Tag Archives: San Juan Island



Sometimes it is all you can do to keep your head above water. When this happens, I know to take a long walk in the woods. Or, since moving to the country, hang around home and clear brush and fallen branches. And then there’s another tactic: get away.

Even if where you live is off the coast of Northern Washington, over the border with Canada in the outer reaches of an archipelago of islands in the Salish Sea, one may still feel the need to get away.

So my friend and I volunteered to count swans on Shaw Island last weekend for the Washington Department of Fish and Game, under the umbrella of Preservation Trust. Shaw is but a short ferry ride from San Juan Island, but in its way, worlds away.

You have to remember that an island is always a place apart.

My friend and her husband have been living in a trailer on site while building a custom home. This makes our remodel look like a walk in the park—although we did live on a boat for a few months. Boat, trailer, much the same. Small.

On a moored boat one may have to fend off otter. Into a trailer, mice will creep. And as much as she hates to do it, my friend sets mouse traps. When she catches one she puts on gloves, picks it up by its tail, walks down to the edge of Egg Lake and places the little mouse on a stump over the water. An offering to the eagles.

We live on a land of waters, and where there is water there will be birds. Salt water birds stay all winter, like us. And like us, they are easier to track.

But on this morning we were looking to report on the migratory pattern of swan upon Shaw Island. Dressed in outdoor gear, bearing binoculars, notebook and pen, we left in the dark to catch the first morning ferry. The irony was that at sunrise my friend’s lake, Egg Lake, would be full of swan. Trumpeter swan. But others would be responsible for the count on San Juan Island that morning. We were off to Shaw Island.

Our jeep drove down every open road on island—all 7.7 sq. m.–through heavily wooded forests searching for ponds, coves, inlets, anywhere swan might be found. Light green lichen dangled from branches like chandeliers. Out my side window I became mesmerized with the pattern of fences. Split-rail fences in every state of standing and collapsing, covered in emerald green moss.

We stopped in all the public places on Shaw—all three—to inquire. The grocery store was closed. A librarian opened the library for us. The postmaster inquired of his customers, and no, no one had seen swan on island for perhaps a year.

With no swan to report to the Department of Fish and Game and a couple hours before the next ferry, we turned our jeep into Our Lady of the Rock, a Benedictine Monastery for women. Here traditional habit-dressed, Gregorian-chanting cloistered nuns are “living out the liturgy through prayer, praise and contemplation” upon 300 acres of forest and farmland.

We didn’t see any nuns either.

Final Count

swans: 0

nuns: none

But we introduced ourselves to the Cotswols Sheep, Highland Cattle, Ilamas and alpacas, poultry and Jersey dairy cows. Said a prayer in the chapel and purchased infused vinegars. Got home and wished we had purchased herbs, mustard, and teas, as well as their famed “Monastery Cheese.”

I’ll be back, perhaps as a guest.


“This is my life and I don’t pretend to understand it.” Thomas Merton from his journals in solitary hermitage



Filed under trumpeter swan

Musings on Another House

Pemberton House

At home on the island, our project of late has been remodeling the master bath. For what has seemed like weeks, the door’s been off and there have been neither mirrors nor lights. The bath’s tile floor has been scattered with cabinet doors and baseboards, tub filled with discarded insulation, countertops laden with a jigsaw, fine tool drill, chiscels, screwdrivers and hammers.

I usually take my toothbrush from a drawer and a towel off the hook and go visit the guest bath, rather than risk my neck.

It didn’t have to be like this.

“I had a farm in Africa,” wrote Isak Dinesen. Well I nearly had a house that reminded me of her farm “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

This is the home I loved on San Juan Island. Situated in an interior valley with a white horse fence surrounding 6+ acres with a pond, bordered by over 500 acres of conservation land and a forever view. All light and sky and immense width and depth of landscape, looking off to snowcapped Olympics and The Strait of Haro, a glint of sea in the distance.

To me it was an Out of Africa moment every time I returned to visit this home. But to my husband it was just that little glint of sea.

The house was perfect. I could have moved in and put everything away, and within days been at work revising my book. Planning gardens, planting fruit trees, setting up a bocce court, horseshoes, a badminton net, who knows where it would have gone?

