IT’S A SOGGY SUNDAY on Center Island, continuing a moist and cool spring throughout Western Washington. Halfway through May, Seattle has already recorded 2 1/2 times its historically average rainfall for the month.
Other than the extreme crankiness among Washingtonians who will wave their GORE-TEX-swaddled arms and shout that we get enough friggin’ rain in November, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that invasive grasses and weeds are loving it. My little half-acre of paradise is looking like the 12-year-old kid who hates haircuts after spending a summer with his grandfather who doesn’t see too good. We’re talking shaggy.
The good news is that the wildflowers are going nuts, too. If you get a chance to take a hike soon at Iceberg Point on Lopez, Turtleback Mountain on Orcas, Young Hill on San Juan Island, or just about anyplace in the islands with an open meadow and occasional sunshine, prepare to be wowed. Blue camas flowers, golden buttercups, pink sea blush, chocolate lilies and more have been outdoing themselves this month. I need look only as far as the rocky knoll behind my cabin.
Rain, rain, go away. Soon. But thanks for watering the flowers.
MY WILD CURRANT is madly blooming this spring. It’s a good tiding.
From the time Nuthatch cabin became ours in 2003, one thing I loved was the red-flowering wild-currant shrub that grew out of the rocky face just below our front deck. Its many clusters of dainty, trumpet-shaped blooms bobbed enchantingly above the deck rail and added a welcome early-spring splash of color to our view of woods and water.
Hummingbirds loved the flowers, and I mounted a bird feeder on the rail there so eager nuthatches, finches, juncos and towhees could use the currant’s branches as a perch while waiting their turn for a sunflower seed. It was akin to the queuing area at airport security. Always busy. And when fruit emerged later in the season, something of an avian snack bar.
I liked the wild currant so much that I planted another inside a deer fence next to the cabin’s front steps about 10 years ago. I gave the new planting plenty of water to get through dry summers. It grew large, with many branches and attractive foliage. But it didn’t flower much. Maybe just one little cluster of blooms each spring.
Meanwhile, after many seasons of enjoying the cliff-dwelling currant’s spring color, watering it in summer, seeing it get big and eventually rigging a supporting sling so it wouldn’t pull out of the rock, I waited in vain for new buds to emerge one February a few years ago. Barbara and I kept watching and hoping for a revival that sadly never came.
Its cliff-hanging location was a blessing and, probably, a curse. That hungry deer couldn’t reach it was likely the only reason it survived as long as it did. Yet the challenge of drilling roots into rock and finding necessary water probably doomed it.
Its gnarled old branches cobbled with lichen and bearded with moss, the dead shrub almost fell to my axe. But I stopped before the first swing. Why take it down? The birds continued to use it as a staging platform. It still served a purpose, and even without flowers or foliage it was pleasing to the eye.
Inside that deer fence, I planted another red currant next to the first. Tiny by comparison, it nonetheless produced a modest display of flowers the past two springs. Perhaps it finally shamed its big brother, which this spring has produced a robust display.
The new plants’ blossoms are more pink than red, whereas the cliff dweller wowed the eye with blooms of deep red to magenta. But this year’s dozens of flowering clusters have renewed my faith in the power of springtime in the San Juans.
To all my Northern Hemisphere friends, savor this season of renewal, whatever touches your heart.
I’VE OFTEN REMINDED OTHER ISLAND FOLK that February can throw just about anything our way, and after a springlike month that had us all scoffing at Punxsutawney Phil’s Groundhog Day prediction of more winter ahead, Center Islanders woke up this morning.
To snow on the ground.
It was one of those surprise snowfalls that began well after dark last night. And unlike rain, heralded by its rooftop patter, snow parachutes to the ground unannounced. So one had to be really paying attention to avoid a gee-whillikers moment when first looking out this morning.
OK, it was just an inch. Nothing to flap about, but a late-February surprise nonetheless. I worried about the narcissus that is starting to bloom in the side yard.
The nice thing was that by dawn the sky had cleared to that watery, light blue you get only in winter, as if someone put a capful too much bleach in with the baby boy’s blanket. As the sun came up while I sipped my first coffee, from the Nuthatch’s front window I saw an accenting blush of pink like watercolor paint brushed boldly across the treeline of Lopez Island. Below my front deck, the salal thicket sparkled.
