more good than no good. And even my very bad dessert was tasty.
Is there a moral to the story? I guess it’s this: Let’s nurture resilience and hope. Let’s meet the challenges. Let’s trundle through the storms, no matter what 2023 throws our way. Happy new year, friends. And remember to bring your shovel.
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.
I’ve given up denying the tree-hugger label. I embrace it, along with firs and cedars. I’m pretty sure I cemented my reputation on Center Island a few years back when a former caretaker cut down a beautiful big fir in front of my cabin. At the road’s edge, it was on community property, so he was technically within his rights. But it wasn’t unhealthy, leaning, or in any way an obvious threat to the public good.
For context, this was back in the days when I was still a working stiff, with a busy 40-hour-a-week job in the city. My family retreated to our cabin for a quick weekend once a month, if we were lucky. Once here, after battling through freeway traffic and squeezing into a crowded water taxi for an often bouncy voyage, my favorite decompression hour involved firing up the charcoal barbecue on the cedar deck, sipping a glass of something choice, and gazing through a curtain of big firs and maples as the sun sank over Lopez Sound.
Years of savoring that view, which includes some of the largest and oldest trees on the island, made me familiar with each one. The giant Doug fir with thick branches gnarled as an old man’s arthritic fingers. The forked hemlock with the big black hollow where squirrels nest. The Douglas maple whose dazzling fallen leaves stuck to my deck railing amid October mists.
So when I confronted the caretaker to express my dismay that he had removed a healthy big tree from my favorite view, in my emotion I blurted out, “Every one of those trees is my friend!”
It was true, certainly. But was I 12 years old?
A former logger from Sedro-Woolley, the caretaker surely repeated that line far and wide.
Incidentally, I never did get a clear explanation why he took down the tree. Maybe he needed firewood.
That was years ago. These days I’m a little more circumspect — or grown up, at least — as to how I express my tree-hugging nature. I also acknowledge that I am at least partial owner of two chainsaws. I have cut down trees — unhealthy ones — and I partially heat my cabin with wood harvested on the island.
But I continue to value the island’s lovely woods, and I believe I’ve found a better way to express that.
Two things set me off in recent times. The first occasion was when I volunteered for a work party to clean up one of the island’s little community park lots. While I envisioned picking up litter and raking fallen limbs, some of my neighbors had another idea. With machetes in hand, they undertook to denude a hillside of its salal. “Wait! Stop! That’s a beautiful native plant, what are you doing?” I — once again — blurted. “Think of the erosion that will cause.”
They stopped. But there were mutters and smoldering glances. Cantwell the Tree Hugger was standing in the way of “cleaning up” Center Island.
The second occasion came when a new cabin owner moved to the island and immediately clear-cut the lush and healthy salal from his property. In its place he planted laurel bushes like you’ll find at Home Depot. He lined them up to form a hedge just like you see in Bellevue or Redmond.
What’s worse, it became a copy-cat crime. A week or two later his next-door neighbor planted his own laurel hedge.
My question: Why did they bother to buy property on a remote, semi-wild island in the first place? Were they on a mission to bring the suburbs to the San Juans?
But I kept the snide remarks between me and friends.
Publicly, I set out to educate and, perhaps, entertain. For decades, I was a professional outdoors writer and photographer. So over the past couple years I’ve produced three small posters under the headline, “Getting to Know Center Island’s Native Plants.” I’ve posted them in the island’s mail shack and clubhouse, and Monique Maas, the island farmer, has shown them off at her produce stand.
So far, I’ve featured salal, oceanspray and, most recently, snowberry. Have the posters made a difference? Hard to know. Nobody’s torn them down, at least. It’s a small thing I can do without trampling anybody’s right to do what they wish with their own property.
Here’s what my snowberry poster looks like. I hope it makes people think. Maybe it will slow the machetes.
SUDDENLY IT’S SERIOUSLY NOVEMBER, and I’m back in my writing hut on the rocky knoll. The oil-filled radiator is cranked up high, warming my shivering knees. When did all this happen?
