Fat berries, soft breezes herald a new San Juan season

It’s a rich season for berries and wild fruit in the San Juans. Plump wild currants nod to visitors at the front step of Nuthatch Cabin.

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.

Center Island salal bushes have borne more and bigger berries in the wake of a cool, wet spring and a warm summer. Native tribes in olden days compacted the nutritious fruit into dried cakes to help carry them through Northwest winters.

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.

Welcome, I whispered back. Welcome.

Black-and-white petunias? My artist brother, Tom, found them at the Lopez Island hardware store. The plant is loaded with blooms in a basket on my deck.
Blackberries, too, have prospered this year.
The sunny end of summer has brought out blossoms in a basket hanging from the Nuthatch’s eaves.
After days of buzzing the chainsaw and swinging the splitting axe, I have a satisfactorily bulging woodshed just in time for the first day of autumn. A bittersweet bonus: many lengths of maple from a beloved tree that came down on my roof in a freak May windstorm. I trade its years of splendid autumn color for one winter of crackling hot blazes in my woodstove.

Boatyard daze: Pondering the future with a salty old friend

Daughter Lillian shines our sailboat’s green stripe as the boat perches on stands in Seattle’s Canal Boatyard. Unintentionally but appropriately, the boat’s color scheme of green, white and red mirrors the Italian flag.

CAN A MAN HAVE TOO MANY BOATS?

Naw. What kind of a question is that?

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.

In the Travelift’s slings, a spiffed-up Sogni d’Oro sails through the boatyard on the way to relaunch. A somewhat unnerving development since our last haulout: The boatyard’s new Travelift is operated by remote control. Nobody sits in the driver’s seat.

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.

It’s gettin’ too goldurn modern on this little speck o’ dirt

Here’s the high-falutin’ street address for my cabin on the cowpath loftily called Chinook Way.

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 doesn’t mean we can’t grumble.

It takes a little magic to accomplish chores with no stores

A pry bar is my friend as I rebuild the Nuthatch’s deck. That, and lots of bug repellent.

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.

My new battery-operated bug zapper adds a bit of sport to outdoor chores. Care is required, however. Instructions warn against swatting your own nose with it.

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.

Back on the rock: Paella with pals, and a bittersweet memorial

A bubbling vat of paella on a neighbor’s deck was the lure last week to a Center Island block party, easing my transition back to landlubberly existence.

BACK TO THE REEF, and the rock also known as Center Island.

I needed a writing hiatus for a few weeks after returning from the Alaska adventure. It’s been a period of readjustment to the landlubberly life, and to daily existence shared primarily with Galley Cat, with whom I’ve enjoyed a joyful reunion with many shared runs up and down our rocky knoll.

It took a week or so until I was waking in the morning without the inclination to jump out of my bunk, get coffee water heating on the Force 10 stove and climb down in the hold to complete the morning engine checks so we could weigh anchor.

My past three weeks of land-based confinement has hardly been solitary, though. After a couple of days reuniting with my brother Tom, who was my cabin watcher/cat sitter for 10 weeks, I was invited to lunch on Lopez Island with old friend and Seattle Times colleague Lynn Thompson and her family.

Shortly afterward, The Mad Birder and his wife, Carol, invited me next door with three other neighbors to share a bounty of Dungeness crab, freshly hauled from Lopez Sound. That led to another party two days later after neighbor Steve, a restaurant chef from Nevada, took the crab shells back to his holiday cabin to create a stock from which he whipped up a splendid vat of paella, colorfully aswim with fresh San Juan Channel shrimp, Read’s Bay crab and Center Island Farm vegetables. I was among the dozen or so neighbors who got to partake of that locavore lovefest on a sunset-view deck thanks to Steve and his wife, Dawn, the organizing force behind their family-owned eatery.

Neighbor Steve, the paella king of Center Island.

