Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Settling into Island Life

So here it is, March of 2014 (it's been ages since my last post, I know). As I write this it's been a full 8 months to the day since I returned home from my trip across Africa and although what I did over those 18 months will forever be a part of me, the simple truth is that these days it barely crosses my mind. I don't know if “I've moved on” is the right way to put it, and such a simple statement could never encompass the nuances of such a drastic change in my lifestyle or mental state, but I suppose it all points in one direction; that the transition to my new reality is complete and remarkably satisfying.

In my last post I was only just moving to Shaw Island, the tiny place I now call home. Back then the sun was shining, my friends and I were out fishing and swimming, I was excited but a little unsure of the whole thing and I still lived in a tent. In contrast, recently it's been snowing, we've been ice skating on the ponds, I've lived here for months, feel totally settled and have a tiny cabin, 83 square feet (7.7 square meters), to live in. Just a few days back we put the first seeds in the ground for the farm and the upcoming growing season, we have a tractor, new dump truck and new boat on the property. Things are happening and happening fast. The last six months seem to have gone by so fast it all feels like a blur, and it's hard to imagine the next six months feeling any different. I've got a smile on my face and looking forward to the ride.

With all that said I've got a lot of catching up to do (this post covers September through November), so it's time to share what I've actually been up to over the past few months.

Although I could never say it about my time in Africa, currently most days follow a familiar pattern; the same as most peoples lives I suppose. I wake up in the morning, put on my work clothes that are usually already dirty, make breakfast and start on the endless list of projects that surround me and the friends I live with. On this particular morning my first task was to split wood since that is how we do all of our heating and will need plenty to make it through the winter comfortably. Before I could do that however, I had to stop by the bench grinder and put a new edge on my splitting maul, then it was time to get swinging.

I have to say, even though we recently got a hydraulic wood splitter and it is a huge time and energy saver, I do love hand splitting wood. And yes, I have a lot of fun with it.

Living on an island, especially one as small as Shaw (7.7 square miles / about 20 sq km) means boat travel is a necessity. Shaw is the smallest of the San Juan islands that is covered by the Washington State Ferry system, and the classic white and green boats are the lifeblood of the community. Even though I've been on the ferries countless times, I never get tired of the views they provide, even on grey days. On this particular day, I was heading to Orcas Island just to the north to visit a friend who lives in the town of Eastsound, and had to change out of my dirty work clothes into my clean 'city clothes', haha.

I'd rather go to a shop like this and ogle tractors and chainsaws than visit the mall to wander endless isles of big screen TVs and clothes.

Of course the biggest reason I came to the island was to help my good friends Nick, Jon, Ellen and Jenn get Ben Nevis Farm off the ground. We are still very much in the 'humble beginnings' phase, but walking through a garden full of delicious organic food sure is satisfying. Here is Nick with a bundle of carrots, just plucked from the soil.

Living out here one of the major lifestyle changes we are all dealing with is becoming more self sufficient. While I can't say we will ever be independent of the outside world, nor is that even a goal of ours, we are pushed both by curiosity and necessity to do so much more for ourselves than we ever would living on the mainland or an urban environment. On some days that means learning how to repair small engines or plant a certain crop, on other days it means reading about drainage ditches and forest management. On this particular day, it meant finally learning to change the brakes on my VW, and this kind of variety and opportunity for growth is one of the most intrinsically satisfying aspects of living here.

During the growing season we meet in the garden many mornings to harvest, and each time wind up with more tomatoes than we know what to do with!

Another beautiful day on Ben Nevis Farm. It may not be waterfront property, but I don't think I'd trade it for anything else.

Although the sun was still shining most days in September, on this day it actually got pretty cool out I had to put on warm clothes for the first time. This hat and jacket always bring me back to my travels in Asia, because during my six month trip in that part of the world I originally had NO warm clothes with me, as I simply didn't need them. By the time I got to the north of India and was about to do a ski trip in the Indian Himalayas I quickly realized I needed some more gear and bought the rabbit fur hat, then wound up with the down jacket in Kathmandu in preparation for my hike to the base camp of Mt Everest. Both lovely trips I might add.

