Our part of Orcas Island is called Deer Harbor and in the harbor, you’ll find Fawn Island. On the other side of Orcas is Doe Bay and in between, there is Buck Mountain. These names are well earned as Orcas Island is (or was) overpopulated with blacktail deer. For as long as I can remember, encountering them has been an everyday experience, on the side of the road, in the yard, or anywhere there is food.
Last month, just after we moved in, something changed. The deer became noticeably absent from our property and for a while, we shrugged it off and hoped they would stay away. But then neighbors started to report finding dead deer in their yards and strangely, in ponds.
The cause of the deaths was a mystery and the island was abuzz with theories. People worried that they were getting into household chemicals or fertilizers, or that someone was poisoning them. Fewer deer would suit my tastes, but I didn’t like the idea of a human causing it.
Soon enough a tissue sample was sent to the lab and came back with surprising results. The deer were dying of a fast spreading virus not unlike COVID-19 in humans.
A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian said the disease, called adenovirus hemorrhagic disease, poses no risk to humans, but also that the infection could soon spread to the mainland and carve out a permanent home in the state.
First discovered in California in 1993, the disease had been seen in Washington just once before this year. In 2017, about a dozen animals fell ill near Goldendale in Klickitat County.
The San Juan Islands are serving as a nice petri dish for the disease to spread, which it does through close contact among deer. Like humans, the deer spread the virus by simply being together and from what I’ve seen, social distancing is not their priority. In fact, the deer swim between islands, so the disease is able to hop efficiently to new and relatively captive populations.
I was relieved that it wasn’t a bad actor causing the deaths, but a natural phenomenon that just needed to run its course. But at the same time, death by hemorrhagic disease is a terrible way to go. The sick deer often have foamy mouths and bloody diarrhea, as their blood vessels start to hemorrhage. Ebola, one of the most feared human diseases, is a hemorrhagic virus. Poor deer.
In 2019, a similar hemorrhagic virus swept through the rabbit population on Orcas. The virus only impacted domestic rabbits and domestic rabbits that were feral. A sad event, but one that did benefit island gardens for a while. Anecdotes suggest rabbit populations here are growing again.
In the short term, the island is dealing with many dead deer and everyone has stories of how they’re disposing of them. The county will pick up deer that are on the sides of county roads, but that’s a fraction of the island. Everyone else has to dig a hole or wait for the scavengers. Thankfully we have plenty of bald eagles and turkey vultures.
We haven’t seen any dead deer on our property but did see a sick one. However, the stench is widespread. A nice evening outside might suddenly feel different as the wind shifts and carries with it the unmistakable smell of a carcass.
Perhaps this is nature doing its thing. The island had too many deer, which have no natural predators aside from humans and car bumpers. Something had to give and in the long run, the deer and the island will be better off with a natural correction, albeit a sad one. Sachi likes to point out that the surviving deer may be the strongest ones and will create a new gene pool that could build back quickly.
The deer have always shaped the Orcas landscape by mowing through tree seedlings that might otherwise grow into trees. This is true for our beloved madrona trees that, like our gardens, must be kept inside a fence to grow to adolescence. Some worried that the ever-growing deer population could prevent wild madronas from getting a foothold and eventually lead to a lost generation of the iconic trees. Maybe the virus will give the trees a break, too.
Right now there are no solid data on the decline of the deer population, but my guess is that our sightings have dropped by at least 75%. We now go a week or more without seeing one, which makes them more of a novelty. The unfenced property around us is noticeably bushier and some of my supposedly deer resistant plants are more resistant than before. Silver linings, I suppose.
From this experience, I take one big lesson. Whether they impact humans or wild animals, these viruses are real and do incredible damage, very quickly. While our experience with COVID may be on the wane, there’s a good chance more pandemics will follow. Unlike the poor deer, we are only helpless in the fight if we choose to be.
From the moment the sun started to shine through the window, I knew I had to get outside. It was a Sunday with temperatures in the mid-50’s; a welcome change from the pacific northwest winter. I grabbed our older dog, Maybe, and told Sachi I was heading down to the construction site.
Over the past year, we’ve lived in a small guesthouse over a neighbor’s garage while our forever house is being built nearby. The guest house is situated on a knob at the top of a large hill that makes a walk in any direction a descent. After feeling cooped up for so long, I was ready to sweat.
As the new house takes shape, visiting the site has been a daily adventure that usually involves walking down a long driveway and then up our road, creating a trail shaped like a “V”. This time would be different. Between the guest house and the new house is a dense, hilly forest and I decided to find a shortcut across the top of the V with Maybe and aim for our road.
