Sunday, September 22, 2013

After Africa: My New Life on Shaw Island, Washington

It’s been two and a half months since I returned from Africa to and came home to the Pacific Northwest. 

A number of people have asked me about my transition ‘back to the real world’ as they call it, and in hindsight I may have been a little dismissive of the question.  I’d often say something like ‘Well, I’m returning to live on an island so small it only a 165 people and one store, to help my friends start an organic farm.  I’m not exactly going back to a desk job.”  This is very much true.  I am doing exactly what I said and this post is about telling that story, but that answer was always very superficial.  With more time and space to reflect on it now, I can say honestly that while the transition period has been overwhelmingly positive, it took a tremendous amount of energy out of me and was not always easy. 

Reconnecting with friends and family was not difficult at all; it seemed simple to pick up those almost like I’d never left.  I had to ‘reconnect’ with the ‘real world’ by getting a cell phone again, getting my car fixed, buying car insurance, visiting the dentist and all the other things that come along with returning home after such a long time.  Having been so out of that world during my time in Africa, these things required a lot more time and mental energy than I feel they would have under ‘normal’ circumstances.  After the bachelor party for my friend Nick I headed up to what would be my new home, Shaw Island and dove head-first to help get ready for the wedding that was taking place on my friends property where I’d be living.  The whole event went wonderfully and after spending two weeks on the island I returned to Seattle.  My next time on Shaw I’d be living there, but I didn’t know when that would be.  I kept working towards that point and kept finding myself with issues holding me back.  It wasn’t until I declined an offer to join some wonderful friends I’d made in South Africa out at Burning Man here in America that I realized how tired and stressed out I was feeling.  I’d returned to America to settle down for the first time in two and a half years and I wasn’t sure I’d even had a week in the same bed yet.  On the road in Africa this was normal, but it wasn’t what I wanted now that I was supposed to be back.  Going to Burning Man is something I’ve been meaning to do for 10 years and I knew I was passing up an opportunity of a lifetime, but when I finally realized just how worn out I felt, I had no choice but to say ‘No.’  All I needed was to get up to the Island.  The transition from traveling Africa for a year and a half to living on a tiny island back in America is a HUGE lifestyle shift.  Of course I was looking forward to it, but I didn’t know what to expect or if it would be what I’d been hoping for, and these thoughts also took up a lot of my energy.  Finally understanding the weight I’d been carrying while waiting to get to that point, I was able to relax a bit. I had a great three day weekend with my good friend Brendan at the Bumbershoot Music & Arts festival, my favorite Seattle tradition and was feeling better about my situation. 

When I was younger, Bumbershoot used to serve as the mark between summer and a new school year.  Now it was serving to mark the end of a very different part of my life, transitioning from my life in Africa to my new life on Shaw Island, Washington, a whole new adventure.

I’m going a little out of chronological order with this post, skipping ahead of a few other things I’ll get to posting about later, but I wanted to share this now and explain a bit about my life after my African adventure.

On September 4th, I loaded up my 1970 VW Baja Bug with my possessions, including my bicycle and some tree pruning tools tied on the roof rack, and set off for a new stage in my life; living on Shaw Island and helping my friends start an organic farm.  (and yes, I realize this is a bit cliche, haha)  I was excited about getting to work together with my friends, to live in such a beautiful place, to spend so much time outdoors, to help build something lasting and to retain my need to live a life of as much freedom and opportunity as possible.  I’d been thinking about this for going on two years now, today it was finally happening.

My car is, shall we say, ‘primitive’.  It has a motor, brakes, doors, lights and wipers but little else.  It also goes about 55mph tops.  I love the thing, it’s a car that makes me smile every time I look at it, but practical it isn’t.  Because of its slow top speed, it means I don’t like the interstate highways where people are driving 70mph+.  On this day,  instead of driving all the way to Anacortes via I-5, I took the ferry boat Whidby Island where I drove north instead of taking the mainland.  This route was longer, took more time and was more expensive by a few bucks, but it was also more scenic, more interesting, off the usual path and ultimately a much more rewarding journey.  Sounds familiar… Naturally I missed getting on the first ferry by just one car, but even in America, sometimes you just have to wait.

Once I was off the ferry boat and on Whidby Island, the fog began to lift and I could finally enjoy the sights.  The two lane road (speed limit, 55mph!) weaved through stands of trees, small towns and countless farms while I tried to re-calibrate myself to the new life on the other side of the water.