Instead we are in our seventh month of a remodel in a-home-that-needed-nearly-everything on Westcott Bay. I don’t know what it says about us that given a choice between a newer, lovely home in pristine condition and remodeling, we chose remodeling.

But I do know we did it for the chance to live on the water.

Yes, I might have been immensely happy in the other house with all the south facing light and vistas, but Paul would not have been. Where’d he go? I would wonder. And then I would know, down to the marina…

And in time it would have caught up with me too, the desire to live by the sea.

I know this every morning as I wake with flashing waters on the bay. Waterfowl at work or play, both resident and migratory, and what the old growth forest means to me. I’d be lost without the trees. Birds and trees, they have become me.

All that matters is being able to say, like Isak Dinesen, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”




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A DIY Christmas

Tree Bird


Christmas is doing itself this year. I have surrendered to the environment.

Several powerful windstorms have come to visit us in our first winter on San Juan Island. Days as dark as night. Pinecones pelting windowpanes like sleet. Downed branches and trees crisscrossing roads and paths. And that incessant hum…

I have trouble falling asleep with the winds. And then I don’t know where I am when I awaken.

I am learning that living on the water is much like living on a boat. At high tide our concern is that the bank will hold. At low tide we breathe a sigh of relief—that is when we fall asleep, I think. In my dreams we’ve been swept away, much the way I feel when anchoring for the night.

“The florist delivered again!” I exclaim, as I throw open the front door in the morning. Each day after a windstorm I find fresh branches at my doorstep, from which I cut boughs to freshen our mantle, tuck onto gifts, and make arrangements with greens, pinecones and winterberries.

All the roads are softly covered in cedar and pine needles after a windstorm, as soft and quiet as a snowfall. At our front door a foyer rug of navy, salmons and green is perfect for hiding the needles coming in on every boot. Who knew?

The rug was a gift from my parents. Windstorms whistled when they lived on Cape Cod. When the wind whistled everyone wanted to come downstairs to sleep.

Interesting, a whistling there. A deep, low humming here.

Back to Christmas.

We cut down our own little tree on our property. In the house it speaks to me, telling me what it wants.

“Forget the totes full of Victorian and Venetian glass ornaments you collected over the years,” it says. Suddenly all of that is an heirloom.

“What I am is a woodland tree.”

I knew that.

Rummaging through my totes for birds, pinecones, vines and icicles, I found a few. It doesn’t get on my tree now unless it comes from the forest.

The beauty of the woodland tree is in the minimalism. It speaks of the scarcity of winter.

(note to self: don’t go overboard collecting these ornaments either).

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Case #1, Completed

Bookcase 3

Quite the racket at our remodel on San Juan Island this week. Outside, men on beams like cats are deconstructing a deck, board by board. Throwing them all overboard. Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” plays on a portable radio that has seen better days.

What is to be my writing hut is currently at use as a construction shed. Large pieces of plywood are being ripped down for the building of bookcases in the house. At the garage, wood is being cut on a table saw, half in, half out. Booted steps on the stairs carry the boards inside. A symphony of sounds: air compressors firing up and the rapid popping of nail guns going off, followed by the buzz of an electric sander. And for a grand finale, the vacuum cleaner sound of a paint sprayer. All in a day’s work.

Our little dog is looking to hide, whereas I am over the moon. Ecstatic.

We have moved off the boat and into the house. It is still a job site, but with the construction of the bookcases the contractors will be finishing up indoors, and all out on the decks.

It makes sense that I come in with the books. Sacred stuff, books. My whole life was on hold while the books were in boxes. And the architecture of bookcases is nothing less than temples or cathedrals to me. Considering the height of the ceiling, we will be worshipping with the help of a library ladder.

How did it come to this, this wonderfully abundant bohemian love of books in the span of a lifetime? In the house where I grew up, the bookcase was stocked with regularly updated The World Book Encyclopedia, yards of National Geographic magazines in their distinctive school bus yellow binding, a set of Harvard Classics from my father’s father, Time/Life series of art history books: Medieval, The Renaissance, and so on. And although I know I’m forgetting other notable sets, Readers Digest Condensed Books.