At the bottom of the property it was obvious where to enter the forest because generations of black-tailed deer have worn trails that are clear once you know where to look. On wet days you can see tracks, on others, the path is slightly more cleared and worn.
When a log has fallen and starts to decay, you can pick up a trail by looking for a section that’s worn away as deer hooves have crossed it at the same spot over time.
We followed a track that led through brush at a height that hit me in the face but allowed deer and Maybe to pass. I lowered my head and pushed through with the brim of my cap.
The brushy forest opened into an open space covered in moss. It felt like stumbling into a fairy tale. Thick moss grew over large rocks, stumps and logs. In the sun, it glowed and sparkled. It felt strangely manicured, like gnomes had swept it clean. I climbed up onto a flat, moss-covered rock to look around and noticed a patch of moss that had been smashed into an oval by my feet. I couldn’t help but think the deer and I shared a similar vibe. A nap on the fluffy moss sounded just right.
We kept moving and quickly found ourselves back in the dense forest before coming upon another mossy wonderland. This one was on top of a rocky outcropping that was too steep to climb down. I looked around and wondered why these green oases were here. What was causing the forest to cede so much territory to the open mossy areas? It soon became clear that the moss probably forms on rocks where trees can’t grow. When the rocks are as big as a house’s footprint, the forest grows around them, leaving a cool, shady place for moss to propagate.
The outcropping was steep, maybe ten feet up. I walked back and forth at it’s edge before choosing the starboard side. A few steps off the rock a trail appeared, winding down through the bush and eventually opening into the flat forest floor. Once again I felt the deer and I were on the same channel.
Soon the forest opened just a bit and I thought I could see a dirt road in the distance. At about that time, something caught my eye on the forest floor. The likelihood of another human being there and leaving trash was near zero. What was this shiny thing? As I got closer, it was clear. It was a deflated mylar balloon emblazoned with a faded American flag. Someone’s Fourth of July decoration had landed as trash on an otherwise pristine patch of woods. The symbolism was almost too much to bear.
I picked up the balloon and soon found our way to the road, just a short walk from our driveway. All in all, it was a shorter and much more delightful walk than I imagined. Why hadn’t I done it before?
Visiting the construction site at this stage is like a little Christmas morning each day. The framers, who were recently deemed essential by the state, are at work and whole walls appear overnight. The plans that we’ve reviewed for over a year are finally making the jump to three dimensions. On this day, I could get a feel for the size of the guest bedroom for the first time and what appears in the windows. No plans can simulate that feeling.
When it’s just me on the site, I stay for long periods. I kind of get lost in it and imagine how it will feel to live there after so much anticipation. The more I look around, the more I notice small things that will be enduring parts of living in the house, like where the sun hits the floor through windows at different times of day.
On this day, there was no wind and the channel in front of the house was calm. Occasionally, boats would pass and you could hear people talking or music playing.
As Maybe and I walked around the construction site, I heard a sound that my brain has learned to recognize, however faint. It’s a blowing whooooosh sound in the distance. That sound can mean that whales are nearby and the proof is hearing it more than once. I stood still. Whoooosh again.
OK, I thought, that’s a whale or whales. The next question is their heading. Is the whoooosh getting louder or softer? WHOOOOOSH once again, much louder. I grabbed Maybe and walked downhill, closer to the water. Before I could even get my phone ready, two orca whales appeared right in front of me. Whoooosh. Whoosh. I couldn’t believe it.
I texted a couple of neighbors to let them know. They appeared on their deck and quickly noticed more whales in the distance. Unlike me, they had binoculars.
More whooshing. There must have been ten or fifteen whales in multiple groups. A cabin cruiser stopped and turned off their engine when they saw the whales. A handful of people gathered on the aft of the boat to watch as the song Tennessee Whiskey played on the speakers. A pacific northwest treat for sure.
Usually, the whales just pass through. But this time, it was different. They stopped in the middle of the channel and seemed to frolic and play. They smacked their tails on the water, which created a loud slapping sound that took time to reach me on the shore. They peeked their head out of the water in what’s called a “spy hop” and on a few occasions they jumped out of the water, or “breached” and created a giant splash. I’ve never seen anything like it and people on the boat shrieked with joy. I wanted to hoot and holler, too, but kept my composure.
We’ve seen orcas a few times from the property and it’s often bittersweet. They are beautiful animals and we’re fortunate to see them in the wild. But they are also famous and a huge source of tourist dollars for the region. Often, viewing whales from the shore also means viewing a handful of whale watching boats full of tourists. As our neighbors told us early on, the boats are how you know whales are nearby.
This time, it was different. Washington State had instituted a “stay at home” order because of the coronavirus. There are no tourists or whale watching tours. I couldn’t help but think that the whales noticed and were celebrating. They could finally be truly wild and enjoy life without tourist boats following them around.
