There is an unwritten rule about home building projects on Orcas Island: well-behaved dogs are welcome. On any given day there is at least one dog on-site and we’ve grown to love them all.
The true house dog is Koda and we see her almost every day. She greets us in the driveway and when we reach down, she submissively puts her ears back and she curls into crescent with a wagging tail and whines as if to say “oooooh, you’re here please touch me, ooohhhh.” Her fur is as soft as she is sweet. Koda has the unique luxury of an on-site bed, but sometimes prefers a nice pile of sawdust in the sunshine. Koda belongs to the site foreman, Casey.
A dog we don’t see as often but consider a house dog is Beaudry, who belongs to Jorgen, the blacksmith. Beaudry is a cuddler if you give him the chance, and very dedicated to fetching. There is an orange rubber toy in the shape of a pig at the house that has to be hidden from him because once he has it, it constantly ends up on your feet.
Beauregard arrives with Kevin, the electrician. Beau sees so many job sites and people that he moves around the house like an inspector, unconcerned with the humans. Once you get his attention, though, he’s sweet and friendly. One weekend we were staining cedar and had placed boards on the floor to dry. Kevin arrived to check-in and before we knew it, Beauregard added a few nice paw prints to the newly stained cedar. We fixed them with ease.
Coco was one of the first dogs on site because she belongs to Tyler, the excavator. She’s also a dedicated fetcher and will drop any stick she can find at your feet for as long as you want to keep throwing it, and then some. Coco now has a little sister named Clover.
Some dogs arrive at the site and wait patiently in their vehicle. One of those is this handsome puppy, Douglas, who is owned by Niles, one of the plumbers. Douglas is exactly what you’d expect: amazingly sweet and soft to the touch.
I’ll throw a deer in for good measure. When we started cutting down risky trees to make room for the house, the deer had a buffet for a while.
Also, not a real dog, and not on Orcas Island, but check out this driftwood Boxer in Anacortes, Washington.
With so many friendly dogs around, I think about them being a physical part of the project. No doubt, their hair is now under the floor and in the walls. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The growl of the generator, just twenty yards away, was the first thing I noticed before the sun came up. It powers a nearby cell tower and the moment the power goes out, it kicks on. This wasn’t a surprise as the wind was fierce overnight and trees were surely down. The infrastructure of Orcas Island is improving, but outages still happen a few times a year. The question always becomes: how long will it last?
I took my phone off the charger and saw it still had about 20% left. Strange. The one thing I needed to take advantage of the functioning cell tower didn’t charge overnight. Hmmm. Then I stared at the coffee maker before realizing it, too, needed electricity.
Sachi said the power had been out since about midnight, when it interrupted her TV show and sent her to bed. This meant the effects of the outage were well underway by the time dawn broke. With every minute that passed, the freezer was becoming less frozen, the guest house was becoming less warm and our devices less charged. Precious resources all trickling away. Just in case, we went into conservation mode. Sachi had learned from past experience, and dutifully posted a sticky note on the door of the fridge that said "No!". It stopped me more than once.
Power outages are like snow days; a novelty, or perhaps an excuse. As long as the power was out, we could claim that normal work was not a priority and we should probably just focus on building our fat reserves for the potential of a long winter night ahead.
We dug a camp stove out of a closet along with a bottle of propane that seemed to be about 25% full. Another precious resource. We got started by heating water on the porch for instant coffee in the form of Starbucks Via, a single serving powdered coffee that we use for backpacking. Coffee was done and the day could truly begin.
The lack of power was both an inconvenience and an interesting challenge. We could get by with very little effort. But that’s no fun. It’s a snow day, sort of, and a reason to maximize. We both started to brainstorm.
We found a couple of rechargeable battery packs we could use to charge the phones and stay connected. They were both about half full, but more than enough to get us through the day. The extra power was particularly helpful in understanding our plight in terms of news about the outage. The power company on Orcas is OPALCO (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative) and their outage map showed the entire island was without power and about 500k homes were dark on the mainland as well. This was bad news. Without mainland power, we had nothing, and as a county, were probably last on the repair list.
