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 fear came in a flash. I was outside our guest house with our older dog, Maybe. As soon as we rounded the corner at the back of the house, I saw our other dog, Piper, dash into the woods from other side of the house without a leash. In an instant, Piper was gone.
I’ve never had a dog like her. At home, she is the most domesticated animal possible; a fifty pound stuffed animal who loves to lie upside down in your lap. But she has a wild streak when she steps outdoors, possibly the streak of a hunter. She trembles at the sight of deer that are constantly on the property. They must be chased and this instinct seems to override any kind of training we’ve tried. Our voices are clearly not enough to keep her close.
Even as a small puppy, she loved the game of staying just out of our reach when outside. She was prone to running out of sight and then coming back, just when we’d start to worry. Living in a place with no traffic or predators meant we didn’t have to worry too much. I figured she’d grow out of it. Maybe loves chasing deer too, but she usually gets to the edge of the yard and stops. That’s what I expect dogs to do. Not Piper.
She’s disappeared into the woods on a couple of occasions. The last time, she seemed to stay in the vicinity. She’d disappear for ten minutes, then you’d see her move through the trees at a radius that kept us from tracking her reliably. We’d stop and listen to leaves rustle and, often, hear very little. I’m sure the little jerk was standing still, watching us panic.
In one instance, she ran toward my outstretched arms and then veered off course at the last second to check another side of the property for deer. Not knowing what else to do, we remembered that Piper loves car rides. We moved the car down the driveway, opened the back hatch and she eventually jumped in, exhausted. The freedom she craved for months had finally been satisfied. Relieved, we vowed not to let it happen again.
Piper is not the kind of dog who wants to run away for days or end up miles from the pack. She seems to be oriented around home, but that doesn’t soothe our worry. Orcas Island is a rocky place with hills, valleys, and cliffs. We’ve heard multiple stories of dogs chasing deer off of cliffs and being seriously injured. That’s one of the biggest fears… in the rush of excitement, she injures herself and can’t move, or be found by us. In the past year, a neighbor’s dog chased a deer and came back with a knee that required surgery.
When we both saw Piper disappear into the woods, we knew that we had stepped into the unknown again and nothing would be okay until she returned safely. It’s a terrifying feeling. There are no houses within a fifteen-minute walk and over 100 acres of moss-covered forest.
Looking back, I know exactly what led to her finding this freedom. It was a very windy day, the kind that drowns out sound and causes small branches to litter the driveway. I intended to take Maybe outside and attached her leash as Piper watched by the door. I stepped out with Maybe and pulled the door closed behind me, I thought. Then, just before stepping off the porch, I looked back and saw the wind had blown the door open about 18 inches. I looked inside and there was no sign of Piper. I figured she had gone back to Sachi inside and I closed the door. I can now see that she, instead, sprang to action the moment the door blew open and I had no idea. Sneaky.
It’s an utterly powerless feeling to yell Piper’s name into the woods. She’s out there living her best life and seems to care little about our needs at the moment. With the wind blowing at thirty miles per hour, our voices were virtually camouflaged. What else could we do?
The property sits on the top of a hill and we both walked around all sides of the property, yelling for Piper. I grabbed Maybe and we walked deep into the woods on the side where she ventured out. I got Maybe excited so she would bark and possibly attract Piper. Sachi parked the car at the edge of the forest with the hatchback open. She slammed the car doors and honked the horn. Watching from afar, I could tell it was futile. The roar of the wind was too much. I checked my phone incessantly, hoping to see a text from Sachi with good news.
It was about 3:45 when Piper disappeared and as we searched, I started to do mental calculations. It gets dark at about 6pm, so we have a little over two hours to find her. She is used to having dinner at 5, so maybe that will bring her home. I looked at the weather and saw low temperatures in the upper thirties. These little calculations led to a series of questions I didn’t want to have to face. What if she’s not home when it gets dark? What if she’s not home when it’s time to go to bed? What about two days from now? A week? Is it too cold? Are we going to have to make signs? I imagined Sachi spending the night by the front door, waiting.
Unlike our previous experience, Piper never popped up to make an appearance once she entered the woods. It was like she vanished. We both took turns driving around the area. I texted a couple of friends to look out for her. After returning from a drive, I met Sachi in the driveway with a look on her face that seemed like deep concentration. Sachi doesn’t ever lose her cool. In a situation like this, she thinks her way through. About thirty minutes had passed and I wanted to comfort her.
“She’s going to be fine,” I said. “It’s dinner time soon and she’ll come back for that.”