One of the best parts about the property here is that part of it sits at the highest part of the island. While the views from the top are naturally fantastic, my favorite part about it is the moss. The entire top of the hill is completely blanketed by a thick layer of moss and while I know very little on the subject, up here you can pick a single square foot of ground and probably find 3-5 different species of moss residing there. I always walk with great care so as not to tear it up, and when I look close it always feels like a miniature forest.

Jon, Ellen and Jenn in the garden for our regular harvest.

As I mentioned earlier boating is a way of life and the water holds its own bounty. On this day a few of us went out into Blind Bay to drop crab pots for dinner.

Developing a piece of land takes a fair amount of equipment as well as plain old hard work. To help with the process Jon is constantly looking out for good deals on vehicles and gear, this time coming home with a 1969 Ford F600 dump truck! It's a bit old and temperamental, but it's a hell of a tool to have around for transporting compost, building roads and moving logs or other materials.

The sun doesn't shine every day, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, so good rain gear is a must.

As I said earlier we constantly had an abundance of tomatoes and to minimize waste, it is always a game finding new uses for them. On this particular rainy day Ellen and Jenn were turning some of them into roasted tomato sauce.

Nick and Jon running the farm stand in front of the General Store at the ferry dock. This is our primary source of farm income as well as the best way to interact with the community. This upcoming season we will have CSA boxes for the island as well as other expansions, so that is pretty exciting.

Towards the end of September my parents Don and Chris came out for a visit. Although the sun was out both before and after their visit but not during it, they still had a great time and it was fun to share a bit about my new life with them.

A serious haul of crab for dinner. Since we grow a good amount of our own food we discuss it quite often. One thing we all agree on is that when we put together the veggies we grow, the deer we take and the salmon and crab we catch, without a doubt we eat much better than any of us ever did back in the city.

Back in the garden.

Because all of us heat with firewood, felling trees, bucking up the wood and splitting it into burnable pieces is a critical task. Luckily I've worked climbing and cutting trees for years, have a good collection of chainsaws (four at the moment!) and enjoy the work.

I love being outdoors and it's rare for a day to go by that I don't spend the bulk the daylight hours outside. This puts me in contact with the natural world on a level I've seldom experienced before (at least for such an extended period) and it's great to watch the seasons change around you. This fall has been an excellent year for mushrooms and I really enjoy seeing the tremendous variety of fungus that appears across the property, often overnight.

Being the tree guy here, when something big needs to be taken care of that task falls to me. This particular fir was standing right next to one of our structures, and it's removal was necessary for safety reasons and to build more covered work space. Using spikes on my feet, a climbing harness and my one-handed chainsaw I remove all the branches on the way up and toss them down, then cut the wood and send that down next. In this photo you can see me standing on the stick at about 90 feet. As I took the wood down to the bend about half way to the ground, I discovered a crack in this tree that was right over the building, so yah, it was VERY good to remove it.

Like the Jimi Hendrix album, here are the First Rays of the New Rising Sun over the lower pond..

We enjoy hosting events on the property for our friends, and this is our annual 'Medieval Feast.' Essentially it's a medieval costume party where we play 'games of strength and skill' and cook up a tremendous amount of food. This is the log-toss, which if I remember correctly my friend Brendan won for the second year.

Another game, this one is all about trying to pull the other person off their log without falling off your own.

Let the feast begin!

Whenever we have a bunch of guests on the property it's hard not to see them as a source of free labor, haha. Or maybe that's just the price of entrance. Either way, the next morning after the feast we set people to work picking rocks out of the garlic field.

By early October the tomatoes were pretty much done, so it was time to pull them and prep the bed for the next crop.

Fall colors start to appear on the treeline. Speaking of being closer to nature, I love watching the upper pond from my place and besides the usual ducks and frogs, a while back I got to see a bald eagle standing on the rock and drinking out of the pond.

Speaking of watching birds, we call the bird feeders our TV. It's great fun to watch the numbers and types of birds change throughout the weeks and months.

Not all gardening has to happen in the spring, so it was time to plant some broccoli in the beds to over-winter.

Food still coming out of the garden.

Back on the other property where we have the greenhouse I do a lot of work with Nick and Ellen as well. This property is an old island homestead and as we were cleaning up and prepping the old garden we found a lot of snakes, shrews and other critters in the area.