Shortly before arriving at Anacortes where I’d take the next ferry to Shaw Island, I drove across the bridge at Deception Pass and while I couldn’t get a great look from the driver’s seat, there were certainly no doubts I was in a place of real beauty.

Due to lots of summer tourists, the boat I’d hoped to catch was full and I got to wait another 5 hours until I could finally depart.  I was a bit annoyed with this, but oh well, I’m not in a real hurry, and I’ll get there when I get there.  In line I was approached by a young guy who was traveling and wanted some advice on what to do in the San Juans.  We had a nice conversation in line and on the boat; I wished him good luck and headed down to the car deck, to drive onto Shaw as a resident for the first time.

The drive from the ferry dock, where the General Store (the only store on the island) sits next to the Post Office, the dock and community notice board, to the property where I live takes maybe 10 minutes.  That drive will probably make up the longest distance I’ll ever regularly cover up here, and right now that sounds really nice! 

About four minutes after driving past my friends Nick and Ellen’s new house and property, I arrived at my friend Jon’s family property where I’d be living, the Ben Nevis Farm.  This is where Nick and Ellen had their wedding about a month before and it was just as beautiful a place as ever.

That night I got some of my things unpacked, and spent the evening with Jon, Jenn (his girlfriend and friend of mine) and a few of our island neighbors, happy to finally be ‘home.’

Saying hello to some of the islands creatures while I use the outhouse overlooking the property.

Not all of the islands creatures are so cute.

The sun wasn’t shining in the morning, but there is always work to do on a farm and you can’t let a little rain stop you, especially in the northwest!  The lettuce, kale, leeks, tomatoes and many other veggies were looking great, but it was time to till a new bed and plant some new starts for a fall crop. 

The goal up here is to have a full functioning organic farm on the island, but it is a big task.  Until Nick and Ellen moved up just three months earlier, this entire project has been done on weekends and shifts coming up from Seattle.  Now that I am here on the island, we have three full time  and Jon and Jenn are working to move up to the island as soon as possible but it’s still a tremendous amount of work to do. 

I think it’s clear by now, but Shaw is a small place.  Other than the General Store with attached Post Office, the brand new baseball field, the park and the community center, the Shaw Island Library and Historical Society are the only other public space on the island.  The library is small, only three rooms and run by volunteers a few days a week, but is a very nice space and a great resource on the island.  Along with the usual collections of books, it’s full of useful resources specific to the island, including some books written by Shaw islanders themselves. 

The Historical Society, housed on the same grounds in an old homesteaders cabin, if filled with island artifacts such as native arrowheads, old news clippings in binders, a globe from the (still functioning) two room school house, an antique tool set and black and white photographs of notable island residents of the past.  Like the library it is quite small, but I think it is a great resource for preserving the history of the island.

The next day was Friday, the day we do the Farm Stand in front of the General Store.  I woke at 6am and met Jon and Jenn in the garden to help harvest some fresh veggies to sell.  The tomatoes have been especially good this year and we had plenty to sell as well as to eat ourselves.

After cleaning, sorting and weighing everything we loaded up the truck and headed down to the store with the produce.  Some great looking veggies eh?

Friday mornings at the stand.  Because they weren’t selling produce before I left for Africa this was my first time at the stand.  Although it was a bit of a slow and rainy day, it was fun to sit at the stand and chat with people about the farm, the weather and island gossip.  It was a lot of fun, and it made it pretty clear just how small a community I’ve moved into, that’s for sure! 

I spent the bulk of the next day finally unpacking my car and all of my things, setting up my car port and a few hours picking invasive weeds.  At the moment I’m sleeping in a tent, but a small cabin is in the works and ought to be built soon.  

In the tent (which is almost big enough to stand in) I have a twin-size air bed, a camp chair, a plastic bin for books and tools and gadgets, a lamp and power a duffle bag for my clothes and a pile of various shoes.  

I am living a pretty simple life here, but it’s not exactly primitive living. We have to pump a bucket of water by hand from the well to flush the toilet, and we shower by heating a metal bucket of water over a propane burner, but we have everything and more we could need and those little things don’t bother me at all, it’s luxury compared to where I was in Africa!  We also have a trailer with a full kitchen and an existing small cabin that even has a TV (though no cable or even antenna right now).  The property is in a constant state of development and it’s a lot of fun to work on projects and make improvements.

With the day’s work done, I decided to take some cool pictures of my car on the meadow. 

That evening Kelty, another of my friends showed up.  Kelty has actually been living on the property over the summer and working on the island to the north.  He wanted a ride in the Bug, so we climbed in my car and went on a little joy ride as the sun was going down.