Galley Cat is no fan of snow, though she didn’t let the cold, white stuff stop her from a paw-mincing climb up the rocky knoll with me to inspect the Back 40. Frosty toes sent her scooting back inside as soon as the cabin door was open, however.
It was a good week here, with a four-day visit by daughter Lillian, who brought her cat, Tiberius, along for the first time. Galley growled at the feline interloper, and Tibbers spent a lot of time hiding under a bed in the loft. But by visit’s end there was a tolerant sheathing of claws. If only the Russians could follow their example.
Tomorrow, Galley and I head across the water to visit Friday Harbor friends for another session of planning our upcoming Alaska voyage, and to meet another crew member. Take heart. More sunshine is in the forecast, and March is coming soon.
FEW THINGS ARE MORE SATISFYING than repairing something yourself, especially when you live on a remote island with no Mr. Fix-It shops just down the road.
It’s especially satisfying when you’re fixing something about which you know very little, such as my golf cart, Mr. Toad. And the fix works.
I’ve never been a golfer. Until a couple years ago, when Barbara needed more help getting around, I never had reason to own a golf cart, though the electric-powered flivvers are the preferred method of personal locomotion on Center Island, where covenants prohibit personal vehicles powered by internal combustion.
I still prefer to walk (the only way you get to see the Golden-Crowned Kinglets mobbing trees along the airfield), or ride my bike, which I do for exercise when the weather is nice. But my golf cart, which dates to the Clinton Administration and is named for the speed-happy amphibian of “Wind in the Willows,” comes in handy when it’s time to lug trash to the dock or transport groceries back to the cabin.
After buying Mr. Toad in summer 2020, my first big fix came last fall, replacing the bank of six 6-volt deep-cycle batteries, which cost almost as much as I paid for the whole darn buggy. But the new batteries gave me the needed oomph to get up hills again.
Then all was fine until recently, when a new problem became apparent. Instead of accelerating slowly and smoothly, Mr. Toad began hopping in short bursts. No matter how carefully I trod the accelerator, either it wanted to sit still or go full-tilt, which seemed perfectly fitting for its fictional namesake who was imprisoned for his reckless driving. But it didn’t make for a relaxing ride to the clubhouse.
I can occasionally be clever with tools (see “A tool chest full of memories on Father’s Day,” June 2019). After taking a community college class in marine-diesel repair years ago, I never had to pay for someone else to repair my sailboat engine. But I knew bupkis about what made golf carts go, other than the batteries.
Here’s where the internet earned its keep, which is a big admission coming from me, Mr. Luddite 2022. I asked Google, “Why is my golf cart going herky jerky?” Within minutes I was watching a YouTube video in which a well-fed, jovial little man in Texas told me all about my E-Z-GO golf cart’s inductive throttle sensor and showed me how to change it.
From online research, I found other possible fixes, including a part that cost $400. But the inductive throttle sensor could be had for $23.99 on Amazon. I always like to start with the cheapest likely fix and go from there. I hit the order button. The part would arrive in six days.
The Chinese-made part was sold by a company that inexplicably calls itself 10LOL. That’s the numeral “10,” followed by the letters “LOL.” I wonder where some of these Chinese companies get their names, and who is advising them. Don’t they know that in the U.S.A., “LOL” stands for “laughing out loud”? Maybe the Omaha-based marketing consultant who helped them pick that name is laughing all the way to the bank.
The new part looked just like the old one: a doughnut-shaped piece of hardened black plastic, about two inches high, topping a small platform with a couple of electrical hookups. It didn’t look like anything that should make a difference to how my golf cart accelerated, but it did the trick for that well-tummied Texan. I said a Hail Gary (most fix-it guys on YouTube are named Gary) and proceeded.
Happily, the part came with detailed, illustrated instructions that showed every step needed to make the replacement in my model of golf cart. Even though it involved time-consuming removal of a lot of bolts to access the part, which hid in a little box beneath the floor mat, I was done in an hour.