“Not if she’s fallen off a cliff and broken her leg”, she replied. Point taken.
Not knowing what else to do, I put Maybe back inside and I drove down to a trailhead that leads by the property. If Piper had run straight downhill she would eventually hit the trail. About ten minutes down the trail, I met a neighbor whose property borders the woods of the property and showed him a photo of Piper. I got his number, just in case.
A bit further down the trail, I veered off into the thickness and tried to get a higher vantage point. After scrambling thirty yards uphill, I ended up on a small knob and surveyed the area. I called for Piper and looked for movement. Nothing. Then I checked my phone, expecting the disappointment of silence. But there in my text messages were two words from Sachi that made everything okay. “Have her!” I let out a big sigh and sat down for a moment to collect myself. It was over. I made my way down the trail toward the car. Just in case, I read Sachi’s text message again. What if it was a question instead of a statement? Nope. She’s home. It was 4:30.
I arrived at the guest house to find Sachi washing Piper in the tub. She was muddy and full of thorny sticks and branches. Being a doodle, with hair instead of fur, she collected tangles of the forest. It’s plausible that she could get permanently stuck in a bramble. But she didn’t.
Sachi said Piper simply appeared from the forest at the point where she entered. Once she saw Sachi, she ran at full speed to her, as if she was a little panicked herself. Who knows what she had been doing all that time? What was that little canine brain thinking while on the lam?
As Sachi washed Piper, she said to look at the kitchen table to see evidence of Maybe’s poor behavior. Confused, I looked around and there it was, a freshly baked loaf of bread, still warm, 80% gone. While we were chasing Piper, Maybe was feasting. Bad dog.
By the time it was all over, nothing really mattered but the pack being together again. We wish that Piper was better off-leash and that Maybe was less of a pilferer, but it goes with the territory. The positive role the beasts play in our lives far outweighs the moments of disappointment, worry, and exasperation. They may not be perfect dogs, but they are ours.
I suppose it’s possible to never leave Orcas Island. With good health and tolerance for mild isolation, one could live on the island indefinitely. For most, however, leaving is required from time to time, and that means boarding a ferry for an hour-long trip to the mainland where family, Costco and other forms of abundance await.
Along with trips to the mainland, there is another popular ferry route that is limited to the San Juan Islands; an “inter-island” route. This route is serviced by a sixty-year-old ferry named Tillikum, or affectionately “Tilly”, that runs all-day-everyday among four of the most populated islands. She is the closest we have to a road that links the islands, both socially and commercially.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Jesse, on a neighboring island asked if I could help him with a house project and I jumped at the chance to see him and ride the ferry on a nice autumn day. Jesse’s house is on San Juan Island, which is home to Friday Harbor, the county’s seaside commercial center and tourist trap.
When the morning arrived, I carefully packed a backpack with snacks, sunglasses and my drone so that I could take overhead photos of his house. As I packed, I thought the backpack would be easy to forget and that I had to be careful; it had precious cargo. Maybe that was on my mind when I left the house without two things that I looked forward to using on the 45-minute ferry ride: a full flask of coffee and my headphones.
I drove to the Orcas ferry terminal, parked the car at its free parking lot and walked down the hill to the terminal to catch the 10:30 ferry. Riding the inter-island ferry is always free to walk-on passengers and that was my plan. I’d walk-on and disembark at Friday Harbor where Jesse would pick me up and drive to his house.
By the terminal, there is a petite, but mighty, grocery store that makes espresso and delicious homemade pastries and I never miss a chance to grab a scone before boarding. Usually, the store is a hive of activity and a place where locals cross paths. When we first started coming to the island, I wanted to be someone who knew other locals in the store. It seemed like a rite of passage. On this trip, I got to be that person when I saw Allie, one of our first island friends. She and her partner, RJ, hosted the party that eventually connected us with Drew, our builder. Allie and I ended up sharing a ferry booth on the ride to Friday Harbor and both delighted in seeing harbor seals frolic along the way. The thought of missing headphones never crossed my mind.
After we docked at 11:15, I disembarked and met Jesse for the short drive to his house. He’s currently renovating it and we spent the day cutting holes in walls, installing appliances and assembling furniture. As the day drew to a close, we planned to get a beer and early dinner in town before my 5:30 ferry and never made time to fly the drone, which sat safely in my backpack.
