Motoring with Sea & Deux on the way to Stuart Island through Spieden passage. What a wonderful morning when S caught this delightful photo.
Motoring with Sea & Deux on the way to Stuart Island through Spieden passage. What a wonderful morning when S caught this delightful photo.
It’s hard to be inspired when you feel mired. Our driveway is filled with patches of mud and grooves worn by streams of water, which traveled a great distance — through woods and orchards and fields — to spill down our steep embankment to the sea.
This time of year we can use only my 4×4 to leave the house, to find the road. Winter moisture has been particularly unkind to the little Miata, which S babies daily to prevent mold from growing along the canvas lid again. It seems a never-ending battle, but she fights it religiously. (On those rare sunny days, you’ll find her in the drive with a towel bending over a tiny angelic car with wings outspread and lid uplifted.)
For the effort, I was reminded that ironically moisture has two sides: a disagreeable side, which dampens spirits and molds convertible rooftops; and a reconstructive side, which lifts daffodils from the soil and feeds majestic waterfalls over rock.
One of the jewels of Orcas Island is Moran State Park, which features — among other countless natural beauties — a number of waterfalls. Lucky for us, one of the best times to see them flowing fully is in winter following a period of significant rainfall.
S and I decided to take a quick hike into Rustic Falls, which is accessible via the Cascade Falls trailhead. The shortest route (always my favorite) begins from a small parking lot off Mount Constitution Road just beyond the Olga cutoff.
With noise and spray, the falls compete for attention with the equally spectacular monster-sized cedars and firs. There we stood — thanks to a gazillion raindrops — just two tiny specks in a forest of giants.
I LOOK AT TODAY’S FORECAST, WHICH PREDICTS COLDER TEMPERATURES BUT EXTENDED PERIODS OF SUNSHINE for the next several days. I’m so weary of gray that I’m resigned to accept the good with the bad – as long as it’s dry, as long as it’s blue. At least the mud is frozen.
Around us we are beginning to see a few signs of spring: a neighbor’s daffodils, deer returning to the slope, fishermen testing the waters. Bit by bit I’m adjusting my attitude, tuning it with sun rays.
I hear they’re getting blizzards across the Midwest today. I’ll take the rain any day.
When we left the mainland to live a year in island solitude (or apparent solitude), we knew there would be some tradeoffs in conveniences — like not having a dryer for clothes. Living away here would mean living without many of the products and services we’d grown accustomed to as urban consumers — things like a furnace, garbage disposal, dishwasher, curbside trash pickup, and a standard washer/dryer.
Because we chose to live so far from Eastsound Village, S and I wanted to depend more on natural resources, like the sun and wind for drying clothes, a woodpile for heating, worms for composting food wastes — affordable alternatives to the more costly conveniences we’d taken for granted in the city
The reality is distance has a cost. The price of gas on Orcas often approaches $4 per gallon. The distance from the house to the nearest gas station is 16 miles. The distance to the nearest laundromat (conveniently located in the gas station/convenience store/wine-tasting complex) is also 16 miles. The distance to the solid-waste facility is 20 miles. Being clean, trash-free and fully stocked with Lay’s jalapeno chips can be expensive.
One way we reduce the garbage we produce — thereby the trash we haul to the facility — is by composting our food waste. Last March, we buried a 30-gal. metal trashcan inside our fenced garden area. Before setting it, we drilled a series of holes in the bottom and sides to allow worms to enter and begin the compost process. The tight-fitting lid is further secured with bungee to keep raccoons out.
Over the last 10-plus months, we’ve filled it with food waste – excluding meat, fish, bones or cheese. Eggshells, fruit peelings, coffee grounds, left-over leftovers are interspersed with occasional organic material, like ash from the woodstove and dried grass clippings to keep the fruit fly population in check. To our credit, it’s now two-thirds full. Including two fewer bags to the dump per year — minus the cost of the can and fuel to the facility — I calculate we’ve saved almost $2.
