The foggy doldrums of San Juan-uary

Dense and bone-chilling fogs can descend on the San Juan Islands in January.

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.

Robert Burns, 1759-1796

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.