As cabin-owners come and go on our rock, you never know who will be your next neighbor. Right now, we’re enjoying an amiable mix of compatible friends along our dead-end spur of Chinook Way, the grandiose name of the gravel cow-path winding through our thickets of salal and Nootka rose. Three of us are sailboat owners (four, when you count the neighboring farm). Among others is a family with three energetic boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, who added an element of fun to the block party. The kids’ mom told me they are fans of a YouTube channel called “Outdoor Boys,” and the youngest had recently learned of the edibility of seaweed. So as we prepared to sit down to paella on Steve and Dawn’s deck, this adventurous 5-year-old, expertly wielding a pair of chopsticks, doggedly ate his way through a bowl of some sort of kelp. I like that spirit.

Over good food and drink, we all pondered our island existence. Because our cabins face west overlooking Lopez Sound, with the frequent reward of a sinking sun setting the saltwater sparkling brighter than a Tiffany’s display case, we decided our neighborhood’s new nickname should be “Sunset Strip.” There was serious talk of carving a sign.

A couple days later longtime friends Ken and Kate from Portland joined me for three nights at the Nuthatch, giving me a chance to barbecue, one of the things that makes life worth living (in case you didn’t know). Hickory-smoked vegan burgers with Lebanese spice one night. The next: thick-cut pork chops with a crust of fresh island rosemary, minced garlic and romano cheese, grilled with apple-wood smoke.

All that camaraderie and good food was lovely. But stress and emotion wasn’t absent from my return to the island. On my calendar, these days led up to last Sunday, August 21, when we committed my dear Barbara’s cremated remains to the Salish Sea. It wasn’t an easy day to plan for.

Sucia Island, a 90-minute boat ride to the north, was the location. For some 20 years, my family and I would spend a couple weeks of every August poking around the San Juans in our cozy old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro. On those sojourns, Sucia Island State Park, near the Canadian border, became perhaps our favorite place in the world. In our wills, Barbara and I both requested that our remains be cast on waters around Sucia.

For a day trip with a dozen family members and friends, I chartered the Paraclete, the water taxi that I routinely use for passage to and from Anacortes. It was a day of good karma; just before arriving at Sucia, we encountered a pod of orca. For my sister-in-law Jane, who spent much of her childhood around the San Juans, this was the first time she finally saw an orca in the wild.

The picnic crowd near Barbara’s bench on Sucia Island. From here you can see far into Canada.

The Sucia visit included a one-mile hike to a new memorial bench honoring Barbara. The bench installation took more than a year to bring to fruition. The effort’s success can largely be credited to the persistent persuasive powers of my friend Daniel Farber, a retired official with Washington State Parks, along with dozens of friends and family who donated to a GoFundMe campaign. The bench’s bronze plaque reads: “For Barbara, who loved this island, from Brian, who always sat beside her.” I’m sorry it doesn’t acknowledge the many others who played a role in the bench’s creation. Barbara and I chose the wording some time ago, paraphrasing a line from a favorite old movie, to be adapted for whomever went first.

The bronze plaque on Barbara’s bench.

Barbara loved to picnic, so we all brought sack lunches and sat on the bench or on the rocky hillside sloping down to the water. Barbara’s sister Julie made a couple loaves worth of sandwiches; ham-and-pickle and chicken salad, according to family tradition. Her brother Mark brought a toothsome potato salad. For the first time in my life, I made deviled eggs, another family favorite.

After lunch, we reboarded the boat and motored a short ways offshore while snacking on chocolate-coated cream puffs, one of Barbara’s favorite desserts, baked by daughter Lillian. We toasted the memory of a dear wife, mother and sister as we scattered her ashes into the sea along with armloads of summer flowers, many provided by our friend Monique from Center Island Farm.

Daughter Lillian tries out the park bench honoring her mum.

It was a bittersweet but wonderful day. A regrettable follow-up: At least three people who made the trip came down with COVID within days. Sigh. Their symptoms are mild, thanks to vaccinations. I’m feeling fine, so far. One way or another, it seems likely that we’ll all catch this stupid bug eventually.