Still, we have to consider the inherent benefits of compost to future gardens. A few months from now the contents of the bin can be applied to a deserving garden. Perhaps not this garden, which last year yielded only 20 cherry tomatoes and a handful of strawberries scavenged mostly by field mice.
Over the past year, laundry has contributed to our biggest savings but been our most significant tradeoff in convenience. The house — while spectacularly positioned — is not wired or plumbed for a washer or dryer, so we faced three choices early on:
Only S can shimmy successfully up and down the embankment, but she wasn’t keen on the idea. So, that was out.
We tried the coin-laundry route – once. We spent $23 for three loads, plus $8 in gas to and from the facility. Despite the allure of doing four loads up, making the road trip didn’t make financial sense in the long run.
In the end we purchased a portable washer, which has performed surprisingly well — considering the fact it washes, rinses and spins only an average of six pieces per load. But instead of watching S shimmy up and down the cliff, we only have to shimmy the unit to the kitchen sink to do our laundry. It’s a full-day affair, but we’ve grown accustomed to the process.
The truth is, doing without certain appliances is inconvenient, but it isn’t the end of the world. Besides we’re much less judgmental now. Clean enough means “I can wear this again; who’s going to see me anyway?”
IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS, WINTER DAYS ARE SHORT, CLOUDS ARE LOW, RAINFALL IS PREDICTABLE AND STEADY. WE CAN’T RELY consistently on sunny hours much less days to help dry our laundry.
But the small-capacity 110 dryer we purchased in November has been — from the beginning — a disappointment. An engineering friend of mine recently described the unit as a “blow dryer with a drum.” It’s a fairly accurate assessment.
We’ve learned in winter, under gray skies and constant drizzle, it’s better to stoke the fire and string laundry along ledges and banisters and chair backs in the safe and warm confines of the house. It’s messy, but it works.
Thank goodness fleece dries quickly.
The position and design of our house doesn’t provide access for hanging and filling a birdfeeder in traditional fashion. No convenient in-ground pole, tree branch or overhang exists from which the feeder can be suspended safely away from predators. Until recently, our feeder — under periodic supervision and only occasionally raided by a lone Douglas squirrel — sat openly on a bench.
Eventually, however, one thing led to another and another — until S and I found ourselves in complete battle-mode from sunup to sundown with two insatiable squirrels.
A short time after I relocated the bird feeder, I noticed one beaver-sized, eastern gray squirrel scouting the deck. The first time he approached the feeder, I opened the sliding door, made outrageous noises, (which I believe startled even the seals,) and he disappeared down the side of the deck into the bushes. What I didn’t foresee was the beginning of a full-scale war, which eventually escalated to include window patrols, rocks and eventually wire.
It began with the sighting of the first squirrel — three times the size of the tiny Douglas. Then we noticed there were two of them working in tandem, like a wrestling tag team from the bushes. One would scram from the deck into the bushes while the other approached the deck from below.
When S observed, “They’re as big as beavers,” we started stashing rocks outside the door as a scare tactic. It didn’t work. They were amazingly fast for fat ones.
As an early plan of action, I decided to cut off their approach by using a section of a collapsible dog kennel, partitioning off three sides of the feeder, effectively wrapping the potting bench in safety. This way, the beaver-squirrels had to approach the feeder only from the front, which I assumed (wrongly) they would be afraid to do.
Over several days, the beaver-squirrels grew increasingly bold and simply waited us out. If S or I were out of sight, they approached the feeder and sucked down the seed. If I saw them, I’d open the door, chuck two or three rocks at the feeder until they took off running. The rocks didn’t work for long.
Over the course of weeks, the battle plan constantly evolved. In a (sunflower) nutshell, here’s how it worked:
Plan A. Position rocks inside the house at the door to improve response time.
Result: Beaver-squirrels modify their reaction time by listening, monitoring the door.