I took Mr. Toad for a test drive. The acceleration is once again as smooth as a frog pond on a sultry August afternoon.
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.
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.
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.
THE DOG DAYS OF AUGUST have got nothing on the doldrums of January on this mossy rock.
It’s hermit season in the San Juans. It has its advantages in terms of peace and quiet. Except when the visiting neighbor at the end of the road decided Saturday was a good day for target practice with his new pistol. A quiet single guy who has always kept to himself in the 18 years we’ve been here. I ambled down to gently inquire if all was OK. I told him I was concerned because I had never before heard rapid gunfire 500 feet from my home. He assured me he could “do any fucking thing he wanted to” on his private property. I didn’t dispute that while he held a gun in his hand.
Some hermits you give a wide berth.
But other island characters can warm your winter-chilled heart. A good example is Andrew, one of the regular skippers aboard the Paraclete, the water taxi I regularly ride between Center Island and Anacortes.
Andrew has a sunny disposition no matter the weather. A big fellow in his 20s with a thatch of dark hair above a quick smile, he always hails me with “Nice to see you, my brother!” And he always spares a warm greeting for Galley Cat, who rides in her soft-sided carrier alongside me.
Before a recent sailing, Andrew chatted with our small boatload of passengers about what’s new in his life. He was glad to have snow-free weather for a while because he commutes an hour to rural Whatcom County, where he lives with his parents. He often talks about people he knows from his church, so that’s obviously a big part of his life.
He said he might be getting married this summer (I suspect COVID is playing a role in the timing) and that a Whatcom farm neighbor who’s “maybe in her 70s” — yes, he knows her from church — has offered him and his intended the rental of an apartment recently created in the top of her barn. The farm woman is an independent, live-off-the-land type who has one cow and keeps two calves, butchering one a year and then breeding the cow again. She’s eager to pass along her sustainable agrarian knowledge to the younger generation and “that’s exactly what we want,” Andrew enthused.
That day chilly fog had never lifted from the islands. A fellow passenger asked Andrew if he was certified to pilot by radar. Yes, these guys will get you there.
But as we cruised out into Rosario Strait, a wide and busy waterway plied by oil tankers and towboats, the murk didn’t quite lower to water level. In an eerie scene, visibility was good at surface level but only about the bottom 50 feet of surrounding islands peered out from beneath the fog. It was like a ferry-sized barber clipper had given Decatur Island a cottony bowl cut. The San Juan uplands were taking the rest of the season off.
Now I sit in my cold writing shack, wearing half gloves while I type, nudging half-frozen toes closer to the radiator while I listen to k.d. lang’s lilting and soulful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It perfectly complements my January mood.
But tomorrow things are looking up. I’m invited next door for a Burns Night supper at the home of John “The Mad Birder” and Carol Farnsworth. We’ll celebrate the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, a shirttail relative of my dear late wife, Barbara Burns Cantwell. We’ll eat some good food. We’ll read a little poetry, and perhaps listen to an online Burns tribute by the Mad Birder’s former Ph.D. supervisor, Kathleen Jamie, the Makar (Poet Laureate) of Scotland. We’ll likely sip a little single malt in Barbara’s memory, and in Rabbie’s.
Sounds like the perfect close to January on this mossy rock.
IT’S 50 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT OUTSIDE, MY TOILET FLUSHES WITHOUT HAND-PRIMING and my hummingbird feeder isn’t freezing solid every few hours.
These are luxuries one comes to appreciate.
Last we visited, my neighbors’ pipes were iced up but all was well at the Nuthatch. However, on the coldest days I watched through my kitchen window as our overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds were frustrated in efforts to find nourishment from the feeder that had turned to solid ice. My soft heart breaking, twice a day I brought in the feeder and replaced the ice with fresh, warm sugar-water.
But on the day before New Year’s Eve, the hummingbirds weren’t the only ones frozen out. After a wind-chilled week when outdoor temperatures topped out between 15 and 25 degrees, Center Island’s community water system succumbed to the shivers. Buried pipes and various other parts of our reverse-osmosis supply system froze up. In the space of a couple hours the output from my kitchen and bathroom faucets turned from a trickle to nothing.