I ate a handful of granola while Sachi looked around the kitchen. We had leftover rice, a couple of strips of cooked bacon, tortillas and unopened bottles of artichoke hearts and red peppers in the pantry. These were the makings of breakfast and Sachi had an idea. She arranged our toaster oven pan on top of two bowls and placed candles under the pan to create a surface for sizzling the leftovers. Before long, our breakfast burritos were in-hand and like anything by a campfire, they were impossibly good. At the same time, the storm passed and light came through the windows and added extra warmth.
After breakfast, we sat in silence and worked with what power was left on our laptops. Normally, music plays in the background and without it, the guesthouse seemed lonely. We could play music from our phones, but it would drain them quickly. Then, I remembered that we had recently adopted a new device that was perfect for this situation. It’s called a Sonos Move. The Move is a portable speaker that has a ten hour battery life. We could connect to it via Bluetooth and listen all day. I’m a huge fan of the Move.
OPALCO updates came in every couple of hours. The island’s power system was repaired and ready to go. All that we needed was the mainland to come back online. This highlighted one of the risks of living where we do. Our island of a few thousand people depends on the mainland for both power and internet. If the connection fails, or is cut, we have no other options outside of our own self-sufficiency.
Many permanent residents have wood burning stoves, reserves of water, and generators for getting through the outages, which used to last for days. People have encouraged us to invest in a built-in propane generator that will keep us going in the new house. They’re very expensive and a pain to maintain and I think we can do better. Soon enough, we may have a big battery in our garage that will serve as our backup electricity. In the future, the battery can be fed by solar panels. I believe that’s the new, more sustainable version of island self-sufficiency.
As the day wore on, work stopped and we switched to a snow day orientation. We took a nap and listened to an episode of Smartless, the podcast hosted by Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes. We thought through the albums we have stored away and what we’ll listen to once we have the record player set up again. We chose the loungy sound of Koop.
In January, the sun seems to hang just above the horizon throughout the day. Sunlight dwindled with each passing minute and I wanted it to happen more quickly. What fun is a blackout during the day? I wanted to live by candle light.
The OPALCO afternoon updates started to broach a sensitive subject: it was not too early to start gathering candles and flashlights. I appreciated the kindness in their status updates.
In the last bits of sunlight, we hatched a plan for a decadent dinner. The previous night, Sachi thawed 1.5 pounds of Dungeness crab from our summer fishing and made crab mac and cheese which resided in the no-go refrigerator. We decided it was worth opening the fridge for dinner.
First, Sachi opened the chest freezer and grabbed a steak and two ice packs. Then, working as a team, we listed what we needed from the fridge and discussed how to open and close it as quickly as possible. I held the door and used my phone’s flashlight to light the shelves for Sachi to quickly grab the items and place an ice pack under the milk. On a whim, I thought it would be fun to capture the moment in a video. When I hit "record" the flashlight went off, leaving Sachi in the dark. As she scrambled to recover, all she could say was "SERIOUSLY!!!". I had one job. I’m not proud.
I put on a headlamp, fired up the Smokey Joe with charcoal and got ready for dinner. Grilled rib-eye and a pan of warm crab mac and cheese came off the grill in the dark. Off-the-grid surf and turf, served by candlelight. After dinner drinks of whisky and a serenade by Lionel Richie. It was perfect.
We chatted about our pleasurable predicament with our island friends online. In referencing the power line from the mainland, I wrote, "We are but dogs on a collar". Our friend, Paul, asked if I was writing a haiku and I took it as a challenge:
We are but a dog
Leashed from land over there
And always at risk
Then, at 7:30pm, nearly 20 hours from the blackout, our friends reported getting power. It seemed like the electrons were making their way across the island to us at less than light speed. Two minutes later the gadgets beeped, the fridge hummed, and the cell tower generator outside finally quieted. And honestly, it was a disappointment. I immediately turned off the lights and tried to savor the last bit of our candlelit night.
Last winter Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital.
Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life.
We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life.
Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?
I remember experiencing this feeling before meeting Mike. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free.
In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.
Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance.
