The Blog

I Can Recommend… Meat Thermometer Edition

I realize some may scoff at the use of a thermometer when a “real” chef can just feel when meat is up to temperature. I prefer data.

I use meat thermometers near the end of the cooking process and place the probe into the meat and leave it there until it reaches temperature. I don’t need an app, or settings for different meats. All I want is an accurate reading and a simple alarm for when the meat reaches the temperature I set.

The best thermometer I’ve found for this use is the ThermoWorks Dot.

I’ve also started to use a ThermoPro Infrared Thermometer, which you can point to any surface and get a temperature reading. It’s perfect for getting a pan the perfect temperature for eggs.

Note: I do not have business relationships with the products I recommend and earn no income from writing about them.

Feel the Burn 🔥

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage. 

One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island. 

The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed. 

My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.

In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season. 

That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure. 

It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.

 Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway. 

I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.

With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending. 

As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect. 

Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time. 

Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season. 

In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying. 

We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees. 

In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.

gif of tree falling

Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire. 

The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn. 

Using the UV Index in Sunburn Season ☀️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

People sometimes get confused when they see Sachi on a sunny day in long sleeves and pants. They wonder why she sits in the shade when everyone else is in the sun. “Aren’t you from Hawaii?” they ask. “It seems like you’d love the sun”.

Invariably, Sachi has to explain that being from Hawaii is why she stays out of the sun. She witnessed what it does to the skin over time and vowed not to be one of the casualties. As long as she keeps getting carded when buying alcohol, I will assume it’s working.

I didn’t grow up on a tropical island, but I did get my share of the sun at Lake Norman and North Carolina beaches. I sometimes feel nostalgic about those summer days when we’d finally go into the cool darkness of the house to let our pink skin rest in front of a fan. I can still feel that burning sensation when taking a shower with sunburn. Those days are now gone and I try to be more responsible with the sun and not get burned. Maybe one of the reasons we both love the pacific northwest is that the sun is less of an issue.

My family’s perception of the sun was like everyone’s at the time: when the sun is out, it can burn you. Sunrise to sunset, it’s always powerful. Only recently have I learned that the skin-burning power of the sun changes significantly throughout the day, and the seasons. And now, knowing its power is a simple matter of knowing where to look.

The UV Index

In my daily weather watching, I track all the normal data like temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, etc. These help me plan my day and dress appropriately. I recently added a new data point to my weather watching that has transformed how I think about summer days. It’s called the UV Index and I encourage you to track it, too.

The UV Index is an hour-by-hour measurement of the sun’s skin-burning power, at a specific time and location, on a scale from 0-11 (or more). The index was developed in 1992 but is only now becoming a standard in weather apps and websites.

Let’s imagine a family who is planning a day at the beach. The parents are concerned about sunburn but would prefer not to use sunscreen, if possible. Instead of just guessing or getting burned, they can use the UV Index to understand the sunburn risk on an hourly basis. Maybe 11-2 is time for a movie or nap.

Source: WillyWeather

It’s easy to assume we humans can tell when the sun is dangerous. It may seem the UV Index data is just a backup. After all, most people know the sun is most powerful during the middle of the day. But what about seasonal change? Elevation? Cloud cover? These are all factored into the index.

We were camping with a group a couple of years ago on a warm fall day. The sun was bright and seemed strong. Some members of the group applied sunscreen accordingly and we noticed. It was a logical move based on a lifetime of experience. Having learned about the UV Index, I thought to myself, “That sunscreen is wasted. The UV index is at ‘3’ right now and getting lower; no one is getting burned.” Rather than trying to awkwardly explain the index and how to use it, we just sat back with the confidence of someone with data on their side.

That’s what’s so useful about the UV Index. It takes the guesswork and wasted resources out of the equation. In this example, the UV Index was low on a sunny day because it was fall. In most of the northern hemisphere, the UV index remains low through the fall, winter, and early spring. Again, hooray for the “north” in “pacific northwest”.

Where to Find UV Index Data

Tracking the UV index is easy and free; you just need to know where to look. For example, the weather app that came with my iPhone displays it on the same page as all the other weather info.

I also use a free app called UV Lens that provides two day forecasts and a nice interface. (Find the app for Apple, Google)

UVLens

Using the Index

The UV Index uses a standard scale that relates to recommendations about sun exposure.

Source: EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency also has a few handy resources if you’d like to know more:

I think we should take the sun and its UV rays more seriously and that’s the real message here. Today on Orcas Island the UV index reached 5. In Honolulu, it got to 10, and at Lake Norman, 8. Interestingly, the peak times vary by latitude. Since Honolulu is closer to the equator, it peaks closer to noon. On Orcas, it’s closer to 2pm.

The index is a great tool, but it’s up to you to decide what to do with the information. Sunscreen is an option, but be aware that there is growing evidence that it’s harmful to marine life, like corals. If you go snorkeling, consider covering up instead. That’s really the best way to avoid the sun: blocking it with hats and clothes that filter out the UV rays.

If all else fails, you can watch the index number go down while having a glass of wine with Sachi in the shade.

