Jill Bliss

category: Island Stories [Weekly-ish]

blackandwhitesThe gull chorus outside clued me in that something was going on down on the water. Then I heard water flops. Cool, the resident sea lion must’ve caught another big one. I grabbed the SLR camera, threw on my shoes and ran down the trail to the cliff edge to have a closer look. Last time Mr. Sea Lion caught a fish I didn’t have the SLR, but this time I’d document it.

Peering over the edge, the water surface was empty. The gulls had moved on. Dang, had I missed my documentary chance again? Two black fins surfaced below, breathing low and deep. Those are some big porpoises! They submerged while two more surfaced: a large one and a little one, both with white saddle patches behind the black fin. Orcas! My first Orca sighting! I’d been reading about them, preparing for my upcoming Salish Sea Naturalist training, and now here they were in real life!

Three adults and two juveniles, all mammal-eating transients (which would explain the disappearance of my usual harbor seal friends that morning), moving through the channel below. Their appearance was early enough in the season – tax day – that there were no whale watching boats escorting them. It was just us. The group swam, frolicked, played. The adults demonstrated to the juveniles how to corral prey (in this exercise, fish) along the cliff and lunge. All the while I ran along the cliff edge, observing their behavior and alternatively clicking away with my camera when I’d remember it was there around my neck.

After 20 minutes, they began swimming faster than I could keep up with. I stopped running and watched them disappear down the channel. I carefully picked my way back home along the cliff, having no clue how I was able to run along the same path previously without plunging headlong down the cliff.

moviedate

A typical late winter day, we were working in the island library when Jane got a text message from her husband. Looking up from her phone Jane asks “Hey Jill, want to go see the latest teen movie?”

“Yeah, sure, when?”

“Um, now. Jake and the girls are driving here to come get us, then we’ll all hop in our boat and should get to the main island just in time to get tickets for the matinee showing.”

“I’m in!” I said just as the truck pulled up to the library with Jake behind the wheel and the three island teen girls huddled under a blanket in the open back. We put a closed sign on the library door, where we’d been working that day, locked the door behind us and hopped in the truck for a speedy ride down to the dock. Half an hour later we were on the more populous island – the one with actual shops and even a movie theater – movie tickets in hand and 20 minutes to kill before seating began.

All six of us scattered in different directions. The teens high-tailed it to the grocery store with their allowance to stock up on movie-watching candy supplies, dad went to the hardware store, mom who knows where… but I was perplexed on what to do. I’d just been here the week before for my monthly 6-hour marathon errand day/supply run. I was trying to think if there was something I’d forgotten and needed to buy on this unexpected trip to civilization. I settled on purchasing a cup of coffee and an uncharacteristically leisurely bench-sitting spell. Jane wandered by with her own cup of coffee, looking equally perplexed. We sat together not people-watching. In the summer this main street would be crawling with tourists, but now there wasn’t anyone to watch.

I don’t really remember the movie much now, but I do remember discussing it on the boat ride back, which was much chillier than the ride there. To make up for the discomfort, the low-slung sun sported a gorgeous halo, a sun dog, as our boat threaded its way through the islands, back to our island and the projects that had been interrupted by our movie-watching whim.

sailingtodo

I left the homestead through the back gate, latching it securely so that the deer and wolves wouldn’t invade the garden. Although my hikes were usually solitary, the cat with whom I shared my winter cabin had decided to come with me this time. We walked slowly along one of the trails snaking through the island peninsula, looking carefully at all the small natural details in the woods and on the carpeted moss forest floor. Well, I looked. I think the cat just followed my lead out of boredom or bemusement. I stopped and crouched to get a better look at a bright orange cluster of witches butter on a tree stump. The cat hopped on top of the stump, presumeably trying to get my full attention. Then the cat looked beyond my shoulder and suddenly stiffened and arched his back.

“HELLO!” a voice said behind me as I jumped nearly clear out of my skin. In all my months here, I had never encountered someone else. I turned around to see an actual person. “I didn’t want to startle you, so I thought I’d call out. I see it didn’t really work. Sorry to scare you.”

He asked and I told him who I was and what I was doing here and I did the same of him, as is the custom when meeting someone you don’t know on a sparsely populated island. He lived on a boat that he sailed farther north each summer to spend the season taking nature photos. In this off-season he anchored in the cove on the other side of the peninsula & mailed his photos to clients around the world. We parted company, he on his way to visit a friend that lived in the cabin at the tip of the peninsula, me dreaming about another possible way to live my life I hadn’t considered until 5 minutes ago. Sailing lessons went to the top of my life to-do list.

pinksunset

I hike out to the edge of the rocky outcropping, the one with the abandoned house. The one overlooking the bay, across to two, no, three, islands to the west. I’ve arrived for the Sunset Show. There is no wind to move through the dense forest of trees on this and the nearest island, no wind to whip up waves in ocean waters around me, or help the smattering of white fluffy clouds drift along above me in the sky. The sun sinks lower towards the horizon of the distant third island, the farthest westernmost landmass visible. The sky is it’s normal blue, then yellow, then orange, then pink as the sun disappears behind a bank of clouds hovering at the island horizon. The water surrounding my perch on the cliff rocks matches hues with the sky above through each color transition.