I took a moment there on the hillside and thought about how this virus had turned the human world upside down and in doing so, created rays of light. I don’t actually believe the whales were celebrating, but I wanted to believe. I wanted to see that this situation was creating joy and happiness for them, at least. I looked down at Maybe laying by my feet, as happy as could be.
As we pushed back through the forest and up the mossy hills, my mind wandered to the deer and whales and dogs. Part of me wanted to be more like them: unconcerned with human problems and feeling more free to splash about. A nap on a mossy rock in the forest could do wonders.
The closest Orcas Island comes to having big game is black-tailed deer. These small deer are a constant source of worry and wonder, as they appear on porches and in the middle of dark roads with similar frequency. Every resident has deer stories and ours came relatively early and with a bit of terror, for the deer at least.
The Yurt was built by a couple in the eighties who enjoyed gardening. To be a successful gardener on Orcas Island, one must have a deer remediation strategy and this property was no different. When we acquired the property, the remnants of a six-foot high fence ringed the Yurt in a patchwork of rusty, ramshackle sections that created a figure 8 shape, with the Yurt’s entrance in the middle.
With gardening low on our priority list, we inspected the fence to see if it could be repaired enough to be a dog run. Instead of trying to secure the entire perimeter, we focused on one side of the eight. Using bits of spare wire and rope, we repaired a few sections in an attempt to corral the dogs into enough space to frolic. While it wasn’t completely secure, we hoped the fence was fortified enough to keep the deer out, the dogs in, and prevent them from chasing the deer into the forest. It was a fence in name only.
Deer are wanderers; they forage constantly and go where their noses lead them. Based on the tracks and narrow trails we’ve seen, they are likely to wander through areas they know well, searching for a bit of lush greenery.
Prior to our arrival at the Yurt, deer had free access to the yard, via the poorly maintained fence. They could calmly wander in and access both sides of the yard. It was, perhaps, a simple puzzle to solve, especially on a sunny afternoon with no humans around.
When we repaired the fence, we neglected to tell the deer. The puzzle suddenly became much more difficult to solve and we saw, first hand, the real problem this caused.
A few days after partially fixing the fence, we drove into town for dinner and returned home after dark. As we approached the front door, our dogs inside the house barked and we heard a strange and frightening sound coming from the darkness of the yard. It was the pounding of hooves on rock and soil, followed by the sound of a crash and then the screech of chain link fencing under stress. After a few seconds, more pounding, more crashing. It was scary, as I didn’t know what sort of beast I might find in the darkness. But soon, I caught a glimpse of a black-tailed deer and became worried more than frightened.
We quickly figured out the problem. A deer had wandered into the yard at night and our arrival spooked it and it panicked. Not knowing what else to do, it was trying to escape by running through the fence and springing back like a professional wrestler. The puzzle was nearly impossible to solve while panicking in the dark.
I knew there was an open gate in the fence on the opposite side of the yard and tried to herd the deer in that direction with my phone’s flashlight blaring. Thankfully it got the message and eventually made its way out of the fence without more crashing and screeching. My relief quickly turned to despair. That poor terrified deer.
In thinking through what happened, we quickly discovered the error in our ways. We had unknowingly set a deer trap. We allowed it to casually wander into a familiar area, closed a few of the exits and then spooked it. We couldn’t have planned it better, or worse.
I suppose the lesson we learned is true for all fences. There is no such thing as a partially repaired fence. It’s either a fence…or it isn’t. With this lesson in mind, we set upon creating an honest-to-goodness fence that would reliably keep deer out and dogs in. And reliability was paramount. What if a deer got in and then became trapped for weeks while we were in Seattle? Unacceptable.
A quick visit to the hardware store got us on the right track. Their deer remediation section was stocked with multiple versions of six and eight-foot fencing. Some were more like netting or fabric. Some were wire. Some had bottom sections with smaller holes to keep out rabbits and other vermin. We bought a 75-foot roll of six-foot wire, wire snips, and cable ties.
Within a day, the perimeter of the southern side of the figure 8 was secured. But the fence still had a gaping hole where the two yards connected in the middle. The choke point between the garage and deck was about eight feet wide and filling this hole with a gate became our first real construction project. The fence could not be a fence without it.
We went back to the hardware store, this time for chain link fence supplies, L brackets, screws, and wood. After a bit of planning, we used a handsaw to cut the wood and set up a functioning gate, clad in deer fencing. The southern yard was finally, truly secured.
With the new fence and gate, our deer trapping days were officially over. Now, the closest deer come to terror at the yurt is being stared down by two furry muppets inside the safety of a fully fortified fence.
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.