WHOOOOSH and the Whales

By: Lee LeFever

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.

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

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.

deer hooves

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.

brushy forest

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.

three dimensions
feel for the size
guest bedroom
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.

Spy Hop

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.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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