The Mad Birder summed up the day.

“Regardless of the consequences, Sunday was beautiful, and … the bench is soooooo perfect.”

Lillian and I have resolved to revisit that bench every summer. Barbara will be sitting beside us in spirit, I’m certain.

After voyage’s colorful finale, home are the sailors, home from the sea

Spinnakers propel northbound sailboats as Osprey plows southward through British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

A LOT CAN HAPPEN in a week at sea, including the final miles of a long and memorable voyage to Alaska aboard a chartered 37-foot Nordic Tug. Here’s a recap.

Saturday, July 30

To paraphrase a classic cruiser’s mantra: Another beautiful (hot) day in paradise. Melanie Cove, in Desolation Sound, to Lund, B.C., via the Bliss Estates dock, where we dropped Catherine Collins to catch a seaplane back to Seattle.

Three good things this day:

(1) First thing, I took a thermos jug of my Midnight Eclipse coffee over to Carol H. and friends next door on Glorybe. It was lovely to get Hasse’s coffee-jones smile of appreciation again! She reciprocated with a generous gift of dark roast for me to take home. Had a tour of Glorybe’s compact cabin. At 36 feet, she’s a foot shorter than Osprey, but 4 fewer feet in beam (nine vs. 13). The narrower width makes a massive difference in interior space. But I loved the clever design that maximizes what’s there. At the pilothouse and navigation table, I (at 6 feet 2 inches tall) could stand without hitting my head. I loved how, when you step down a couple steps toward the bow, the nav table becomes the ceiling for an efficient, pocket-size galley. Across the cabin, the head is like a little phone booth, innovatively equipped with a composting toilet. Forward were single bunks on each side and a v-berth. The roomy stern cockpit has a hardtop cover that makes it a living space fit for rainy days or sunshine. A nifty old boat!

(2) I got to know Catherine a bit more during the 45-minute trip to her seaplane dock. From Osprey’s rooftop we spotted a school of Dall’s porpoises, a delight for her. She works in her organization’s office, working on grant applications and applying policies and such for the Adventuress, and doesn’t get out on the water as much as she’d like. I’m glad we met, and that she got a taste of small-vessel cruising.

(3) At the Lund, B.C., marina, I grilled Beyond Meat burgers for dinner. Always a treat. Also made coleslaw from my own new made-up recipe: 2 cups cabbage (mix of green and purple), sliced and diced; ½ cup of mayonnaise, or to taste; 2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar; 1 tablespoon lemon juice; 1 tablespoon maple syrup; ½ cup chopped walnuts. Add ½ cup diced apple if you have it. Pretty tasty.

Sunday, July 31

From Lund, B.C. to Skerry Bay, Lasqueti Island

Good things:

(1) Easy, blessedly breezy (for cooling us off) passage after another beastly hot day.

(2) Barbara M. successfully contacted old friends, brothers Bruce and Gordon Jones, and Gordon’s wife, Kat, who live on remote Skerry Bay on Lasqueti Island. Barbara last saw them in 2007 when she and her family enjoyed a retreat at some off-the-grid cabins on nearby Rabbit Island. When Barbara reached the Joneses by phone, Kat immediately invited us to tie up at their dock, adjacent to their aquaculture pens, and come for dinner. Barbara M. offered to bring a pasta salad with smoked scallops, a raspberry-jam crumble, and wine. Good karma strikes again: As in Meyers Chuck, Alaska, long unseen friends were home and generously receptive to guests dropping in on short notice!

Osprey’s celebrity spokesmodels: Carol Joscelyn, aka C.J (left), and Kathryn Jones, aka Kat, on Lasqueti Island.