Plan B. Position rocks at windows, so no matter what room we’re in, we can respond quickly.
Result: Beaver-squirrels modify reaction time, monitor windows as well as doors and calculate risk by realizing we’re a poor aim.
Plan C. Change armaments from rocks to pebbles, which can be “spray-thrown,” increasing our chance of actually hitting our target.
Result: Beaver-squirrels undeterred. Pebbles-schmebbles.
Plan D. Locate the remaining sections of the dog kennel. Frame in the potting table to further secure the feeder. Assume squirrels will not trap themselves by climbing over top.
Result: Beaver-squirrels climb over top, trap themselves, freak out, but eventually escape anyway.
Plan E. Dig up two pieces of lumber from the garage, two rugs and fully enclose the “cage.”
Result: Beaver-squirrels angry but finally deterred.
Unexpected result: Tiny Douglas squirrel notices the feeder, squirts easily through the bars and eats all seed — now safely protected from his nemesis, the beaver-squirrel.
S REMOVES THE TWO PIECES OF LUMBER AND TWO SMALL RUGS, WHICH SECURE THE TOP OF THE CAGE. SHE OPENS THE PANEL LAYERS ONE-BY-ONE until the feeder is exposed and fills it, spreading extra feed along the ledge and the deck inside. Then she reverses the process to secure the feeder, which has become in all now a 12-step, 30-minute process each morning.
Unfortunately, unlike the other birds and the Douglas squirrel, the stellar jay cannot squeeze between the rungs of the cage, so S sprinkles his seed along the top shelf, well outside the protection of the cage. The irony is the beaver-squirrels are so focused on getting into the cage and at the feeder, they don’t noticed the stellar’s allotment, sitting in the open and well within reach.
I’m not there yet, but seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is certainly a viable threat to anyone living in the Pacific Northwest. In the winter, the fewer daylight hours — mixed with more rainfall and persistently overcast skies – are toxic to the generally upbeat.
People with SAD can experience real depression, but who isn’t affected in some way by the seasonal changes? It’s nearly dark by 4 PM now, and though our agent warned us of the perils of living so far out, we’re practically hermits. Our social interaction has dwindled to just a few animal friends, who seem mostly preoccupied with keeping warm, dry or fed — and mostly somewhere else. If we didn’t feed the birds, and indirectly the squirrels, they would have abandoned us long ago.
Rainy weather is less than exciting to explore in. It puts a real damper on long hikes and safe driving. I may not be SAD, but I’m certainly unmotivated to get out and about in it.
Just a week ago the Pineapple Express dropped in and — without so much as an aloha — dumped nearly 3 inches of rainfall in five days. (It felt like six months.) I enjoy a good rain once in a while but this one, accompanied by high winds and milder temperatures, left behind as many clouds as it blew away.
While I’d prefer this to snow, snow at least brightens the scene. Gray is flat. Even evergreens look dull in unflattering light.
The Pineapple Express refers to the meteorological phenomenon characterized by heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures often associated with places like Hawaii. In some cases torrential rains plummet the region causing massive flooding and mudslides.
On the island, we don’t have a lot of rivers to flood, but Orcas is geographically diverse and all things above sea level flow to the sea. We’ve learned that apparently a major artery to the sea is our driveway.
On the second morning of the recent downpour, several inches of water rose to our doorway. The rainwater had loyally followed the winding drive to the carport then weaved its way down the walkway, cascaded over the steps and filled the stoop. (Our winter emergency preparedness, including candles, soup and flashlights had not prepared us for flooding.)
Fortunately we had on hand several garbage bags, a pile of wet sand, a pickaxe and a disposable skillet. While S used the pickaxe to make a deep groove in the landscape away from the steps and bailed the water, I filled every garbage bag we had with sand and redirected the racing stream away from the entry steps.