I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective.
Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy.
The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel.
The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.
The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car.
This observation also works the other way around.
At the end of last summer, Sachi and I rode the ferry to the mainland and made some stops at places like Costco. When we returned to the car, I noticed that it stuck out like a powdered doughnut among a dozen glazed. Dust covered every inch of its exterior. Then, I looked down. My shoes were dusty and dirty. My fingernails weren’t clean. I realized I was now the person arriving in the city from a rural location and making a subtle statement. My former self might have wondered: Why is he so dirty looking?
This made me think back to the country guys in Seattle. They were arriving from an environment I didn’t fully understand. They were wearing what they wear every day and it’s the most practical choice for them. They didn’t need to put on new clothes (or airs) for the city people. The thought may not have even occurred to them.
When I broach the subject of dirtiness among friends, the discussion usually turns to the definition of “dirty” and “clean” and I think it leads to the right perspective. Orcas Island and other rural places have fewer paved surfaces than cities. More people work with their hands than with computers. There are very different expectations about clothes and general cleanliness. But is it really dirty?
Visibly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But that’s not the whole story. In Seattle, we could walk the dogs for miles and miles and never step off a paved surface. We’d come home wet, but not visibly dirty. Clothes stayed clean more easily and white shoes worked. Yet, the city, like any city, has its problems with cleanliness. There might not be dust and gravel roads, but there is pollution, litter, and detritus. In the winter, the wet muck from traffic is far dirtier, oilier, muckier than you’re likely to find on Orcas. There is pollution in the air from millions of vehicles that drip all sorts of things into the water, eventually. And I can’t help but think of the noise. Planes, sirens, cars, industry, people. It’s another kind of pollution, but not dirt. It’s a city, after all.
I’ve started to see that Seattle is dirty on a more invisible or microscopic level that’s easy to ignore. It is there, however, and now I am seeing an incontrovertible truth: everything is dirty all the time, everywhere. Sometimes it’s harmful and easy to ignore. Sometimes it’s harmless but visible. But we all live in a dirtier environment than we like to believe.
So, I think Mike’s friend has a point. Orcas can appear to be a dirtier place compared to the city. But the dirt is different. It’s more visible and washes away after a long day of work. It returns to the ground just as it was before. Being one with the dirt is part of the transition and how you become part of the island itself.
How I created a beautiful video with a phone, drone, tripod, and two large dogs tied to my waist.
Since 2007, I’ve been a very specific kind of video producer. Namely, an indoor one. Common Craft videos are animated and mostly created on a computer. Despite making my living with videos, I have relatively little experience with live-action video.
Leading up to the launch of BIG ENOUGH, I decided I would try making a live-action book trailer and do it 100% by myself. That’s part of the Common Craft way. I love learning by doing. The idea was to go on a hike at a nearby preserve with a tripod and drone and capture footage of me walking our two dogs, Maybe and Piper.
That probably sounds fairly simple, but it was far from it. Despite being a sweet cuddler who always seems to appear on your lap indoors, Piper is a hunter outdoors. If she gets off the leash, she will disappear into the woods. So, in order to keep both dogs safe, I tied their leashes to my leather belt. This meant that everything I did that day happened with over one hundred pounds of canine at my feet.
This would be a challenge without photography, in part because of the place where I hiked. Turtleback Mountain, is, well… a mountain. The loop I hiked is three miles and about 850 feet in elevation. This is where being alone became a challenge.
I wanted a few shots that featured me and the dogs walking through the frame from left to right. To get this footage, I had to hike up a hill, set up the tripod, then hike down the hill, and walk up it again as the camera rolled, then come back down to stop the recording and then up to the next stop. All with two large dogs tied to my waist. The three-mile hike surely went to five miles.
Then, of course, I was carrying a drone with batteries and a remote. Operating the drone is always stressful because I’m worried that it will crash or fly away. I’ve had it abruptly lose control and fly into a tree in the past. What if that happened on a mountain?