(3) A delightful dinner on Gordon and Kat’s deck above Sabine Channel and looking across to Texada Island’s thickly forested, 2,900-foot Mount Shepherd. This entire section of Texada is park land, they tell us. We dined on tasty Honey Mussels, nearly as big as razor clams, a hybrid they developed through their longtime business, Innovative Aquaculture, which previously grew shellfish but now focuses on producing a single-celled green algae, Nannochloropsis oculate, which they sell as food for larval finfish and shellfish. It is also used in cosmetics and “nutriceutical” drinks.

Gordon Jones and a bowl of enormous Honey Mussels from his cove on Lasqueti Island, B.C.

By evening’s end, Kat, a saucy complement to her quiet and seemingly staid husband, Gordon, declared us all to be “Jonesworthy,” a title apparently bestowed on visitors who show up at their dock with good food, wine and (this was key to her) “good stories to share.” I liked her, and her friend C.J., visiting from Calgary where she has an auto-repair shop. (When they all toured Osprey, C.J. was the one who climbed down in the engine room to gawk at the big diesel.)

Bruce was a sometimes elaborate storyteller; his family wryly (but lovingly) referred to the circumstance of being “caught in a Bruce wind.” He told us Lasqueti’s name came from Spanish explorers under the command of Captain Quadra, a chum of Captain George Vancouver.

He also told of an occasion when some high-powered celebrities accompanied by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police boat dropped anchor in the Joneses’ outer cove in summer 2000. One of the Jones household spotted a formidable white-haired woman hanging over the prow of a skiff and declared, “Either that was my aunt or it was Barbara Bush!” Yep. The visitors included the late President George H.W. Bush and the former first lady, along with former British prime minister John Major and his wife. Among notable goings-on was when Mrs. Major went for a jet-ski ride with her arms wrapped around the former prez.

We signed the Joneses’ guest book and discovered that, even in their remote location, visitors had been at their dining table every day of the past week: old friends, people they had rescued as Coast Guard Auxiliary members, and so on. Quite the social whirl in a British Columbian backwater!

Monday, August 1

Lasqueti Island to a small not-to-be-named island in the northern Gulf Islands.

Three good things:

(1) The Jones delegation came down to the dock for a morning tour of Osprey and a friendly send-off. Kat and C.J. posed as celebrity spokesmodels on our bow. At Barbara M.’s suggestion, we made gifts to Gordon and Bruce of our Port Hardy Coast Guard Station caps, which seemed appropriate considering the brothers’ service in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, helping to rescue boaters in trouble. In fact, they told us of a rescue late the previous night when they responded to a call from a stranded boat that had broken a cooling-system belt just after a young teen aboard had caught his leg on a sharp metal edge of a boat step and cut it to the bone. The Joneses took the boat in tow to a dock on a nearby island for which they are caretakers, where they planned to meet a Coast Guard vessel that was responding to the mayday call. But the small dock – posted as private – was taken up by two visiting boats and their partying, drunken occupants, who refused to move even when told there was a medical emergency. One of the women in the party assured Gordon that she’d see he was fired (from his volunteer job) for being rude and, well, demanding.

 The Coast Guard vessel managed to get the boy aboard and transport him to a medical facility, but no thanks to some drunken idiot boaters. Sigh.

(2) Successfully navigated, again, Dodd Narrows, a tricky passage we well remembered as our first major challenge on our northward journey. It looked even narrower than I remembered.

(3) On another good-karma whim, we met up with a couple of long-ago acquaintances of Barbara Marrett’s. At her ex-husband’s suggestion, we stopped in the northern Gulf Islands at a small island owned by the retired founder and CEO of an American marine-supply company. I know the firm well and briefly worked for it years ago, but for privacy concerns I won’t name the businessman or his island.

I had never met the man, who is something of a legend in the boating world. Barbara M. hadn’t seen him or his wife for years, but they once ran in the same circles when Barbara and her ex had a business offering sail-training voyages. We thought it might be fun to invite the couple aboard for a drink. We weren’t certain where to find them on their island, but as we circled it Barbara M. spied a dock with a boat that bore the wife’s name. Aha.