After autumn’s sunny and dry debut until October’s final days, the Pacific Northwet is reasserting itself. About time. We have sorely needed the rain. In a matter of days, the 3-inch quilt of moss blanketing my knoll has returned from its anemic pallor to a vibrant lime green.
Still, we’ve had a happy mix of weather days. For a weekend getaway to the Long Beach Peninsula with old friends, we enjoyed a blueberry sky (on what’s sometimes regarded as the Cranberry Coast, because they grow them there). Back with Seattle in-laws two days later for the annual Halloween party, I sheltered from an onslaught of fire-hose rain.
Yet, November’s first day brought another blue-heavens afternoon. Galley Cat and I relaxed into a smooth ride on placid seas as the Paraclete water taxi transported us home to Center Island.
Now I sit with a high-intensity lamp gleaming on my keyboard to counter the mid-afternoon gloom. Rain pelts Wee Nooke’s cedar-shake roof. Outside the mullioned window, serviceberry leaves that have taken 40-degree nights like a tonic are suddenly a brilliant yellow, defying the gunmetal sky. On my desktop speakers, Bob Dylan drones his delightfully nasal “Like a Rolling Stone.” Outside, rapidly building winds set tall firs shimmying as the drumming raindrops transform from a rattly snare to a booming timpani.
It might be time to beat a retreat to the sturdier cabin and stoke a blaze in the woodstove. This is why I split all that firewood in September.
Stay dry if you can, fellow webfoots. Stay warm, however you may.
Oddly enough, it’s something to celebrate on Center Island. Our deer are returning.
Loyal readers might recall that when I first made this rock my full-time home four years ago, I used to temper the monotony of my morning bike laps by counting how many deer I passed. Admittedly, since I rode a circular course, some were repeats, but my record for three laps of the airfield — about a 20-minute ride — was in the range of 45 deer.
The down side to that was that you couldn’t plant a new tree or shrub on Center Island without fencing it. And if you love swordferns like I do, you better get used to them being munched down to the hilt. Those guys can be voracious. Nonetheless, there was something peaceful and comforting about seeing the Center Island herd grazing the grass airfield on a misty morning. It was part of our bucolic island scene.
Alas, 2021 brought more than COVID, it brought a mysterious virus that killed most of the deer in the San Juan Islands. It’s been months since I’ve spotted Bucky or Bambi on my morning ride.
This morning, as I trundled downstairs to make coffee, the first thing I spied out front of The Nuthatch was a handsome buck, antlers proud and pointy, bedded down in the tall grass beyond the salal patch.
He spent the morning. In fact, as I was lounging outside on the deck with my second cup around 11, taking a break from rebuilding the cabin’s back balcony, I was starting to worry about the guy. Was he hurt? Was he, shudder, sick?
Just about then, a rustle sounded from deep in the salal, and out came a little doe. Wow, here come the deer, I reveled. And I bet a girlfriend will get his corpuscles puscle-ing.
But before he could rise and introduce himself, more rustles split the morning’s peace. And out of the shrubs came another buck, with antlers even pointier. I didn’t just have one deer in my yard, I had a whole new herd!
Just as things were looking up for the hoof-and-hatrack population, a fearsome thought sprouted in my bean: Would a battle over the doe ensue? Would this happy population explosion blow up in my face with a fight to the finish between these two young studs?
Everybody just munched on my salal and hung out for a while. It was all chill.
Bucky, Bambi, welcome back. Just, please, leave the swordferns alone.
THE MESSAGE CAME IN A WHISPER. A whisper of breeze. “Autumn,” it sighed. “Autumn.”
I was enjoying a cloudless Tuesday morning, lounging in my Adirondack chair on the Nuthatch’s deck, from which I looked through mossy trees to the quiet waters of Lopez Sound. A warm September day. Not a breath of air moving. What was moving were a few midges that I swatted at between sips of my day’s second cuppa and my few daily minutes with a New York Times Sunday crossword.
That’s when the branches suddenly rustled, high in my biggest fir. A soft breath of wind came with the rustle. A cool breath, spiced with the scent of the woods.
“Ahhh,” I sighed back. “It’s here.”