We parked in Friday Harbor and I decided to take my bag with me, knowing that I’d probably go straight to the ferry and that if someone stole it from the car, I’d never live it down. We ended up at a dive bar called Herb’s Tavern. And as we sat down, I put the bag in the seat next to me and noted that it was easy for me to see and remember to grab when leaving.
Over a beer and a Reuben sandwich, Jesse and I reviewed the day’s work and talked about Seattle life versus island life. We used to be neighbors and I enjoyed having time to reconnect. In fact, I was probably so engaged that time got away from me. With the ferry departure time approaching quickly, we paid the bill and just before leaving the table, I looked back and said words that I hear consistently from Sachi, “Do you have everything… phone, wallet, keys?” Everything seemed in order as we rushed out the door.
In minutes, I was alone on the Tillikum wishing I had my headphones when I realized that I’d made a huge mistake. My backpack, with my drone, was still sitting in the chair at Herb’s Tavern. Shit. It was the one thing I needed to remember. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I could only think about Sachi rolling her eyes. Sadly, this is not out of character for me. I called Herb’s and had them store the backpack until I could return. The bartender said he’d place it in the locked “liquor room” and asked if I’d be back that night. Heh. No, I would not be back that night. I was was on the last ferry to Orcas Island.
Most people have left something at a bar or restaurant that required retrieval. Usually it involves a u-turn or a short drive. But this was different. I left something on another island. I’d have to spend hours taking a ferry to retrieve it. What a mess. I arrived home that night with a sheepish grin and a plan. The next morning, I would repeat the entire ferry process, with one exception. I would attempt to disembark in Friday Harbor, grab my backpack and board the same ferry, bound for Orcas.
The next morning I left home with nothing but headphones, a full flask of coffee and a bit of stress that I could get off and back onto the ferry in time. Like the day before, I went to the store for a scone, but they were out. But I did see Ezra, someone I knew from the island. I told him about my plan and he shrugged as he said: “Well, there are worse ways to spend the day than on a boat.” I had to agree.
Once again, I was on the 10:30 ferry to Friday Harbor. In our region this time of year, the sun never gets very high and it seemed to follow me around the ferry as it wound its way through the islands. I switched from one side of the boat to the other to escape the glare as walkers circled the deck to get in a bit of exercise. I recognized a few people but talked to no one. I was on a mission.
As Tilly approached the terminal at Friday Harbor I called Herb’s to ask them to have the bag ready and they were happy to oblige. Perhaps I was not the first person to attempt the ferry gambit. I waited with a few dozen walk-on passengers for the gate to open and rushed to Herb’s to get the backpack. Thanks to my call, the bartender had my bag ready and handed it off like a relay as I rushed back to the boat. If I missed it, I’d have to wait three hours for the next one.
The waiting area at the terminal was empty when I arrived because the other passengers had already boarded. Would they still let me on? As I made my way down the loading dock with the vehicles, a ferry worker motioned me on and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once I made it to the passenger deck, I accounted for everything. I had my backpack, my coffee flask and my headphones for my fourth ferry voyage in two days. I sat listening to music and watched as the islands passed by my window like a movie. This trip was a result of a careless error and was a waste of time, but I didn’t mind. There are worse ways to spend a day than on a boat.
We had some time before catching a ferry, so we stopped by a place we’d targeted only a few days before: an RV dealership on the side of Interstate 5. You’ve seen them in your area, too. A parking lot full of vehicles, a patriotic themed sign and maybe a giant helium balloon with little flags on the cord holding it down.
A friendly guy named Bob, who had run out of business cards, wheeled us around the lot in a golf cart with a bench seat facing backward. We passed rows and rows of RVs of all shapes and sizes and eventually stopped at the section of trailers that go by the name, “fifth wheel”. These are trailers that require a special attachment in the back of a truck to transport because they are big enough to be a home.
Being new to camper shopping, we asked what we should consider. He said that, in our price range, they all have the same basic features, like a kitchen, built in stereo, TV, shower and bedroom. The big difference was layout. I thought to myself that most homes, wheeled or not, come down to this basic element.
We tried to imagine living in this kind of trailer for a year or more with two big dogs. More so, we imagined living through a dark and wet northwest winter. Given the situation, we were prepared to do it. We can do nearly anything for a year.
We faced a problem that is familiar to people on Orcas Island: housing. There is a constant shortage of options for people who need long term rentals, in part because many property owners have switched to short term Airbnb-style services.
This was a problem for us because our beloved yurt would need to be demolished if we moved forward with building a new home. Given that we’d put the Hunter House on the market and moved out of Seattle, we needed a place to live during the construction. Like many others before us on the island, we saw a fifth wheel trailer as a temporary home we could park on our property, rent free. A part of me looked forward to the adventure of it all.