My immediate world of sky and water is suddenly cotton-candy pink, then fuchsia pink. Incredible. I hold my breath to capture, to remember this moment in time. The moment lasts longer than I anticipated, longer than I can actually hold my breath. I breathe out, I breathe in, I breathe normally. The pink still lingers.

The water around me reflects shades of gently-rippling fuchsia, lapping against the rose-tinged rocks and beach below, the sky is magenta with cotton-candy pink fluffy clouds. My eyes trace the magenta sky from the western horizon to above my head, looking for the demarcation line where the pink sky ends and the usual darkening blue sky begins. Still searching, I lean back. I lay down on the rocks. The sky is pink as far as my eye can see eastwards above the forest tree line behind me. Even there, the clouds are fluffy pink cotton candy tufts. Everything in the landscape – rocks, trees, moss, lichen, birds – looks as if contained behind a screen of rose-colored glasses.

How long did this rose-colored world last? I cannot give you a precise measurement. I gave in to the moment. I lay there, content, enjoying every detail as pink from the west slowly surrendered to indigo creeping in from the east. The landscape was a living changing watercolor painting and I was the only human observer. I stayed for the show well past dark, turning on my headlamp at last once I begun shivering from cold, to pick my way across the rocks and through the forest to my winter cabin.

cityforest

Asleep, I half-wake at the sound of quick footsteps and a snippet of drunken conversation on the city sidewalk outside my basement window apartment next to my bed. A car whizzes by which means it must be too early for other traffic, probably a cab. Not opening my eyes, I lay and listen to the pre-dawn city sounds.

The sound of clinking glass in a trashcan and squeaking wheels of a granny cart – someone is making the rounds and adding to their collection for the recycling center. I hear the tires and engines of more cars periodically whizzing by, their headlights coloring the insides of my eyelids, still closed. An owl hooting. A door down the street opens: music blaring, people spilling out into the sidewalk calling their goodbyes, laughing, talking too loudly. More quick footsteps and conversations past my window in both directions. Wind singing through the trees outside. A lone wolf howls. An exchange of cab honks from down the block, where this side street meets the main neighborhood boulevard. A chorus of wolves howl in response to the first one.

Wait. What? A wolf howl chorus in New York City?!
I open my eyes as the city sounds and the wolf chorus fades. Dark. Pitch dark, there is nothing to see. I hear wind gusts in tall trees outside. Where am I? I lay still, trying to listen, trying to see, trying to remember.

Ah. I’ve recently arrived to this cabin in the forest on a west coast island. Three thousand miles and fifteen years away from my college years in New York City, and several hundred miles and weeks away from my last city home.

13

Aurora

aurora01

A meteor traces down the bowl edges of the sky above, disrupting the otherwise perfectly still air. Wisps of clouds colored by the waning moon, which also creates shimmering highlights in the sea surrounding this peninsula on three sides. Movement 20 yards away from me captures my attention. Fox? Deer? Raccoon? Are there raccoon on this island? I can’t remember. I listen and look intently, just to the right and left of where I sense the sound. I can almost make out the moving forms in the moonlight. Or is it just rocks & wind rusting through the field? No, strangely, there’s otherwise no movement at all – something I’ve never before experienced in this usually windy area. Something large moves and I hear the sound of munching grass. Deer, then.

One jumps the low split rail zigzag pioneer fence in front of me, then another, then another. Three, then. All feeding on the dried grass of early fall that slopes gently towards the sea below. Oblivious to my presence. Another meteor shoots down the sky. Pretty, fleeting, but not the aurora borealis I dragged myself out of bed hoping to see.

Fully tuning to my surroundings, now I can hear the sound of crickets. The lighthouse on the southern point sends out it’s circles. Gentle lapping water on the shore below. Black oystercatchers and other birds I can’t identify periodically calling out to one another. Elephant seals growling to one another on the next island over. Sounds are able to travel much longer distances than usual tonight in this eery still air.