Everything in sets, in other words. What was with that? I can’t say I remember real books upon those shelves.

Look at me now. A confirmed bibliophile. And if it seems I was a book snob before I became a bibliophile, I think you are right. For I could sense, growing up, that something was not right.

We lived close to the center of town where a Carnegie style public library perched on high over the town green, but there was no local bookstore. Today I can’t imagine living anywhere without a bookstore. Did everyone use the library then? Were people not reading as much, or just not needing to own what they read?

Nevertheless there were three good role models for me in those days. People who had to have books. Nana, Miggs, and Marcia.

A 98 lb. grandmother who devoured Agatha Christie novels in paperback. Hard to believe the English crime novelist could be so prolific, but sixty-six books flew off her desk along with a host of short stories collections. Frail little Nana had her arms-full and they kept her up late at night.

Miggs was the mother of one of my best friends. Needless to say I spent a lot of time at her house, a charming Cape appointed with antiques, original oil paintings, and books. A built-in bookshelf under the staircase, but more importantly, there were hardcover books all over the house. Where did she get these impressive books? My guess is she belonged to Book-of-the-Month type clubs, popular at the time. Her books came in the mail, much like my parents’ Time/Life sets. You had to subscribe, in other words. It was a different time, although not that different than ordering through Amazon, now that I think about it.

Marcia, my godmother and aunt. Informed by the New York Times booklist, a voracious reader in a family of men, I remember her curled up on the sofa reading while they watched sports on television. Marcia gifted me books with the Caldecott seal and the like throughout my youth. These I kept in my room, and thus began the need for books by my side.

Today half the weight of our household—as we move—is in book boxes. Books are where I can’t stop collecting, and for every book I finish I’ve found forty more. Where books, to me, make a room, and roomfuls of books make a home. Where books seem to carry on their own conversation in a room, with or without people. Where I will never be lonely as long as I have them. And where the only thing that worries me now is running out of time…

When Aunt Marcia passed away I mourned all over again with the publication of each new book I was sure she would have loved. This process started with Frank McCourt’s Angeles Ashes and continues to this day with The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Marcia is active in my selection of books, reading over my shoulder with me. And it’s books, books, books, that I, in turn, gift her grandchildren today.


Filed under bibliophile

At Last

muse-goddess-thalia Neighbors of ours for a number of years in Seattle recently moved to another home, another neighborhood across the lake. When they first moved in they were a newly married couple. Now they’re a family of four, and their search was predicated around proximity to a choice preschool and high ranking public school system. As I watched the moving van roll off with the contents of their home, I felt an abiding sadness.

I wanted to be in their shoes, for I knew what to do then too.

Our first baby hadn’t taken her first step yet in San Diego, when I whisked my family off to take residence in the nationally recognized “Blue Ribbon” Poway School District. With children grown and gone now, it’s more difficult to know what to do.

Nevertheless, we’re trying. The house remodel on San Juan Island, I realize, is nothing less than a life remodel.

Perhaps because of the extensive area they cover, flooring and wall color took an inordinate amount of time. Good thing we called out hardwood floors throughout and one color for the walls. Initially my husband longed for a blond wood, while I was drawn to dark. What we wound up with is a wide boarded medley of grayed browns, reminiscent of weathered piers and docks. Both of us are at home on that.

Following floors, when the 9 1/2′ cut yew log went up as a mantle, the wall behind it cried out for rock. Until then we had been drawing up some sort of fireplace surround. It was our contractor, Shawn Kleine, who heard the cry. The entire wall should be faced with rock. It was, and it was good.

But I was in danger of being browned out.

If there is one thing I know about interiors, it is that a room should have a foot in both masculine and feminine worlds. By that I mean wood, rock, and steel, should be augmented by something light, soft and airy. So as wood planks went up on the cathedral ceiling, I whitewashed the boards. The cross beams were then painted out white. Benjamin Moore’s pure clean “Chantilly Lace White.”

I was getting happier, but it was still not enough for this rugged room.

Then the skylights opened up and the quartz island top arrived, basically a white with a bit of gray/brown/black. A gender-neutral gray quartz went down like a runway on countertops. And above it, Carrera marble subway tiles, reaching to the ceiling. Like a crescendo.