That all changed over Christmas. A neighbor has a Christmas party that, over 25 years, has achieved legendary status among islanders. They are kind people who have become neighborly friends.
After meeting them early on, they gave us their contact information and we encountered a confusing bit of quaint island history. They grabbed a pen and paper, wrote a quick message which I immediately deposited in my pocket. When we returned home, we looked at the note and saw their number was “5938” or something similar. We both looked at each other and then back at the number. 5938? What are we supposed to do with that? Then it hit us. On the island, the landline phone numbers all have the same prefix. As a shortcut, residents with landlines only use the last four digits. A cute lesson learned.
Their Christmas party was something we couldn’t miss. They prepare delicious tapas for days and bake hundreds of carefully decorated cookies. As we drank mulled wine and hot cider with brandy, we found ourselves surrounded by curious neighbors and other guests. We explained our plan to move to the island permanently and someday build a house. We told them about the Yurt, its eccentricities, and our plan to demolish it some day. They nodded in knowing agreement.
But, our story had a gaping hole and they saw it quickly. “If you’re going to tear down the place you have now, where would you live?” they asked.
You could almost feel the anticipation because the answer to that question is more difficult than it should be. We told them we were planning to park a fifth wheel trailer on the property and live in it during construction. More approving nods. It’s the island way.
At the end of the evening, Sachi and I were grazing the cheese plates and meatballs when a couple approached us who we had briefly met that night. The tall, soft spoken man introduced he and his wife again and reminded us that they were neighbors, just walking distance from the Yurt. He said they heard our plans for RV living and had an idea. Our ears perked up.
You could tell they had discussed the idea in private, agreed on a course of action, and prepared to approach us by writing their names and a seven digit phone number on a cocktail napkin, which they handed to me during the discussion.
The idea was this: They have a “guest house” above their garage that’s not being used and if it suited us, we could rent it from them during the construction. They said they were leaving the island the following afternoon, but if we wanted a tour, we could see it the next morning. We were a little stunned and not sure what to say other than yes, please, and thank you so much. We went home that night walking on air.
The next morning we arrived at a piece of property on the top of a hill. The main house faces west and looks over trees that have grown into the view over the past 25 years years. Behind the house is a two car garage with a second story. I looked up at the windows over the garage doors and thought to myself: this is where we’ll soon live.
The couple came out to meet us and we quickly moved into tour mode. The guest house is essentially a 500 square foot studio apartment with a bedroom area separated by a six foot wall. Once again, our bedroom would not have a ceiling or offer any privacy. But it didn’t matter, our entertaining would be reduced for a while.
There were linoleum floors, a tiny electric range and dorm sized refrigerator. The sink was a deep circular bar sink, and it didn’t leak, so that was a solid upgrade. In fact, nearly everything was an upgrade compared to the Yurt. The shower was full sized, there were nice big windows, closets aplenty and a loft which we needed for all of our stuff. And just outside the kitchen, there was room for a larger fridge, if we wanted it.
The guest house was perfect, a gift. We told them we’d love to rent it, if the project actually commenced. They agreed to hold it for us.
With the guest house, a huge piece of our puzzle had fallen into place. We had a place to stay during the construction at a price we could afford. There were more pieces to go, but that was a huge relief, in part, because it was far simpler than buying or renting and transporting a fifth-wheel trailer.
We talked for a bit and he asked about our story. Having recently discovered the guest house, I told him I was in awe at how the pieces were lining up. He said something I’ll never forget: “It’s crazy, this island. Once you decide you want to do something, it just opens up for you.”
That was a sentiment we felt, but had never put into words. Orcas is a small place, but it’s mostly inhabited by people from elsewhere who forged their own way. They hear stories from newcomers like us and easily empathize. They’ve been there and have advice, resources and in some cases, a shoulder for commiseration. More than anything, they want to help and with a possible house project on the horizon, that’s exactly what we needed.
It happened on a Sunday night, just before midnight on Orcas Island. I was watching TV and about to fall asleep when I heard Sachi say, “Lee???” from the bedroom.
I replied, nonchalantly, “Yeah?”
Sachi then said words I didn’t expect to hear, “Someone’s backing up the driveway.”
At first, I was incredulous. Maybe she heard a tree branch fall or the door to the garage blowing in the wind. It didn’t make any sense that someone would be at the Yurt so late on a Sunday. I peered through the blinds in the bathroom to get a better look at the driveway and sure enough, a pickup truck was backing up to the garage. What the hell?