I have two drone batteries that each last for about 10 minutes of flight time and it goes quickly. I had a number of locations where I wanted to get footage and this created anxiety about using up the batteries before I could get to the next location. So, I was very cautious about wasting the precious energy and tried to keep the drone in a recoverable range, should something go off the rails.
Turtleback is a popular hiking trail and I was self conscious about other hikers noticing me behaving in a strange way. I imagined them wondering why I kept walking back and forth at the same spot on the trail with my dogs. Why does he have all that equipment? And maybe, why does he look so stressed out?
At the summit of Turtleback, there is a large rock outcropping called Ship Peak and I had been saving batteries for that location. Just before reaching the summit, I dropped my backpack on the side of the trail, something I never do. I think I was overheated and just wanted it gone. I grabbed the drone and made my way to the peak.
Soon after, an older couple appeared with a worried look on their faces. That’s when it hit me. A couple of years ago, someone found a pack on the trail with homemade explosives in it. Nothing ever came of it, but all the locals heard about it and everyone was warned – do not approach random backpacks on Turtleback. I, of course, had just dropped a suspicious-looking backpack, which the couple had found.
The first thing they said was, “Is that your backpack down there?”
I replied, “Yes, I’m sorry…” and before I could get more words out, the woman said, “You know there was a problem with a backpack here?”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
They moved on, but got comfortable on another part of the summit, which left me with a dilemma. They already seemed annoyed, but I was there to fly the drone around and take videos. How long would they stay? Eventually, I just told them, “Hey, I’m just going to fly this around for a couple of minutes.” They nodded and that’s what I did.
On the way out, I looked over at them with a quick wave of acknowledgement. With a smile, the woman said, “Don’t forget your backpack!” I could only laugh and feel a bit embarrassed. I was that guy.
Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully. The weather was perfect, the drone stayed in my control and the dogs… they had no choice. Despite the effort, stress, and awkwardness, I loved every minute of making that video and I’m really proud of how it turned out.
The race is on. A couple of weeks ago, Drew, our contractor, set a date for our house to be insulated. We’re using spray foam insulation, which creates a hardened shell in the spaces in the walls. It also locks into place years of decisions and the work of electricians and plumbers. Untold miles of wires and pipes will be encased forevermore, hopefully. Soon after, drywall will finish the job.
The race is on because once the insulation process starts, changes become more difficult and expensive. Everyone’s goal is for the entire house to be ready and that includes us. It’s worrisome to think that so much is becoming more permanent. Did we get it right?
I suppose most projects reach the stage where all the decisions are made and the trigger must be pulled. This post is an example. Just before you received this message, Sachi and I both pored through it, looking for errors and ways to improve it. Once I hit “send” and it landed in your inbox, there was no going back. What’s done is done.
Publishing Big Enough was similar. Once the book had been written, edited, designed, and reviewed multiple times, we had to make the final decision to get it printed. When the ink dried on those pages, it was truly final. Did we get it right?
It’s that moment, when the final decision is made, that progress happens and it’s essential to getting things done. In business terms, you have to ship the product and it sometimes takes gumption to do it. Self-doubt can make you rethink the idea or delay the decision for another week or month. I’ve seen untold hours of my time wasted because I wasn’t confident enough to ship it. It’s a constant battle.
Thankfully, with the house and the book, we had the help of professionals who specialize in getting it right. They have systems and processes that help ensure the final product is high quality. While mistakes are inevitable, we trust the pros, who have been through it before and are used to getting products out the door.
Today, with the work of carpenters, electricians and plumbers about to get shipped, we’re doing what we can to document what’s inside the walls. As some of you suggested for this stage, we took photos and videos of every wall in the house. I think of this as a kind of X-ray vision that only applies once the drywall is up. The photos and videos allow us to know what lurks behind each wall so we can avoid driving a nail into a water pipe or diagnose a problem more efficiently in the future.
The process of taking the photos was a great reminder of all the work that has gone into the house that no one will ever see. An example is “blocking”. There is a high likelihood that you’ve needed to place a screw into a wall to hang art or install a shelf. To make it more secure, you hoped to find a stud in the wall. Or, you’ve used anchors in drywall. With a bit of forethought, this process can be easier and more secure.