This is where my heart stops.

It’s like watching Rome being built. No better, classical Greece. Light seems to pour through these tiles as if they were made of liquid or glass. I have never been as inspired to cook as I am now, standing before this marble. I could dance.

Maybe everything is going to be alright.


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Where There’s Music

Cabinet 2 Nothing’s changed and yet everything is changing at our remodel on San Juan Island. We are still strung between homes and living on a boat in Friday Harbor. I commute to Seattle once a week to water plants, sweep walks, collect mail, and run my writing workshop. There, I sleep in my clothes because realtors have been known to come to the door for showings in the early and late hours. I try not to mess a thing while the house is on the market, but to leave it picture perfect. Not really home anymore.

It’s too silent.

And the job site is still just that, a job site. Not home either. If anything, Friday Harbor Marina is starting to feel like home. Ferries come and ferries go, and the rhythm of it all…. One day I’ll be looking back at this time with a certain nostalgia, that I know.

Life is simpler on a boat. It’s amazing how much stuff one doesn’t need. Just the book you are reading and the clothes you are wearing. The elbow-to-elbow closeness of neighbors sharing the same dock. Blinded by fog, and glowing in sunsets together.

The sway of the boats in currents and gentle rolling with waves. The symphonic sounds of wind whipping through halyards and mast stays (flutes). Hulls against rubber fenders (violins). Creaking of pilings against the dock (a cello). Humming of stays (clarinets). And sleeping in our berths on board boats that are talking to each other in the night.

Things are going up, however, at the house. Until now, I had to close my eyes to picture anything we had specified. Now, with the kitchen cabinets in, I can start to see with eyes wide open. How handsome they look in an expresso brown that’s nearly black, standing about like so many waiters in a cafe wearing white shirts and long, pressed black linen aprons over pants.

The kitchen was central to our plans; it’s only right that that go first. And as the materials go up, color and texture start to come in to play. Followed by music. One can almost hear it.

Café music.

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Crazy Making

Garrison Bay 2

Moving is crazy making, especially when we bring it on ourselves. Anyone who knows me or has been reading me, knows how fond I am of Seattle. But in all our excursions to the San Juan Islands, we found something. So I am leaving the city I love for a little home in the woods on a bay. In a perfect world I’d have a pied- à -terre in the city too.

Preparing a home to go on the market, on one hand, and remodeling another house with the other, I lost my stride of a weekly post in blogging. Other bloggers are running circles around me, and because I must jump back in, here it goes:

I have to try this. My romance of living on the water and writing in a hut down by the water’s edge. The wind in the pines and water over rock. The fresh smell of cedar. The smile of a rope hammock hanging between trees. The quietude of kayaks. The grilling of fish, and the taste of the ocean in each raw oyster and boiled crab. Growing our own everything, and what we don’t grow, purchasing from people who do. Adirondack chairs circling a stone fire pit. Watching the fire and watching the stars at night.

This is not going to come by staying put.

It is important to note whether one is moving-towards or moving-away. This is a moving-towards. Only a couple times in my life have I felt the need to move away. Once was from St. Thomas U.S.V.I., and had nothing to do with St. Thomas or The Virgin Islands. The other was from Los Angeles, and had everything to do with LA.

Long ago I set off on a journey with my little neighbor, Tony, into the woods behind our homes. We couldn’t have been more than five or six. I was sure it would lead to somewhere. That we’d come to some place magical like Oz, if we just persevered. Tony, however, turned around and headed home.

This girl kept going. And before long the woods did come out somewhere, but it was just another nice neighborhood in Connecticut. One that looked much like mine, but wasn’t. I was lost. So I did what Dorothy did and knocked on a front door.

It was the age of women at home, and so I was in luck. A kindly lady invited me in, seated me at her kitchen table and fed me milk and cookies. I didn’t notice, but she must have slipped out of the room to call the police and report a lost child. For it wasn’t long before an officer arrived at her house too. How cool was that? I got to come home in a cruiser! 

Look at all Tony missed by turning around.