After Barbara M. walked up the dock and spoke into a camera mounted next to a “Private Island, No Trespassing” sign, we waited. There was no sign of a house nearby, just a narrow dirt road leading into woods. About 20 minutes later, the couple came down the dock ramp, recognized Barbara M. and immediately invited us to go for a sail with them in their gaff-rigged daysailer.

As we circumnavigated his island in pleasant breezes on a sunny Monday afternoon I told our host about the 18-foot wooden Jollyboat-class sailboat my father had built that we sailed on Guntersville Lake in Alabama when I was a kid. He talked about learning to sail in small boats. To shade himself from the sun, he wore a giant, broad-brimmed straw hat that he said he’d gotten in Texas. In it, he looked a lot like my brother Doug, for whom I bought a similar hat when we visited him in New Mexico a few years ago.

After the sail, we all walked across the island through madronas and firs, including a few old-growth trees scarred by long-ago fires, to their comfortable small home on a southerly point. Walls of windows offered views of both the sunrise and sunset. The gentleman of the house proved that he could serve a good gin and tonic, which endeared him to me. After nibbling more than one platter of their smoked salmon and cheese, with me talking about my favorite places in Ireland, which they are about to visit, and him sharing stories about his youth working a dude ranch in Wyoming, we parted. I told him I liked working for him way back when, that I thought he ran a good company, and that I was even a stockholder once. He modestly said he hoped I hadn’t lost much money. As we parted, he gave a gentle wave and told me he was glad we had connected. I felt the same way.

Back to the U.S.A., and our home county, as Osprey passes Turn Point Light on Stuart Island.

Tuesday, August 2

Northern Gulf Islands to the San Juans

Three good things:

(1) At 11:40 a.m., after several electronic prompts from the VHF radio, Bill switched it from Canadian mode to U.S.A. mode. “And I can see Stuart Island!” he announced. “Yay!” Barbara M. crowed. At 12:08 we crossed the border in the middle of Boundary Pass. Barbara M. went up to the top deck to lower the Canadian courtesy flag. Bill soon got a phone call from U.S. Customs, responding to his online filing notifying them of our return. After he answered a few quick questions we were cleared for entry. No need to go to a customs dock anymore.

(2) With no required in-person customs inspection, we soon realized we didn’t need to go into Roche Harbor, with all its pretentious superyachts and smelly cigar smokers. So we made a quick U-turn and headed for one of my favorite places: Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island. We found half a dozen open mooring buoys at the marine state park there – unheard of in early August. (Our good karma didn’t fail us.) And Osprey carries a season-pass sticker on the stern, so we didn’t even have to pay the park’s mooring fee. Sweet.

(3) We enjoyed a serene and scenic first night “home,” back in the San Juans we love. The biggest crowds have apparently gone to Desolation Sound!

Wednesday, August 3

Stuart Island to Sucia Island

(1) Knowing that crewmate Bill had felt deprived of an anticipated prime-rib fix at the Roche Harbor restaurant, I schemed a consolation prize and convinced my shipmates to make a brief stop at Roche while I went ashore and bought some of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten: three 10-ounce ribeyes, plus a bottle of nice Sauvignon Blanc, which we would savor on our final night out, at lovely Sucia Island.

Osprey, left, rides a mooring on Echo Bay at Sucia Island. Mount Baker looms.

(2) Nabbed a state-park buoy in Sucia’s scenic Echo Bay, from which we enjoyed a full-frontal view of still-snowy Mount Baker.

(3) I hiked out to see, for my first time, the park bench funded by friends and family and erected in memory of my dear wife, Barbara. A state-parks crew and my friend Daniel Farber installed the bench two weeks ago on a knoll of sea grass and salal overlooking Sucia’s western shore. I couldn’t be happier with the bench and its site.

The expansive view from the Barbara Alice Cantwell Memorial Bench on Sucia Island.