The Time Between Glass and Mirror 🪟🪞

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When I stand in the center of our great room and look west toward the water, the view is framed by 240 square feet of glass, from the floor to the ceiling. As I look around, I see that I’m surrounded. To my left are two large glass doors that lead to the outdoor room. Behind me, a mirrored backsplash.

I never anticipated how it would feel to be surrounded by glass. During one of our first nights in the house, I noticed I could see my reflection in the wall of glass as I walked across the room. For a moment, I stopped and wondered how it might feel to see myself, head-to-toe, so often. I turned 90 degrees, sucked in my gut, and resolved to use the mirror as motivation.

I soon came to appreciate the glass wall as a feature of the house that exists in multiple states. During the day, it disappears and reveals a view over the Salish Sea, as it was designed to do. But at night, when darkness hides the view, the glass becomes a mirror to the interior. One minute you’re looking at the water, another you’re looking at yourself. I think of this as the time between glass and mirror.

In his one-man show called “In and Of Itself“, Derek DelGaudio talked about the period of time, just as the sun is setting, as the “time between dog and wolf”. He explains:

This expression, the time between dog and wolf, it comes from the Middle Ages. It was a cautionary expression that parents would use to scare their children, make sure that they got home before it got dark out. You better get home before the time between dog and wolf because at this time of day, it’s very difficult to distinguish a friend from a foe at a distance. It’s hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. And by the time it gets close enough to you for you to make out what it really is, too late.

I never saw this as a dangerous time, though I always saw this as a time of possibility. It’s a very specific moment for metamorphosis. For me, this was the time when a dog could also be a wolf.

DelGaudio uses this as a metaphor for his skills with cards. At a poker table, for example, people may assume he’s a dog. But in reality, he’s a wolf and his advantage comes from people not expecting to see a wolf.

After the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about this expression. I started to notice the time between dog and wolf each day and what parts of the evening were transformed by it. Trees with brown bark and green leaves become black silhouettes. The ocean fades from color and texture to a featureless void. We change, too.

The end of the day is a time of reflection and the glass wall behaves accordingly. In the time between dog and wolf, our perspective, along with that of the glass, changes from outward to inward.

As DelGaudio says, the time between dog and wolf is a period of metamorphosis and possibility. It’s a specific period of time when a dog could also be a wolf. Maybe that’s also true for the time between glass and mirror. When the light is gone and the work is done, it’s time to reflect in glass that could also be a mirror.

The Pig War 🐖

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022. 

Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.

At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too. 

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.  

Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable. 

The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own. 

Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires. 

The Pig War

In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”

San Juan Island at the time of the Pig War

The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot. 

As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years. 

During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands.  By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.

Map of the San Juan Islands
Today’s Border

When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.

I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.

The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon. 

Related:

Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon 🥃

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.

Large Pile with Dog
Piper Protecting the Pile

The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up. 

Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up. 

Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there. 

To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.

The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001. 

I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work. 

It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.

On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath. 

After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.

Layout of Raised Bed
Layout of Raised Bed
Completed Bed with Maybe
Completed Bed with Maybe

A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed. 

Both Beds Complete
Both Beds Complete

Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.

That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.

Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?

10 Yards of Cedar Chips

We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect.  On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us. 

Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins. 

Debris in Raised Bed
Debris in Raised Bed

In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.

Dirt Conveyances
Dirt Conveyances

Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.

We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”. 

By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower. 

Filled Raised Beds
Filled Raised Beds

I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.

The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.

Sachi Planting
Sachi Planting the First Seeds

Related:

I Can Recommend: Movies to Stream

This week I have three very different movies to recommend. In fact, you could say that the theme of the week is variety.

Stowaway (Netflix) A team of three is on a mission to Mars and discovers that someone else is on the ship. I enjoyed this movie because it’s well made, futuristic, and centers on ethical dilemmas more than action. I didn’t expect Anna Kendrick as an astronaut, but it works.

Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) A heavy metal drummer in a band with his girlfriend loses his hearing and quickly transitions to a new life. This is a great film that’s raw, human, and well-acted. I came away with a new perspective on deafness. Riz Ahmed was great in The Night Of (HBO) and he delivered in this film as well. Paul Raci was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance.

Booksmart (Hulu) Booksmart made me LOL. Two high school seniors realize they’ve wasted time being focused on grades and decide to start partying before college. This, of course, leads them on myriad adventures. Fun and easy; a modern Superbad with female leads and a female director, Olivia Wilde. The soundtrack makes it even better.

👉 Go to all Recommendations

I Can Recommend: Octopus Edition 🐙

Octopuses are having a moment right now and I admit to being fascinated by them. If you’re wondering, the plural of octopus is not octopi because the word comes from Greek and not Latin. Anyway, here are my recommended octopus stories in four forms:

  • My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) – This film won a well-deserved Oscar. It’s the story of a filmmaker who befriends an octopus for over a year. But it’s so much more. The filmmaker, Craig Foster, free-dives in frigid water off the coast of South Africa and captures the drama of octopus life in beautiful form. Watch the Trailer.
  • Octomom (Radiolab Podcast) – A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium discover, via a robotic submersible, a deep-water octopus who is protecting 160 eggs a mile beneath the surface. They visit her each month for four years and document her unbelievable process of hatching the eggs over time.
  • The Soul of an Octopus (Book by Sy Montgomery) – Sy is a nature writer who became fascinated with octopuses. This book is her story of learning about and getting to know a handful of giant pacific octopuses behind the scenes at aquariums and in the wild. It’s a little woo-woo in spots and I wish it had more science, but was a fun read if you don’t mind the idea of animals in captivity.
  • Salish Sea Wild: Shaking Hands with the World’s Biggest Octopus (5 minute YouTube video) – This feature was made by our friends on Orcas Island at the SeaDoc Society, which is a science-driven nonprofit focused on ocean health. Watch more Salish Sea Wild.