Yep, I'm up in the trees again. This was at Copper, Nick and Ellen’s, and I've been going through all the trees around the house and other structures pruning for health and safety. I have to say, I started out doing tree care in Seattle and I never thought it would be such an applicable skill later in life!

I've mentioned it before but after spending so much time traveling the world, moving around and constantly meeting new people, by living on Shaw my world has gotten very small. I spend nearly all my time between my friends two 20-acre properties that sit 3 minutes apart, I seldom leave the island and I almost never go to the mainland. On an average day I only even SEE between two and five different people and on a big day I'll see maybe ten people, which almost always consists of our friend-group on island. Although that may sound very isolating to some people, for me it's rather enjoyable these days.

Maybe I'm just taking a break and recuperating my social energy but whatever the reason, the fact remains that on an island with around 160 year round residents and only a handful my age, without going off-island opportunities to socialize are very limited. That said, there actually are a few events that happen on Shaw, and on one particular evening there was a band called Birds of Chicago playing at the community center. They had a sort of indie/folk/rock/world music vibe and were quite enjoyable, but what actually struck me about the evening was the amount of people! I'm not exactly sure how many people the community center holds, but it was fairly full, maybe 100 people or so, and I could hardly remember the last time I'd even seen that many people in a day, much less in one place!

In other news, I will be giving my own talk on my time in Africa at the community center in a few days, so that should be fun!

After all this talk about how I rarely leave the island, a few days later.... I left the island, to see my family in Seattle. I drove my Bug onto the ferry, looked across the water at the Orcas Island landing and headed east towards Anacortes and the mainland for the first time in more than two months.

I'd returned to Seattle for a few reasons, but one was to see my sister Holly. She lives in Alaska and this was actually the first time since I'd left for Africa that I'd had a chance to see her, meaning it had been almost two years! She actually just finished ski racing in Russia at her second Olympic Games and as we talked about what was at that time an upcoming event, we had a lovely walk in Seattle’s Arboretum with my parents Don and Chris.

My visit to Seattle lasted nearly two weeks, but after all that I was ready to return home to Shaw. I packed my VW to the brim, drove up Whidby Island again and on yet another gorgeous day took the ferry boat from Anacortes back into the islands.

The ferry dock at Shaw.

As I pulled into the meadow I looked across to the far treeline, saw Jenn and Jon were out spreading compost on the garlic patch and drove over to say hello. Garlic is our biggest crop and seeing as we planted it way back in early November I suppose I may as well give an update here: It's looking fantastic. We have a few varieties in the ground, the soil is looking great and everything looks hearty and uniform. It will be quite some time before we pull it out of the ground, but it's pretty cool to watch it grow and we are all excited to see the results of our labor.

Being the end of October at this point it was time to get ready for Halloween and we had quite a show to put on. First things first, it was time to do wardrobe and makeup at our friends Jay (right) and Amy's place

Due to the layout and realities of life on Shaw, trick-or-treating takes a different form than it does in the city. Rather than wander around the island driving up long unmarked driveways only to find it's a summer home and no one is around, trick-or-treating takes the form of what we call 'Trunk-or-Treat' (named after doing it out of the trunk of a car instead of widely dispersed homes). The way it works is that groups take on one of the camp sites at South Beach, the public campground on the south side of the island, decorate it and pass out candy to the children as they come by. Our theme was 'sailors and sirens', which took the form of dragging an old, moss-covered boat to the campsite, having the girls dress up as sirens to entice the children in for candy and the guys to be the dead sailors who passed out the candy. Justin, Nick, Jay, Jon, Shaun and myself were the sailors and thanks to Jay's idea I put a rope into the tree, strapped into my climbing harness and would drop out of the tree and swing out at the kids as they came up to our site. Among the children at least, it was the talk of the island for a few days and we all had a lot of fun.

With the excitement of Halloween behind us it was time to get back to work, but before that I had plenty of new fungus growing around the property to admire!

As I mentioned earlier one of the things all of us have been working on is learning new skills and today's project was brewing our own mead for the first time. I'm happy to say it turned out delicious.

Having spread the last of the seasons compost a week or so prior, it was time to build rows and get the garlic in the ground. The sun was shining and thanks to Jon's homemade garlic planting and spacing tool the job was surprisingly easy.