When not working, the porch of the trailer is the main place we tend to spend time up on the farm.  The trailer sits where the house will be built, overlooks the fields and serves as the primary kitchen up here.  It’s really lovely to sit on the chairs in the day watching the deer crossing the meadow and at night when you can hear the owls calling. 

Although it was only a few days into my new life on the island, it was clear that I was still living a sort of ‘time free’ lifestyle, which is exactly what I want.  I travel with no deadlines, no schedule and no real plan.  As a result, the time, the day of the week or even what month it is have little meaning.  Yes, things have a bit more structure up here as there is work to be done, but I get up in the morning, make breakfast, work on projects until I’m hungry again, eat something, then usually find more projects to do until it’s dinner time.  Then it gets dark, I go to bed and wake up to do it all over again.  The fact it’s a Tuesday, or that it’s 2:45pm have little relevance.  The afternoon’s project was to dig rocks out of the field before the ground is tilled to expand the gardens.  So I took off my shirt, put some punk rock on my MP3 player and dug rocks until the sun started going down, simple as that.

A baby snake I noticed while working in the meadow.

Nick and Ellen showed up after being away for a few days and we did a quick check of the garden together before heading back to their place.

Although we have a fair amount of space, noise is still an issue and we don’t want to bother the neighbours.  To try and satisfy my shooting hobby in a respectful manor, I left my real firearms in Seattle and bought a new air rifle and air pistol.  Over at Copper we set up a little shooting range and tried out my new airguns.

Dialing in the sights on fearsome paper targets!  While I have to admit shooting airguns isn’t nearly as satisfying as trap shooting with a 12-gauge or target shooting with an AR15, it sure is a whole lot quieter cheaper and still pretty dang fun.

The next morning; always work to be done in the garden.

After loading up the truck with airguns, chainsaws and fresh veggies, we headed back to the Copper property.  There are large parts of Nick and Ellen’s place I had yet to see, so Nick and I went out on a walk to see the area as well as to look for dead trees we could cut for firewood.  Boomer, their energetic and adventurous cat followed us the whole way.

Like the Ben Nevis side, the Copper property runs up to one of the highest hills on the island and is also gorgeous moss covered meadow of sorts.  As we walked, we discussed plans and ideas for the property and how it will be changing in the coming years. 

Back at the house, Ellen was trying out the new pressure caning system to preserve some of the farm vegetables for the winter.

Nick and I set out with the chainsaws and truck to collect firewood for the coming winter.  Ideally wood is cut the year before so it can have time to season (dry) before, but having just moved into the property that was not an option.  Instead, we had to go in search of dead trees that would be ready to burn.  Luckily there was a large dead cherry at one end of the meadow, and Nick and I went to work taking it down and cutting it into rounds for the fireplace.

Using my big saw.  Feels great to run a chainsaw again, it’s been a while!

Heidi, one of our island neighbors called asking if I wanted to go out on the reef-net fishing boat the next day and naturally I said yes.  I had no idea what I’d said yes to other than it would be net fishing to catch salmon, but I was certainly curious.  Buzz (left) picked Heidi, Ellen and I up on some rocks at the shore and drove us out towards the reef-net setup.

Coming up on the net, a perfect day to be on the water.

Traditionally, this kind of fishing was done by boat but this modern setup is done with two barges anchored to the sea floor.  Essentially the operation works by using a huge net as a funnel, directing the fish into the small end at the barges where they would be caught.  It is a method of fishing that has a very long history on Shaw and in the region; a replica boat even sits in front of the library and historical society, however this operation is the last of its kind here on Shaw so I was excited to learn about it.

This is the ‘working side’ of the reef net operation.  The observation towers are there for looking out for fish, however these days it’s all done with electronic fish finders.  On the far end of the barge, there is a low spot where the fish are collected.

Essentially you sit watching the fish finder screens, and when a group of fish is coming in at the right moment you turn on the winch, which closes them into a small net area between the two barges.

By pulling lines, you make the net smaller and smaller, and a weight is thrown into the water which creates a pocket in the net to further direct them where you want them to go.

The edge of the net is hooked onto pegs on the barge, and as you pull up the last of the net, the fish pour out around and between your legs as you stand on the edge, and slide past into the holding area which is another huge net attached to the barge in the water so the fish stay alive until they are picked up for processing.  Depending on how the fish are running, you can catch hundreds of fish at a time with this system.