Our water guru, Sean, confirmed via an email blast that the outage was island-wide. He offered an apologetic explanation that boiled down to this: The solution was up to the weather gods, not the water guru. We just needed warmth. Patience would be key.
Taking the “toilet tank is half full” view, there was good news: I had long ago stored two 5-gallon plastic jugs, filled with emergency water, on my back porch. I brought them inside to thaw. And somehow water was still flowing at our community clubhouse, about a half-mile from me. That blessing was mixed: As a caution against exhausting the water supply the caretaker had closed the shower and laundry room.
We also had a few inches of snow on the ground, which wasn’t melting. A good source of more emergency water, even if it needed to be boiled, I told myself. The blood of my homesteading pioneer ancestors surged through my veins.
But my South Dakota grandparents’ weary genetic material failed to remind me that when you fill a giant pasta pot with snow from the deck and melt it atop the woodstove, you end up with only about 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Speckled with dirt and floating fir needles, it was good only for toilet flushing.
With a toilet that uses 1.6 gallons per flush, that didn’t accomplish anything fast. After a few melted potfuls I, uh, flushed away that strategy.
The long and short of it was that after four days of no showering, infrequent flushing and more than one trek across the island to refill my water jugs amid frigid winds gusting to 50 mph, I texted the water taxi, packed up Galley Cat and bugged out last Monday like a MASH unit fleeing advancing troops.
Here’s where good friends are a wonderful thing.
Lynn, a former Seattle Times colleague, and her husband, David, had earlier invited me to their Lopez Island vacation home for a brunch. With a little hint-dropping on my part and typical generosity from Lynn and David, that turned into an overnight visit, including two delightful hikes (the sun came out!) on beautiful Iceberg Point, with panoramic views of the wintry Olympics and thrashing waves off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The gamboling accompaniment of their highly energetic Springer spaniel pup added joy.
The next day I drove Ranger Rick, my reliable teenaged pickup, to the far end of Lopez, parked in the 72-hour lot and toddled aboard the state ferry to Friday Harbor (fare-free for interisland walk-ons). I carried Galley in a soft-sided carrier slung over my shoulder, with all my cat supplies, clothes and other gear packed in a Rubbermaid tote strapped to a hand truck for easy rolling on and off the ferry. The kitty cat and I planned a couple nights with Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson, partners in my upcoming voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska. We would further plan our 10-week itinerary, which begins Memorial Day weekend.
We buckled down and did a lot of studying of charts and guidebooks, filling out a detailed spreadsheet of where we hoped to visit. We also found time for hikes, a fun board game, good food and an evening binge-watch about Vikings invading medieval Britain.
I had planned to return home Thursday. The National Weather Service predicted up to an inch of snow Wednesday night for Friday Harbor but with rapid warming and rain the next day. Didn’t sound like a problem.
We awakened Thursday to 5 inches of wet snow. Beautiful but not travel-friendly. My hosts kindly put me up another night.
Galley and I have been back at the Nuthatch since Friday. Glad to have hot showers and a flushing toilet. Still drinking bottled water until Sean gives the all-clear on the latest water-sample test, but that’s a mere hiccup among this feast of creature comforts.
Maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of our good fortunes once in a while, whether we’re hummingbird or human. Stay warm, friends.
OH, WE’RE HAVIN’ A HEAT WAVE, a tropical heat wave… Well, it got up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit today on Center Island. After a couple of days this week when the red stuff in the outdoor thermometer didn’t budge above 15, that’s saying something. Not much, but something.
Christmas arrived in the San Juans along with a blast of Siberian cold, snow and wind that hasn’t quite ended.
With all that in the forecast last week, daughter Lillian and I canceled our long-planned Christmas rendezvous with friends at the Washington coast. Instead, Lil and her friend Bianca, a former college roommate with whom she remains close, joined me at the Nuthatch for a quiet and cozy celebration with plenty of good food, mulled wine, games, puzzles and favorite old movies. We went caroling at the island farm (“Good King Wenceslas” was our forte) and had a snowball fight on the airfield.
We didn’t wake up to a white Christmas, but by evening the flakes were falling fast, allowing us to enjoy the magic of dimming lights inside the cabin and turning on outside lights above the front wall of windows to experience a mesmerizing eyeful of what I call “Snow Theater.”