For example, we plan to have two towel bars in our bathroom. Casey, the foreman on the project and all-around great guy, asked about the height of the bars and installed these blocks in the walls. Now we don’t have to find studs. This was true across the entire house; we blocked for everything we could imagine. No stud finders needed.
Speaking of drywall, I noticed that the plumbers put these metal “nail plates” on the studs whenever a water line passes through it. I initially thought they were for strengthening the wood, but their role is to prevent a drywall nail (or a nail from us in the future) from piercing the line and causing a huge problem inside the wall.
When the drywall is installed, a canvas will also be lost forever. Drew is a very visual person and when he needs to explain something, he draws it on whatever he can find. Often, it’s a nearby stud. The walls of the house are adorned with little drawings and notes that record a decision made or mind changed. Maybe someday they’ll be seen again, but hopefully not by us.
Today we’re about 14 months into the project, starting with the demolition of the Yurt, and the house is very close to taking a great leap toward becoming livable. Over the next month or so, the roof, all doors and windows, drywall, soffits and siding will all become a reality. While these elements are more visible than what’s inside the walls, we’ll still be asking: did we get it right?
Since moving to Orcas Island, I’ve become fascinated by the geography of the area, which is quite complicated. The island is part of an archipelago in an inland sea stretching across two countries and hundreds of islands. To describe the region doesn’t do it justice, so I created this animated GIF.
The Salish Sea extends across the U.S.-Canada border, and includes the combined waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. The name Salish Sea was proposed in 1989 to reflect the entire cross-border ecosystem. Both Washington State and British Columbia voted to officially recognize the name in late 2009. The name honors the Coast Salish people, who were the first to live in the region (Salish Sea: Naming, n.d.).
We live on Orcas Island in Washington State, which is serviced by ferries and has about 3,000 year round residents. For most of the time it’s been developed, the power infrastructure has been fragile. It’s a densely wooded place and trees often fall on overhead power lines during winter storms. Our neighbors tell stories about power going out over a dozen times in the winter and sometimes staying off for a week or two. For this reason, many houses have built-in generators that run on propane. As soon as the power goes out, the generator kicks on and powers essential things like the refrigerators, water pumps, and lights.
When we started planning our house on Orcas Island, people often asked about our plans for a generator assuming we’d need one. For a while, we had the same assumption. Before starting the construction project, we lived on the island for about 18 months and saw that power outages were becoming more rare. Power lines were moving underground and the power company (a co-op) was fixing problems quickly. The power still went out a few times a year, but for hours and not days.
We also started looking into alternatives to propane generators. Along with using fossil fuel, they are expensive and painful to maintain. We wanted to build a house with smarter, more sustainable options that had the potential to save us money over the long term.
From the beginning of the project, we planned to use solar panels on our roof. Right now, we’re working with an electrician to be sure the house has the proper “rough-in” for making solar installation easy when we can afford it. One of the traditional problems of solar energy is storage. For many years, the energy from solar panels was either used at the moment or sold back to the grid. There wasn’t a good way to store the energy produced during the day and use it once the sun goes down, or during power outages.
In these discussions with the electricians, we took a closer look at batteries designed to store energy that can be used by the home. Like the solar panels, we wanted to be sure the house is being built with the right connections in place for the future. Once the drywall goes up, these things become more difficult.
Tesla, the same company that creates vehicles, created a product called the Powerwall that earned a lot of attention because it made home-based energy storage an option. Today, multiple companies offer similar products. They’re essentially a battery pack that is connected to your house, the grid, the internet, and often, solar panels. The batteries remain at least 80% full and when your house loses power from the grid, batteries keep appliances running instead of a generator. The batteries are expandable, but don’t necessarily power a full house or offer more than a day of energy in a blackout.
Learning about these products changed how we thought about backups for our house. Instead of a generator, we plan to have a battery in our garage that is programmed to bridge us through short-term power outages. Once we install solar panels, the goal is to keep it charged with sunlight. This way, sun during the day can charge batteries that work overnight or during outages.
The battery storage companies we’ve looked at so far are:
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.