Way back then I was still living in my tent (a situation which lasted a full six months!) and with a window of good weather it was time to remove the rain-fly and do a major clean. With the tarp I'd hung over the area earlier I was able to stay pretty clean and dry, but it was time to let it breathe, empty it, organize it and put it all back together. Looking back my life has certainly improved now that I actually have a roof over my head, but honestly, living in a tent was really not so bad!

Along with growing our own vegetables for eating, a new way to provide meat/protein for ourselves has become deer hunting. I know a lot of people still question the practice, but let me tell you, once you learn to hunt, clean and butcher your own animals you come away with a great deal more respect for animals than you do buying factory-meat at the supermarket. We lacked the knowledge to save and preserve the hides this season but next year we will fix that, all meat is eaten by us (which has lead to learning sausage-making) and all scraps are eaten by insects, ravens, eagles and whatever else happens to find the piles we set out. No waste.

Without intentionally doing so, the girls (Elle, Jenn and Sophie) were inside prepping dinner while us guys (Nick, Brendan and myself) were outside building a roof over the new compost station. That said, while I love running chainsaws and moving stones, I'm excellent at cleaning up and washing dishes!

Community is critical to good living, and we all love having friends both from the islands and from Seattle or beyond over for meals. This was a deer themed dinner, with smoked deer ribs and a lovely venison casserole.

Brendan, one of my good friends since I was about 13 and a regular visitor to Shaw is looking at moving up here and has recently been looking for housing on the island. There is a property on the same loop me and many of my friends live on that is a rental possibility, so one morning he was around we decided to take a walk and check it out. The house itself is OK, but more interesting is the 'fire station' near by that houses a fully loaded water truck to be used by the volunteer fire department in the event of a fire on the island. Small communities, I love it.

The next day I actually headed back to the mainland and Seattle again, a journey that took me across the Deception Pass bridge to Whidby Island and eventually back to 'town' (Seattle). These bridges over a small linkage in Puget Sound are both beautiful and dramatic, are well worth the stop to enjoy and are a feature I was lucky enough to travel under on a sailboat just a few days ago.

Along with another family visit and more work in Seattle, the main reason I returned to town was to go on a road-trip down to Oregon with another good friend, Dan. It had been a while since we've had some solid time to spend together and it was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect a bit.

Along with the relaxed nature of Eugene, Oregon and the surrounding area, we got a small glimpse of the fragility of all of our situations on this world. This part of Oregon we visited had experienced a series of forest fires a few months back which had come within about 20 feet (7 meters) of the house. I spoke earlier about living close to nature, and something like this is a pretty strong reminder than no matter how people try to isolate themselves from the realities of the environment we live in, in the end the earth's ecosystem is a larger and more powerful than anything humans will ever be able to create. Sure we can adapt and humanity always will, I have faith in that much, but to live either ignorant or arrogant of the world we live on is a mistake we ought to make more of an effort to avoid. Anyways, the journey to Oregon was a short but satisfying one, but it was time to return to Seattle and eventually back home to the island.

My return to Seattle was uneventful, but I did get a chance to help move some items into my grandmothers new apartment and check out her wonderful view over the city.

Even though I spent most of my life in Seattle and it will always feel it is my original home, at this point the city feels pretty overwhelming to me. I suppose this all comes back to what I wrote at the beginning of the post, about how I've fully transitioned to the island life. I don't want to make any absolute statements here, but I'm not sure I'll ever feel like I really belong in a city again. Life on the road during my travels has been one of almost total freedom, and while I have my share of responsibilities here on Shaw, a big reason I am here is because it provides a level of freedom I feel I could experience few other places in the world.

Although I expect my future holds many more adventures, for now Shaw Island feels like home and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.


So that's the update for the moment, I may not have a real internet connection where I live, or even running water at this point (!), but I do intend to be better about keeping up the blog in the coming months. The next post will give an overview of the progress we have made on both the Copper and Ben Nevis properties, the construction of my tiny cabin, winter on the island and much more. Looking farther into the future I don't have a great deal of plans, but the spring ought to be an exciting time here on Shaw and come May I'll will be doing a 4,000+ mile roadtrip in my 1970 VW with my friend Stephan, who I met while he was driving his 1974 VW across Africa! That ought to be an awesome trip, so stay tuned!