👉 Go to all Recommendations

The Traffic Jam at Safari Island 🦭🦌🐋

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.

Photo by Rylee Isitt

When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.

Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise. 

The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:

  • Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
  • Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
  • Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.

The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out. 

Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.

Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it. 

Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.

Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.

I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water. 

With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe. 

As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions. 

Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG. 

I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway. 

I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.

As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying. 

Flattop’s Finer Points 🪵🔥

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

You often hear that building a house requires thousands of decisions and it’s true. Large and small, the house comes to life in the form of answers to questions. Once it’s complete, the sum of all the answers hopefully harmonize and create a whole that feels balanced and connected. 

When looking at the completed house, it’s easy to lose sight of all the decisions that achieved the look and feel of the place. Before we move on, I’d like to share some of the biggest stylistic decisions we made, along with the craft that went into making it real. 

Wood

Flattop was destined to be a house made mostly of wood, a lot of which is the same that grows on our property. The framing is Douglas fir. The ceilings and soffits are western red cedar. I can see both these trees from our deck. Our floor is white oak and our deck is ash and the siding is Japanese cypress. 

As you can imagine, this creates a melange of wood colors that have the potential to look chaotic. As the house was being built, we had to make a decision about the built-in benches, stereo cabinet, and floating shelves. My first thought was, “Oh no, more wood!” Would we throw another wood into the mix? 

I asked our foreman, Casey, for his opinion and he mentioned Baltic birch plywood and the look of Kerf Design, a cabinetry company in Seattle. From the moment we saw the look of Baltic birch plywood, we were hooked. It’s strong, affordable, and easy to work with. Rather than add another solid wood tone, we’d use plywood and the look of the plies themselves as our standard for the built-ins. The light color and simple design felt Scandinavian and I’m so excited about how they turned out.  Paul Lindersmith, who works with Drew, did an amazing job achieving the look we wanted.

Flattop Birch Bench
Flattop Birch Records
Flattop Birch Shelf

Steel

Regular readers know how much thought we put into the fireplaces. They are the beating heart of the house and offered an opportunity to create something beautiful, useful, and practically bulletproof. John Stoeck, our architect, created a design that exceeded what we thought was possible. It brought together the blackened steel, charred yakisugi, and stainless steel in a way that made it feel natural. To me, that’s the pinnacle of this kind of design. Once it’s complete, it feels like no other options could have worked. 

Fireplace wall and ceiling

It’s one thing to design steel into a fireplace and yet another to make it work. It requires an artisan blacksmith with experience to turn the designs into perfectly fitting panels and connections. We were fortunate to work with Jorgen Harle (Instagram), who lived on Orcas for 25 years before moving to California. Drew asked him to come up and help with our fireplace and we could not have had a better partner. His eye for design along with deep experience with steel and fireplaces created an indoor/outdoor unit that’s safe, functional, and beautiful.

Fireplace Doors
Steel Fireplace

Aesthetic

Consistency is one of the best ways to create a sense of harmony in a new home. For example, we picked a color of white called “Simply White” (Thanks Sarah!) and used it everywhere. Cabinets, walls, ceilings, doors, trims, etc. The same is true for the countertops. We picked a variety called Saratoga and used it in the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, etc. The tile is the same everywhere. Then, we used black for window frames and hardware throughout the house. 

These decisions on color and material created a look of contrast that we wanted: white with black accents, along with mottled grays. My cousin, Goff, who is an interior designer, once said that looking out of a window with black frames achieves a beautifying effect that’s like mascara around a person’s eye. 

window over water

Character

One of the problems I have with modern home design is that it can feel stark and lifeless. Early in the process, we decided that our home would feel warm, open, lived-in. For example, Sachi has strong feelings about doors and especially closet doors. To her, they create something to be managed and moved when no door at all would suffice. Consider our pantry, which we use multiple times a day. We decided not to have a door. Instead, the pantry is open for all to see. Along with being convenient, I think it adds character to the kitchen. We live here. The same is true for our floating shelves, record collection, bookcase, laundry room, etc. It’s all out there.

As with most building projects, Flattop was a team effort and I couldn’t imagine working with better people. Drew’s team, including Casey, has high standards and attention to detail that went beyond our expectations. When confronted with one of those thousands of decisions, Casey and Drew always had a reliable opinion and we grew to trust their instincts.

I appreciate you following along with this project for so long. It means the world to me.

Find more posts about Building Flattop.

Lee LeFever Headshot

About Me

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

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