For days, we islanders have known fall was coming. The berries and currants have swollen like pregnant bellies and ripened with a purple from the deepest sea. Flower baskets on decks have splashed color about like an artist who knows an international oil paint shortage is right around the corner. Endless weeks of sunshine have driven me and my splitting ax to the woodpile day after day, inspired perhaps by the same instinct that causes woolly bear caterpillars to grow blacker and fuzzier.
Officially, the autumn equinox is at 8:03 p.m. PDT this Thursday. The equinox is when the sun shines directly on the equator, and the northern and southern hemispheres get the same amount of rays.
That’s the official time, and the scientific explanation. But I know a new season arrived on Center Island this morning around 10:30 when a cooling breeze gave me goosebumps and a few windblown fir needles pattered quietly down on my deck railing.
I’m enjoying a lazy day back on my island after six days away, four of which were spent in hard physical labor at Seattle’s Canal Boatyard during the necessary every-three-years haulout of my beloved old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro.
Daughter Lillian and I sanded and repainted (two generous coats) the boat’s ample, full-keeled bottom, among other tasks. A modified-epoxy, copper-infused antifouling paint is key to keeping barnacles and long streamers of kelp from taking up residence on the hull of Sogni d’Oro, whose name is the Italian version of “sweet dreams.”
The Cantwells haven’t a drop of Italian blood, as far as I know. But my late wife Barbara and I had enjoyed memorable travels in Italy in 1989, the year we made the boat ours. (“Bought” isn’t the right word.) At the time, we were smitten with all things Italian. These things happen.
If nothing else, the exotic name is a good dockside conversation starter with folks who ask “what’s that mean?” and “how the heck do you say it?” (“SO-nyee DOH-ro”). My daughter and I still say it to each other when we bid each other good night.
The boat means much to me and Lillian. My family lived aboard the sailboat for the better part of 25 years. When Lil was born in 1991, Barbara and I brought our little girl home from the hospital to a marina on the Columbia River in Portland, where we lived at the time. In the mid-’90s, we took a great sailing adventure to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. The full-keel boat was meant for ocean cruising, and given the right wind and sail handling, she charged through waves like a sea-going locomotive. On one memorable passage, hundreds of leaping dolphins surrounded us as we plunged through the seas.
Once settled in Seattle, for 20 years we threw off the mooring lines and spent two weeks every summer exploring every cove and cranny of the San Juan Islands. It’s how Barbara and I fell in love with these islands and ended up retiring here.
When her mum and I moved to Center Island in 2018, now-adult Lillian moved back aboard Sogni d’Oro at Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina. She and her cat, Tiberius, are the boat’s liveaboard stewards now — with a healthy bit of elbow grease and wallet-loosening from Papa come haulout time.
In recent years, the boat has mostly been “dock sailed,” as sailors snickeringly describe it when a vessel doesn’t leave the marina. It’s a matter of some regret for us. But sometimes rocks poke up in your life’s plotted course.
For me, these four days in the boatyard were like an intimate reunion with a salty old friend. In our head-to-toe Tyvek painting suits (which on a warm day feel a lot like wearing a portable sauna), Lil and I scraped barnacles from the prop and restored the bronze shine. We applied $500 worth of paint. We hand-cleaned and polished the fiberglass topsides and the gleaming green stripe beneath the teak cap-rail. Lillian sanded and refinished 32-feet of rub rail. Everything below the waterline got inspected, cleaned and restored.
Someone asked if this might be my last haulout. It’s a lot of work. I’ve always insisted on doing it myself, and ain’t nobody getting any younger. I love my good old boat, but, I admit, Lil and I discussed whether it might soon be time to find someone new to love her.
For now, I’m still basking in the glow-slash-exhaustion from all that we did to spiff her up.
I do still have a lovingly restored 1957 runabout, a 10-foot plywood sailing dinghy, an 8-foot inflatable Zodiac with outboard, and a two-person inflatable kayak. I still have boats to “mess about in,” as Kenneth Grahame memorably put it.
Too soon to say. In the end, I might just find someone new to love my island cabin, and move back aboard Sogni d’Oro. Lots of sweet dreams happened there.
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’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.
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.