The seasonal rains are far from over, but we’re now better prepared to deal with some of the issues. The encounter at the front step, for example, taught us several things about flood control:
In addition, we’ve discovered a unique upside to the gloominess of our rainy days: almost anything can brighten your mood, including an unexpected sunburst, a full moon over the ocean, the emergence again of snow-capped peaks in the North Cascades, the discovery of a neighbor’s Christmas tree tucked amongst the shadows.
OUR STOOP IS DRY, THOUGH DARK, AND WE’RE STARTLED TO HEAR A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. I switch on the light to see in a red Santa hat someone we know only as our island delivery man. He has been here many times in the last nine months and knows the drive even in darkness. Tonight we’re happy to see, he’s bearing gifts from afar.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he says, handing me two boxes, one of which I know for certain includes wine — yet another thing which brightens a dark day.
S and I exchange a few holiday greetings with him, sign for the boxes and as he turns to go, he motions to the sandbags, which include one brightly colored Charmin bag. “Had a little problem?” he asks. We laugh and offer him a brief rundown of the events — underscoring, of course, the importance of our ingenuity under pressure.
“Next time you’re delivering out this way,” I say, “bring sunshine.”
In the spring the prairie is abloom in wildflowers, but in the fall the juxtaposition of dried grasses against a blue background is stunning. It’s a unique place in the islands where even a Midwestern girl can feel at home.
I imagined prairies were invented by Kansans, but turns out I’m wrong. Prairies were actually common in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea region after the great thaw. In fact, the island prairie is dramatically similar in appearance to the Konza Prairie in the Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas — minus the ocean backdrop, of course.
When glaciers retreated, forming the San Juan Islands, sun exposure, winds and the Olympic Mountains rain shadow provided an ideal climate for prairie grasses and plants to thrive. Though still undergoing restoration, the prairie at American Camp is a perfect example of what can be accomplished when people commit time and resources to it.
This prairie landscape was impacted drastically over time through human impact, including the introduction of invasive non-native plants and animals by early settlers. The settlers brought the European rabbit, which chewed and burrowed its way through the delicate wildflowers and terrain — eventually transforming it into a barren landscape.
Other invasive plants, like the Himalayan blackberry and Canada thistle, choked out native prairie varieties and eventually upset the delicate ecosystem, which native peoples had nourished for centuries. When settlers entered the picture the landscape began to change.
More than 95 percent of Puget Sound’s native prairies have disappeared or been altered, leaving only about 20 remnant prairies. At 600 acres, American Camp is one of the largest remaining pieces of prairie and the Parks’ efforts are noteworthy. By removing invasive plants, planting native plugs and prescribing burns, the prairie is slowly returning.
A hike through the American Camp prairie is both historically entertaining as it is naturally breathtaking. From the parking area at the camp entrance, the prairie gently slopes toward a high bluff overlooking the ocean, beaches and bays, perfect sites to watch for whales. A narrow path meanders through the prairie and along the bluff line and includes a short side path down to Grandmas Cove.
Still remaining on the upper prairie are two buildings, including the Officers’ Quarters and Laundress Quarters. (Recently, a second Officer’s Quarters was being returned to the site.)
Natives used the prairie well before the camp was established to harvest camas bulbs, a staple of their diet. They were known to practice prescribed burns, which ensured the bulbs and prairie thrived.
Roots of the camp date back to mid-1859 when the British and Americans both claimed the San Juan Islands as their own. The argument escalated when an American shot and killed a Brit’s pig in his garden, escalating the disagreement in military proportions; soon 460-plus soldiers and three warships manned the island and erected two forts, aptly named American Camp and English Camp.
Eventually the two nations agreed to a peaceful joint military occupation, and 10 years later ownership was arbitrated and awarded to the United States. Other than the pig, no other lives were lost.