I sat there for a half hour communing with Barbara in spirit. The sun cast myriad sparkles on the Salish Sea below me. A soft breeze cooled me after the 30-minute hike from Echo Bay. The bench is a beautiful, highly functional thing, built for the ages. Cedar-hued planks soaked up the August sun. At the base a tremendous slab of concrete will anchor it in the fiercest winter storms. It provided good back support and was long enough that I could nap on it if I chose. Around it were gnarled firs and cliffs of Sucia sandstone pocked and twisted by the forces of the Earth.

Kayakers pass just below the memorial bench.

Kayakers paddled along the shore below me. We exchanged waves. Three small sailboats full of young people motored into adjacent Shallow Bay. Waves sloshed noisily on a big algae-upholstered rock below that reminded me of a humpback whale just lazily breaking the water’s surface. Miles out, white sails caught the wind. Straight across Boundary Pass was Canada’s hilly Saturna Island. To the left, the stretched, python-like profile of the San Juans’ Waldron. To the right, woodsy Patos Island, and to the far left, the backside of Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island.

A small Zodiac motored around from nearby Fox Cove and into Shallow Bay, and again I exchanged waves. This is a bench to wave from.

I snacked on nuts, gulped some water from my water bottle and used the rest to clean the bench of a few bird droppings. (It’s a place of rest for all.)

Barbara would have loved this bench. We did good by her.

Following sailboats into Bellingham Bay.

Thursday, August 4

A whirlwind day. Sucia Island to Osprey’s home port: Squalicum Harbor, Bellingham

Three final good things:

(1) Found good currents skirting the northeast side of Orcas Island and made good time around the south side of Lummi Island and into Bellingham Bay. No difficult winds, as had been forecast. A few episodes of 18 knots on the nose, but nothing to faze us seasoned seagoers.

(2) Arrived at the Bellingham dock at 2 p.m., with no waiting at the fuel dock. Final refueling: $1,200, for fuel used from Ketchikan to Bellingham. Total fuel bill for the voyage: $3,700. We motored 353 hours, traveling about 2,000 miles in 10 weeks.

(3) Had a nice reunion with my brother Tom, who had come to take me home after staying overnight with us aboard Osprey at her San Juan Sailing and Yachting dock.

After a pub dinner in town, Barbara M., Bill and I embarked on a near complete packing of all our belongings in preparation for relinquishing the boat by noon the following day. It was an exhausting exercise, well into the evening. The voyage was truly over.

Whales, bears, eagles, totems, snowy peaks, gushing waterfalls, leaping salmon, steaming hot springs, new friends, happy reunions — all branded in our memory. Thank you, Osprey, for the epic journey.

The crew packing for home. From left: Bill Watson, Brian Cantwell and Barbara Marrett.

Squish! Squish! Squish! The wildflowers are loving it.

Sea blush adds a cotton-candy color to the rocky knoll behind Nuthatch Cabin. The native wildflower is more prolific than ever this spring on my island.

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.

Blue camas mingles with other wildflowers by the front step of my writing hut. The starry flower’s bulbs were once a staple in the diet of Northwest tribes, who steamed them like potatoes. Don’t confuse the bulbs with those of the aptly named (and toxic) death camas, which has a spiky cluster of white inflorescence. The two types of camas often grow in close proximity.

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.

This post is also available on audio. Listen to my Cantwell’s Reef podcast.

The power of a San Juan spring

Wild-currant blossoms welcome visitors to the Nuthatch.

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.

Narcissus flowers add to the spring color outside the cabin.

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.

NEW: This post available in audio. Listen to my Cantwell’s Reef podcast.

Center Island’s February surprise

A snowy morning frames a view of Lopez Sound and Lopez Island as seen from the southwest corner of Center Island.

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.

My writing hut, Wee Nooke, is a cozy retreat among the snow.

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.

Mr. Fix-It rides again on Center Island

The doughnut-shaped part that needed replacing sits atop my tool box in the cargo area of my golf cart, Mr. Toad. As always with a DIY repair, kitty supervision was key.

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.

I feel like such a master of the wilderness.