Thoughtful friends and family remembered me with many cards and gifts. It was a good Christmas, but as many surmised, it wasn’t easy without my sweet wife and Lillian’s dear mum. Christmas was Barbara’s favorite time of year. We did our best to honor the standard she set and replicate the joy she brought to it. Of course it wasn’t the same, but it was the best way to show our love.
Monday I braved snowy highways to return Lillian and Bianca to Seattle. I returned via water taxi to my island on Tuesday to learn that many neighbors had frozen pipes. (Mine are OK.)
This morning dawned quiet and sunny. Winds were light, the air remained frigid and the snow wasn’t melting. A perfect morning to bundle up for an invigorating tramp around the island with my camera. It was fun to try to read prints in the snow. Was that a deer crossing the road? A fox treading the path behind my knoll?
The continuing cold has helped quash a planned visit by friends for the New Year’s holiday. So Galley Cat and I will be partying alone as we welcome 2022. For me, the year to come holds the adventure of a 10-week voyage with some other chums on a 37-foot powerboat up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and the hope that we might all be able to resume safe travels to faraway places, one of my joys in life. For Galley, there’s probably hope for more runs up the knoll. Maybe better-quality kitty tuna. Her needs are simple. I think we can work on that.
THE SKITTERING IN MY CHIMNEY stopped midday Thursday. Friday night was cold. I lit a fire. The cabin filled with smoke.
It wasn’t good.
Whatever got into my chimney, and apparently went to its maker there, was now blocking it. Not a tiny bird, I guessed. A squirrel? A hundred bats? Damn.
Saturday was a marathon day of chimney surgery at the Nuthatch. I decided to attack the problem from the inside flue, dreading what I might find.
First I removed every treasured artifact from the mantel. The wedding photos. The ship in a bottle that my brother-in-law Roly constructed. The framed pearl from my father-in-law’s Hood Canal oyster beach. The New Guinea penis gourd from my sister-in-law Ann. All the good stuff.
Moved the wicker chairs to the far side of the room. Draped the furniture with sheets. Tacked a tarp to the wall around the woodstove and spread another across the floor. Soot can go everywhere.
Then I pulled on a white head-to-toe Tyvek painting suit, grabbed my toolchest, a respirator mask and safety glasses from the shed, strapped on my headlamp and commenced peering at the chimney’s every seam and joint to figure out how to open it up.
There were no screws holding the three sections together, just tapered ends fitting snugly into one another. I tried lifting up. I tried pushing down. No budging.
So I did what every home-maintenance wizard does. I checked YouTube.
No luck. All the online chimneys featured screws you could remove, or sliding extensions. Not what I had.
Stymied in my plan to disassemble the flue, I decided to poke and prod from inside the stove. Breathing like an astronaut, with the respirator covering my face, I discovered that the baffles at the top of the fire chamber were backed by bricks that moved when I poked them. Aha!
Fine black soot spilled from above as I moved the bricks. I was able to lift one out and open a clear passage to the chimney. More soot cascaded down. And my headlamp’s beam fell on a small gray lump wedged in one of the baffles. A lump with feathers. A sooty, lifeless sparrow.
I reached in with a gloved hand and gently pulled the limp bird from its trap. It wasn’t big. I don’t see how that small body alone would have blocked the smoke. But maybe its death struggles, all that skittering, had dislodged enough soot to clog the baffles.
With a sense of melancholy relief, I shook the soot and ash from atop each fire brick, replaced them carefully and shoveled the debris from the floor of the stove.
It took hours to get my front room stripped of its protective garments and reassembled as it was. I mixed cinnamon, cloves and orange extract in water and simmered it on the stove all afternoon to purge the cabin’s smoky smell. I buried the bird outside among soggy fallen maple leaves next to the stump looked over by Trudy, the cement garden bunny that came with us from our Bremerton home.
No squirrel, no skunk. No cloud of bats. Just a lonely sparrow who made a bad choice and complicated my Saturday. Sad to think of how its life ended. Rest in peace, you poor, dumb little bird.
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.