I recently wrote my daughter:

I am sixty-two years old and live, as you know, on one of the “hills” in Seattle in a lovely little English Tudor home where a chandelier is reflected in a Venetian mirror. And I just bought a waterfront house in the islands that’s a total rehab with a trailer dumped on the lot. And all I want to do is go out there and clear brush! Am I nuts?

And she answered:

The best kind of nuts! You’ve lived in plenty of lovely neighborhoods, but you’ve never lived by the sea on a remotish-island. I am so excited for you.





Filed under moving

Sign of the Whale

bulletin_summer2009-killer-whale1I have a friend with a home in the San Juan Islands that has everything one would want in an island home: simplicity of style, plenty of light, beds, beds, beds. Acreage, a deer-fenced garden, Adirondack chairs upon a porch, a lodge pole pavilion with a wood burning fireplace, sunsets over the water, trees, trees, trees. And a writing hut, for she is a writer. I have never been able to understand why my friend is not out there all the time.

Here we go again, ferrying to the San Juan Islands. This would all be good but the boating is flanked by I 5 freeway driving to and fro Seattle. That’s the part that isn’t right. Otherwise we are talking about what I consider one of the nicest cities in the country and one of the most pastoral and serene of seaside places. “The islands,” as they are locally known. A tough choice.

On our last trip out to the islands a pod of orcas was alongside us like synchronized swimmers, perhaps as many as twenty. The boat was in waters between San Juan Island and Jones Island, not where whales normally pass. In that moment our boat was the only one around, and we were the only people in the world enjoying the magnificent  sighting. A good sign, I know it is. I could feel it.

Maybe we should say we have lived in the city for a number of years, and a change could be good.

One thing is for sure: we know of no other way to find out.


Filed under moving

Roche Harbor, Roche Harbor

It had to have been a dark day in January when a “Save the Date” card arrived for the Grand Banks Rendezvous, May 10-13, at Roche Harbor Marina on San Juan Island in the Puget Sound. I’m sure I looked at the photograph like I was looking at another life, long ago and far away. Nevertheless I posted the card on the kitchen wall, and last week we packed up, grabbed a good friend and our dog and headed out.

First I should explain that my husband has had two expressions of mid-life crisis that I know of, one is a silver Boxster Porsche, and the other, a 36’ Grand Banks trawler. One is speedy and the other, slow. Boating has so capsized our world, we are beginning to dream of living on the boat in all the summer months of our retirement. Cares are left on land and water becomes an elixir. But that’s another story. The one I want to tell now is of the annual Grand Banks Rendezvous, which is fast becoming more fun than college reunions. More fun than anything.

People from all over–Aspen, Philadelphia, and somewhere in Texas, as well as some of our own neighbors in Seattle— keep their boats in the Puget Sound. Grand Banks owners tend to be former sailors who have moved onto something that is a little less work. This sets everyone apart from other stinkpot owners, or so we like to think. Grand Banks slip in and out as quietly as kayaks. And while many other boats are designed to be condos at sea, there is something so outdoorsy and friendly about the Grand Banks. Like a row of front porches tied up to the dock.

That’s the nostalgic quality of both the boat and Roche Harbor, which has to be one of my favorite spots on planet earth. For me Roche Harbor is reminiscent of The Bandbox, a big music hall on a small lake in my childhood in Connecticut. For my husband, it’s the Catalina Casino building, where he summered. Everyone has someplace. It’s sunny, people look healthy, and I think it’s the light. Have I mentioned the whole subculture of children and dogs? Papa may be in an engine class, mama busy mastering navigation, but children are endlessly entertained with a simple fishing pole or just a bucket and a net. In all my times out there, I have yet to hear a baby cry, a child whine, or an adult have a cross word. Everyone is away from cell phones, ipads and computers, and our dogs get a taste of life off-leash.

All my bright colored clothes come out here, I stow them on the boat, all the reds, whites and blues–saving the khakis, blacks, browns, and grays for Seattle. But that down pouring of light, nostalgia, and particular patriotism—with a call to colors at every sunset, saluting the British, Canadian, and American flags and proudly playing all anthems. Here it feels almost like international waters, and it’s rather fun for an old counter-culture girl like me.


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