This wasn’t just any night. It was our first winter at the Yurt and on this night, the wind was howling as we’d never seen. It was like a movie scene where people are huddled in a cabin during a storm and when the door opens, the roar of the wind outside drowns out all other sounds until it is closed again. It was the kind of sound that overwhelms the senses.
My mind raced and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest as I realized my neighbor to the north was out of town and that no one else should be on our driveway. We are one of a small group of homes on a gravel road with a clear “No Trespassing” sign.
I quickly ran through a few scenarios, none of them good. This person was surely backing the truck to make a quick getaway. What did they want? Would they steal something from the garage? Were they going to rob us? Why else would they be outside so late in such bad weather?
Not knowing what else to do, I made up my mind to venture outside to investigate. I would be the first line of defense and try to mitigate whatever they were planning. Before reaching for the door, the thought occurred to me that I might need to protect myself. Earlier that night, I had used a little hatchet to split wood to make kindling for a fire and the hatchet was beside the wood burning stove. I grabbed it, took a deep breath and stepped into the gale.
As I approached the driveway with the hatchet in my hand, I saw the truck door open from the driver’s side. This was the moment of truth. Who was this intruder? Was I about to go into combat?
The first thing that appeared was a long white beard and the wave of a hand. This was an older guy who was saying something I couldn’t hear enough to understand. Seeing him making friendly motions, I quickly stuck the hatchet in the small of my back so he wouldn’t see it and walked closer. We met at our deer fence and had a short conversation in the form of yelling short proclamations over the roar of the wind and rain.
It turned out that he was Arthur, someone we’ve come to know as a friend and fellow potlucker on the island. He was on our road to check on our neighbor’s house while they were out of town. He saw our light on and was coming to check on us, too. He wanted to be sure we had a chainsaw in case a tree fell on the road or our house, and wood for the fire if the power went out. I told him we had everything covered and that I appreciated him checking in.
Relieved, I went back inside and sheepishly put the hatchet back by the stove. Sachi and I laughed at what was clearly an overreaction.
I recently recounted this story to our friend, Boris, who grew up on Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC. Bowen has a lot in common with Orcas and he couldn’t help but give us a hard time. He said that on islands like Bowen and Orcas, the only reason someone would come to your house during a storm is to check on you. This is especially true for people known to be new to the island. It’s how the world works in small, more rural places.
Looking back, it’s obvious to me that we were, and still are, shaking off city life. We were on guard and prepared to assume the worst in a questionable situation. Though I’ve never had a problem or used a weapon of any sort in Seattle, we know people who have had incidents. Anything can happen in the city. You learn to expect the unexpected and think about security every day. After 20 years, I didn’t know any other way to react. So, I went outside with a weapon that now looks a little ridiculous in hindsight.
One day, I will muster the courage to ask Arthur if he saw the hatchet before I stealthily hid it that night. I’m sure he and everyone else on the island would get a big laugh out of that scene. Me assuming the worst, only to find it was Arthur, checking on us with the best possible intentions.
From the moment I walked into the kitchen of the Yurt, I could tell that something was wrong. Sachi moved around in a quiet sulk that told me she was crestfallen. This was not a tearful or sad kind of emotion, but a feeling of personal failure with a touch of confusion. After a brief discussion, I learned that a pan of cornbread, a favorite in our house, was showing signs of rebellion. Despite baking the normal length of time, it was not close to done, as evidenced by its liquidy center. When it comes to cooking, there is no room for failure in Sachi’s mind. It hits hard.
In isolation, a rebellious cornbread would be no cause for concern. It would be whipped into shape and eaten in due time. But the stakes for this cornbread were considerably higher.
Our neighbor, Grant, has lived on Orcas Island for 25 years and has become a sort of island guide for us. From the very first time we met him, he encouraged us to go to “the potluck” where we could meet neighbors. And we did. We’ve attended a handful and become well-versed in potluck activities on Orcas Island.
Our community is Deer Harbor and the potlucks are organized by the Deer Harbor Community Club, of which we are now members. What Grant calls a potluck is actually a community meeting with food. But I suppose all potlucks are, in one way or another.
This one has been gathering for decades and we learned there were some basic rules to follow. You bring a dish to share, plus your plates and utensils and a bottle (or two) of wine, if you’d like. Show up early.