It was a fairly slow day and we only pulled in net eight or ten times.  The rest of the day was spent keeping kelp, and basketball-size poisonous jelly fish out of the nets, watching the boats go by (including an entire house on a barge), talking fish and watching the screens.  Not a bad way to spend a day really.

For helping out, we each got to take two salmon, which were enjoyed at dinner that night.

That evening, Jonathan and Jenn arrived with a new truck, a quad cab F-350, what a beast!

The next day there was some business to take care of in Friday Harbor, a town on the neighboring island so we decided to make a day out of it and take ‘Toad’, Jons boat instead of going by ferry. 

It was another perfect day and even though all of us have spent plenty of time up here, we all still marvel at the often stupefying beauty of the place.

It took about an hour and a half, with the little 4hp boat, having a great time the whole way.  Upon arriving, we did the usual thing of cruising the docks looking at other peoples fancy boats, with every third boat Jon jumping in and saying “Oh, this is a great boat!” then giving the model and explaining its features. 

‘Toad’ is a boat Jon dug out of a dumpster and repaired; it was an old life boat and has now been transformed into this fantastic little craft.

In town everyone took care of business, registering the new truck, name changes after Ellen’s wedding, and I bought my fishing license. 

So yah, that was our view on the way home.  I think it’s easy to see why I love this place. 

I wonder if I’ll ever tire of taking pictures of the ferry boats….

Back on Shaw we tied up Toad and I noticed a little jelly fish in the water.  It had been a while since I’d used my camera underwater so I made sure the wrist strap was tight and took a few photos.

Home sweet home.  The lower pond in the afternoon sun. 

But out here we often work until dark because there is always ten things to work on at the same time.  This evening, Jon and I mixed up some concrete for a tool shed next to the garden.

Early morning work in the veggie garden.

Processing and recording the days take with Jenn and Ellen.

In the afternoon I went out with Kelty to walk the property and to search for dead trees we might be able to use for firewood.  The search was surprisingly unsuccessful but it was a lovely walk around the property. 

Without a doubt the farm is the kind of place that really brings people together.  It seems there is a constant flow of friends and family from the island, from other islands and from the mainland coming through to visit the place.  This weekend was no exception and there were a number of friends and family members up to visit which is always a lot of fun.

Summer was still in full effect, so to cool off a few of us jumped into the pond for a quick swim.

Badminton was setup (using tennis rackets, all we could find) while more and more people kept showing up.

By the evening we would up with a little party, Jay and Amy even brought what was left of the kegs from their wedding.

As usual a feast was thrown, including salmon, deer and veggies from the island.

Sitting by the ‘thermosphere’ that night, an outdoor fireplace on the property made of and old submarine defense buoy.

At work in the garden the next morning.

And starting to build the new tool shed.

Splitting wood (and separating it by type) with Nick that evening.

The next afternoon a few of us went out to drop the crab pots.  Seals are a fairly common sight out here, but today there seemed to be a lot more than usual, curious to see what we were doing out on the water.  (this is the best photo I could get with my little camera, sorry!)

Putting up the sail on the little boat.  It’s not what the boat is really for, but it does work and is kind of fun to play with.

Shaw Island crab, a lovely dinner.

Reading a book on the porch the next morning, watching the fog roll through the trees.  If I’m not working or sleeping, you can probably find me here, sitting in these chairs and looking out at this view.  One thing I’ve found living up here is that there are so many projects that need to be done you can easily work from sun up to sun down.  I don’t have any schedule, but I still find myself busy with projects to the point where it can even be hard to sit down with a book, or go for a run, or get some writing done.  It’s one of the many new skills I’ll need to learn to live up here successfully, but if that’s all I have to complain about I guess my life is pretty good.

So I’ve been back in America for less time than I was in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia or Tanzania as I spent between three and four months in each of those countries.  In a way, I suppose I can almost see my time here as just another leg of my great journey and as I think about it, I suppose it really is.  Life is one big adventure, if you are not having fun I think you are doing something wrong; am I right?  I think the photos probably speak for themselves, but my new home is everything I had hoped for and more.  Soon the rains will come and the sun won’t even rise above the trees for a few months.  It will be wet, cold and green, but I’m ready for it and I even look forward to it.  This is the part of the world where I come from and where I will always come back to. 

Since I stepped out and began traveling the world nearly three years ago, I’ve lived every single day truly free and on my own terms.  I’ve never been happier, I’ve never felt more fulfilled and although I can’t predict where I’m heading, it sure feels like I’m on the right path.