I LOOK AT THE SIGN DIRECTING US UP TO THE REDOUBT AND VOICE MY OPINION. Despite the fact I have no idea what a redoubt is, I know it is up. I prefer to go sideways along the prairie, look at the Officer’s Quarters and head back to the car, Friday Harbor and more importantly eat. S wants to see it — which really means she wants to see the view from it. I give in, climb the hill anyway and actually learn a few fun facts about this redoubt.A redoubt is a fortification — usually earth-formed — from which the soldiers would have been able to see and defend themselves from ships to the west. This redoubt was built under the supervision of Henry Martyn Robert, an officer who served as Engineer of the Army’s Division of the Pacific and was later made brigadier general.
Through history, Robert will be widely remembered — not for his work on San Juan Island or even for his engineering projects — but for writing the renown “Robert’s Rules of Order,” one of the most recognized guides ever written for running meetings and conferences.
Armed now with this information, I take a picture of the redoubt plaque then head for the steps. “I make the motion we eat now,” I say. “Do I hear a second?”
Long-range meteorologists are predicting a tough winter for the Pacific Northwest, which for San Juan islanders means — despite the protection of Mother Rain Shadow — freezing temperatures and snowfall are likely. Our recent pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm with single digit wind chills certainly added credence to the forecast. Those of us on the east side of Orcas Island received at least 4 inches of the heavy stuff, which promptly set S and I into a state of emergency preparedness.
I’ve owned tire chains for years but have never had to use them. I think the best time for learning how to put them on is during a raging snowstorm, up a hill, over ice, with a wind chill of -3 degrees and 35 mph gusts slapping my face — while shouting to S, “Up a little more. More. More. I said ‘MORE!’” And probably on our way to get emergency gin.
I’m not naïve to weather hazards. I grew up in the Midwest, home to tornados, blizzards, torrential downpours and thunderclaps so loud they would send the dog to the closet. In Kansas City, temperatures can freeze or melt you—dropping below 0 or reaching above 100. In the Midwest pipes freeze, your face freezes, snow piles, schools close, black ice renders four-wheel vehicles useless. I have spent many sleepless nights listening to ice-laden tree branches snap like toothpicks, hitting cars, roofs and occasionally pets.
But three things I could count on in the Midwest were salt, sand and efficient snow removal.
Two years after I moved to Seattle, that city experienced one of its worst snowstorms in history. Seattle was poorly equipped to deal with the amount of snowfall and the issues surrounding it. Our own suburban street was never cleared, and we weren’t alone. Residents never forgot or forgave; the mayor lost his job in re-election in great part due to the city’s bungled effort.
During those days, I shoveled sometimes twice a day just to keep the snow off the 22 steps leading to the front door, a path for my golden retriever and the neighborhood storm drain clear. In a gallant gesture, I even shoveled my senior neighbor’s steps twice, which was certainly ironic because I learned several months later he had died and the family had moved his wife out before the storm.
Our concerns on the island include both snowfall and ice. Icy patches don’t just send you careening into a guardrail, they send you into the ocean, Cascade Lake or down a cliff. And until you reach Eastsound Village or Crescent Beach, cell phone reception is non-existent, so forget calling for help. In our experience, the best plan is stay home, tuck in and open the gin.
THE MORNING SNOW SCENE IS SO POSTCARD PERFECT, IT TAKES OUR BREATH AWAY. We have weathered our first snowstorm without loss of electricity or water supply, but the woodpile is buried under a blanket of snow, and the birds are waiting for food fluffed up like skiers in puff jackets. For some odd reason the house is not equipped with a snow shovel, so I use a dustpan to clear a path to the feeder, then S uses a spatula to dig it out and fill it with seed.
Everywhere we look evergreens glisten in an outline of white; the morning sky unfolds in pink now set against a silvery blue ocean. Before footprints can mar the beauty, S goes outside to take photos while I start a fire.
Anxious to share the scene with my own family, I use my cell phone to capture a high-quality shot, then text it to my son back in Kansas City. “A winter wonderland.” I write.
Moments later I receive, “That’s wild! I just got back from the dog park and I’m wearing shorts and flip flops.”
I put another log on the fire. She’ll never know.