Usually, the evening begins with a few words from the community club president that might include a fundraising update and news about the club’s projects, like fixing a bathroom door, or parking lot maintenance. This particular club has taken on bigger projects like purchasing and paying off the tiny building that houses the Deer Harbor Post Office. The club’s purchase in 2009 helped make the rent more affordable and prevented the USPS from closing it.
Just before the announcements end, the president asks about guests and new attendees. On our first potluck, Grant raised his hand and we all stood together to be introduced as Lee and Sachi, new part-time neighbors from Seattle. We waved, smiled and sat down. Being from Seattle isn’t remarkable, as most in attendance likely lived in the city at some point. But Seattle does bring with it a bit of baggage. I’m sure most were just happy to hear we’re not from California.
These introductions serve as a reason for community members to introduce themselves and ask what we do. For people like us who are not retired, it’s not easy to support yourself on a small and relatively expensive island. How people make it work is a constant source of discussion and speculation. We, as we tell people, own a business that operates through a website. All we need is an internet connection to manage it. They nod. It makes sense and they’ve heard it before. We are part of the new generation who has choices that weren’t possible until recently. We are those people, from Seattle.
Grant, as it turns out, also goes to the potluck of a neighboring community called West Sound and he kindly peer pressured us into going to this potluck, too. From the beginning, it felt a bit strange. This wasn’t our community or our club. Technically, anyone is welcome, but did it really feel right? We knew Grant would be a worthy ambassador and we looked forward to the evening. We would bring cornbread, a perfect potluck item.
It was this cornbread and this event that made Sachi so crestfallen. The cornbread had been in the oven 10 minutes longer than it ever had before and was still not close to done. We debated what to do as the potluck drew nearer. The edges were fine, but toothpick after toothpick showed an uncooked center. A few more minutes, we said. It was like the oven was losing temperature as the pressure grew in the kitchen.
We soon started to realize that we were facing a number of decisions with hard stops at about 5:45pm — when we had to leave to arrive on time. Do we arrive without food? Do we go at all? We paced and inspected the cornbread. We debated. The minutes ticked by with no good answers. Eventually, we cut out one piece and could see that the entire center was still uncooked. The idea of showing up at a new potluck without food seemed like a violation of potluck code and a terrible first impression to make in West Sound.
Grant texted that he had arrived and was saving our seats. It got to be 5:50 by the time we made the call. We would not attend the potluck. With that decision made, we had to tell Grant, who we knew would be disappointed. I texted him and sure enough, he insisted we come anyway. “Everything will be just fine — nobody cares”, he said.
In the end, we thought, “What the hell…” and left the Yurt just before 6pm with plates, utensils, wine, glasses and without a shared dish. We were about to break the rules.
We pulled into the gravel parking lot next door at the Orcas Island Yacht Club, which sounds a lot fancier than it is, to see the lot full. We quickly stepped out of the car and walked up the ramp to enter the building. I hoped we could slip in unnoticed.
I carefully reached for the handle and tried to open it as quietly as possible. Of course, stuck a little and rattled as I opened it, causing the entire room of thirty people to look our way. Our timing was perfect — we interrupted the community president’s announcements. Not only that, but we were new, from a different community, and arriving with plates and no food. Who shows up late to a potluck without food? People from Seattle, apparently.
We ducked our heads, and sheepishly found Grant and our saved seats just as the announcements wrapped up. On that night, the subject that engaged the club most was the potential to show the animated movie, Coco, on an upcoming Saturday evening near Halloween. The exact date and time for the showing was a source of confusion that lasted far longer than we expected. It was like watching aunts and uncles get through a disagreement over dinner. Is Saturday the 3rd or 4th? No one seemed to be sure.
After a bit of hunger-induced groaning, light heckling and introductions of new attendees, we all drank wine and enjoyed a fine meal of baked chicken, pasta salads and apple crumbles. It seemed that Grant was correct. No one seemed to notice or care that we arrived late to the potluck, from a different community, or without food to share.
In fact, in what would become a pivotal moment, the newcomer introductions shined a spotlight on a handful of attendees who were our age and new to Orcas Island as well. One of these new people, Erika, noticed that my wine glass was emblazoned with the logo of her employer, a small non-profit organization called the SeaDoc Society. We also met Tony and Zoe, who were in the process of moving from Seattle to the island. We talked for a bit, exchanged contact info and agreed to get together soon. It felt finding the start of our little community on Orcas Island.
We imagined, sometime in the future, hosting our own little newcomer potluck with a working oven, Sachi’s cornbread, and slightly less pressure.
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.