The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
From the moment the word “walk” is mentioned, both dogs scurry about as whines become barks. For this reason, we have come to spell the word and ask one another if it’s time for a “w-a-l-k”. I keep expecting them to catch-on, but so far our subterfuge is working. Even without saying a word (or letter), they soon figure it out from our preparations alone.
As the dogs are harnessed and leashed, the humans get prepared with hats and shoes. With everything set, we close the door behind us and enter the realm of deer. From the first step outside, both dogs are on high alert and pull us from the guest house to the car while scanning the horizon. Along the way, we can sometimes hear hammering at our construction site down below, which has become our starting point for walks. We drive to the site, walk the dogs from there, and then return to take a look at the recent work. Two for one.
The short drive has become a trial because the dogs inevitably see deer along the way. Maybe barks incessantly, Piper whines and paws at the windows like it’s a great injustice to be kept from her prey. As we drive by, the deer are like animals in a drive-through wilderness park, unperturbed by the noisy vehicle passing through. You can imagine them coming closer for a treat.
The walk starts from our property’s driveway and proceeds downhill for exactly fifty percent of the steps. After some initial barking and whining when we arrive, the dogs settle into the flow of the walk quickly. Maybe, always the good student, stays by our side and the leash is never taut. Piper, on the other hand, leads the way.
Our gravel road, which is shared by eight neighbors, is the property of our homeowner’s association, and today, it’s gratifying to see its surface so smooth and packed. Our dues are at work recovering from the winter rain and preparing for the summer dust.
It’s probably a quarter-mile to the end of the road and it’s mostly a walk in the woods. I often find myself appreciating the wildness of it all. Most of the woods we see on the walk would probably look the same if humans never arrived on Orcas Island. It’s possible to see trees of every size and stage of decay: Newly fallen, moss-covered nurse logs, barely noticeable piles of soon-to-be-soil. The same is true for stumps, many of which become food for new trees.
Our private road ends at the county road. We turn right and continue down it toward the water. Over years of walking this road, the trees have always caught my attention. It’s wooded with tall Douglas firs, western red cedars, big leaf maples, a few alders, and my favorite: madronas. These native trees are the symbol of the San Juan Islands and considered sacred by most islanders. Madrona trees are unique because they are both leafy and evergreen. Their bark peels away to reveal an incredibly smooth, colorful, and strangely cool surface. Kids sometimes call them “refrigerator trees”.
Douglas firs dominate our area and seem to have promiscuous relationships with other trees. They sometimes grow together with cedars as if they are conjoined. These days, it’s hard not to see a positive message in the connection.
The madronas are often more prosperous when growing near a fir. In fact, there is growing evidence that Douglas firs and madronas are beneficial to one another via underground communication that’s aided by fungus. I love the idea of trees working together in ways that we don’t completely understand.
As we reach the bottom of the hill, the water becomes visible and the road veers to the left to follow the coastline. To the right, a short private road dead-ends at a waterfront house that is going through a big renovation. The former owner of the house was the astronaut Bill Anders, who took the famous “Earthrise” photo on the Apollo 8 mission. I’ve never met him, but our neighbors know him well.
Beside that house, there is a wooded waterfront lot split by a small trail that leads from the road down to stairs that end on a rocky beach. Like our road, this lot is owned by our neighborhood association. In Washington, the beaches are privately owned up to the high tide mark and that makes water access scarce. This private lot provides neighbors access for launching canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards along with tidepool exploration.
On these walks, I am always attuned to the roadside plants and remind myself that I only see a fraction of what could grow here, if not for the deer. They shape the wilderness we experience by consuming all but the most resistant species. I sometimes wonder how Orcas Island would appear without the deer. If they all disappeared, what would grow? Some say that we’d have many more madrona trees because the deer eat the seedlings as soon as they sprout.
Thankfully, the low-lying plants that remain are beautiful and give the island a distinctly pacific northwest feel. Native plants like ferns, salal, Oregon grape, and more have the privilege of not being attractive to deer. They are also evergreen, which makes the walk feel green and lush, even in the dead of winter. Like moss, they all look better in their natural state: wet.
As the road winds by the water, we pass multiple waterfront homes, some with dogs behind fences who bark at us and cause our dogs to whine. We pass houses with full-time residents, vacation rentals, and at least one that appears abandoned. Slowly but surely we are meeting people who live on the street who come out to walk dogs or get fresh air. We recently met a neighbor who knows Sachi’s family in Hawaii. Small world.
The road eventually flows into private driveways and we always turn around in the same spot so as not to trespass. It’s at this point that the walk transitions to the fifty percent that is uphill.
The prize at the top of the hill comes when we arrive at the property, put the dogs back in the car, and walk around the construction site. After a few delays this spring, the project is now moving and the progress is visible every day. The framing is complete and soon, we’ll have plumbing and electrical in place. Windows and siding are coming soon as well.
After three years of anticipation and nearly a year of work, it’s hard to believe that we are probably only months away from living in the house. We plan to move in by the end of the year, fingers crossed. It is, after all, a construction project in an unpredictable phase of history.
With each walk and visit to the site, we are reminded of everything that has happened since moving to the island. The property has changed in fundamental ways, and so have we. More than ever, we feel at home on the island and anticipate a life here that we haven’t known up to this point: a lifestyle with less change.
Through it all, the walk will remain a part of our lives for years to come. My hope is that each time it will show us something new about our little slice of Orcas Island.