A thankful time before the storms

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

IT’S HUNKERING-DOWN SEASON in the islands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Island energy provides a jump charge on days of woe

Boaters wave as they churn past my lunch spot on the cliffs at Lopez Island’s Shark Reef Sanctuary on Saturday.

A BIG PART OF MY ISLAND ADVENTURE and this ride you’ve all been on with me is how I’m adjusting to being here without my beloved wife of 41 years, whose corporeal life ended in the front room of Nuthatch cabin in the wee hours of last April Fool’s Day.

I’ve tried not to dwell on my grief too frequently in these lines, but it’s like the 800-pound mortician in the room.

I’m not a fan of solitary living, but I’ve come to realize that the quiet months I’ve had here, with few physical or emotional demands other than playing with my silly cat, have helped me start to come to terms with my wife’s death. It’s not a matter of healing from the devastation of Barbara’s loss. I’ll always feel that. But along with generous support from friends and loved ones, this quiet and lovely little island has allowed me to renew my energy to cope.

This past Thursday, February 10, was Barbara’s birthday. It was a rough week for daughter Lillian and me. Others who’ve lost life partners had warned me early on of the brutal challenge of “firsts” — first Thanksgiving without her, first Christmas without her, and so on. So, as we did with those holidays, Lil and I planned a special observance that would temper the sadness. Last Sunday, a few days in advance of her actual birthdate, we spent a day together that Barbara would have loved, experiencing some of the best of Seattle.

My daughter and I met at the new Northgate station and took light rail downtown. We grabbed coffees and enjoyed a long amble along the waterfront to the Seattle Art Museum’s sculpture park. After retracing our steps and exploring shops along the way, we lunched at Ivar’s Fish Bar. Barbara, whom I believe now has influence on these things, gave us a pristine, springlike day, so we sat at an outdoor table in the sun, watched ferries come and go, and fed french fries to the gulls. (It’s a longtime Seattle tradition, sanctioned by Ivar Haglund himself. No gulls were grievously harmed in the writing of this blog.)

After lunch, we ventured up the hill to the main galleries of Seattle Art Museum and toured a special exhibition of work by Imogen Cunningham, one of Barbara’s favorite photographers. Afterward, we snacked on luscious cannoli at DeLaurenti’s in the Pike Place Market.

It was a good day in honor of Barbara. However, come Thursday, as I was back on Center Island, her actual birthday weighed on me. Along with the approaching one-year anniversary of losing her good company, these particular firsts are forcing me to put aside denial. With melancholy reluctance, I’m fully recognizing this loss is forever.

Friday, I finally got my boat, WeLike, back in the water after it had sat on its trailer since November, waiting out thrashing winter winds. Yesterday, with more sunshine to brighten my outlook, I motored over to Lopez Island. As a reward for starting on the first crank, Ranger Rick, my loyal Ford pickup, got a wipedown to remove accumulated bird droppings, and we toured the island. I sipped a strong brew and read my newest Dana Stabenow book on the deck at Isabel’s Espresso. Got a few groceries from the market. Then steered toward the trailhead at Shark Reef Sanctuary, the best place I know for restoring peace to the soul.

A sailboat ghosts past the Cattle Point Lighthouse on the southern tip of San Juan Island, as seen from Shark Reef Sanctuary.

I had the mossy cliffs edging San Juan Channel all to myself, looking down at the rocky, kelp-pantalooned islets just offshore where sea lions and shorebirds abound. I munched a sack lunch and scanned the panorama, from sun-dappled swirling currents below Cattle Point Lighthouse, across the way on San Juan Island, to the snow-blanketed Olympic Range to the south, beyond the sprawling Strait of Juan de Fuca. I listened to an alto chorus of Black Oystercatchers gossip and squabble on the rocks. I waved to a passing powerboat, churning slowly against the tidal change. I let the peace seep in.

Black Oystercatchers love the kelp-carpeted rocks at Shark Reef.

Most days I smile, some days I weep. But I’m not despairing. Barbara wouldn’t want that. As long as I need to, I’ll take one day at a time. And this salty, soothing, serene place helps me recharge.