Another movement in the field. Black. Scurrying. Dog-like. Ah, that one’s a fox. He sees me & alters his course to investigate, making a large loop around me to stop within 5 feet on my left side. “Good evening Mr. Fox” I say out loud, just to see if he’ll react to my voice. He cocks his head to one side like a confused dog, but stands his ground. We stare at one another, both assessing this situation under the stars. Five minutes go by and then he’s bored.

aurora02

The inky black fox with a white-tipped tail leaps onto a corner of the grey moonlit fence in the lighter grey field. His iconic silhouette against the clear sky full of stars & silver moonlight that are reflected in the inkier water below. I’d add in a falling meteor or two also. As soon as I’ve composed the iconic art piece in my head to remember this night, he leaps down on the other side of the field and is gone.

laundryCamping on one of the big ferry-served islands for a week from my usual small off-grid island digs, I decided to treat myself and go to a laundromat instead of hand washing & line drying like I usually do. The closest one was the fancy marina.

Arriving, I strike up a jovial conversation with another woman already there about the awesomeness of clean clothes. Hey, yachties have to wash clothes also. She asks where I’m from. Hesitating and giggling a bit I tell her the scrappy off-grid island where I’ve been living for almost a year. She giggles and tells me she’s from the other scrappy off-grid island in the neighborhood. I introduce myself as one of the 5 Jills on the island of 80 people. She counters with her name and population of her island. “There’s 5 of us year-round. Oh wait, John and Monica just had their baby so now there’s 6.”

We talk of how we arrived on our perspective islands, of off-grid logistics, of boats and my inability to commit to one, and of people we know in common. Apparently two from my island visit her island pretty regularly. “Hitch a ride with one of them sometime and come have a beer” she says on her way out the door with her clean basket of clothes.

 

This is another edition of a weekly-ish series of [slightly edited] stories of my past years’ experiences working and living in the islands of BC and Washington.

laydeez

I’d arrived on the island just in time for the monthly Women’s Meeting. I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I was told it was potluck. I no longer recall what I made and brought. Heck, I don’t recall much past that moment when respectable conversation came to a halt as a few ladies swooped in carrying an ice chest between them, and a blender. Inside was ice, tequila, beer and, uh, some other stuff. Like I said, my memory is hazy. Guacamole. Chips. Chocolate cookies. View of boats.

This is another edition of a weekly-ish series of [slightly edited] stories of my past years’ experiences working and living in the islands of BC and Washington.

mainlandmechanic

Straight off the ferry to the mainland and before heading south for a month of city sales events, I decide to spend a day or two in the nearest city to take my Rosie-the-van to a city mechanic. There’s been a few weird sounds for a while now. I drop her off first thing in the morning. The mechanic takes a preliminary look and begins to ask me a few questions.

“Where have you been driving?! The underside is completely caked with layers of mud! I’ve never seen anything like it! And that sound is definitely something something serious-sounding.”

“Yeah, I thought it was bad. I’ve been living out in the islands. You know, mostly rough dirt roads. That’s exactly why I’m here today! I’ve had the van a year, and while I haven’t been negligent in caring for it, I suspect the island mechanics I’ve been taking her to every few months have been. And I’m going on a month-long trip down the coast and don’t want to end up stranded somewhere.”

“No, well, it’s definitely not fine. Where are you going on your trip?” I tell him the farthest city on my itinerary is 1200 miles south. “No. You won’t get there with the car in it’s present condition. Heck, I’m surprised you made it here today!”

“Well, the battery did die in the ferry line & I held up everyone until we could get it jump started. She’s been parked for a few months at a friends place on a ferry-served island while I was at my place on a smaller island without ferry service.”

“Wait, what? So this isn’t your van?”

“Oh no, it’s my van. i just can’t get it to my island, so I park it at my friends’ place. It’s my city van.”

“Huh. Well how do you get around your island then? And how do you even get to your island? Do you have a boat? How many other people live there? Are there shops? Sorry for all the questions, I don’t mean to be nosy. I’m just curious!”

“No worries, I get it all the time! I have a beater car there, but it’s mainly used to haul things. The island’s small enough to walk the trails everywhere I need to go. I think there’s about 80 people there full time, I’m not really sure. I’ve only been there a few months so far and haven’t met everyone yet. I don’t have a boat yet, but other people on the island do. There’s almost always someone with a boat coming and going to hitch a ride with. No, there’re no shops, but there are a few honor farmer stands. And a post office.”

“Huh.” He pulls out his computer to input my information into the system. “Address?” I give him my PO Box. “No, your physical street address.”

I laugh a little. “The island doesn’t bother with street names or house addresses. Everyone just has a box at the Post Office down by the dock for their mail. If you absolutely need to have a street name, you can make one up. Just use my PO Box number as the house number so that if you send me a bill it’ll make it to the right box in the PO!”

He laughs and shakes his head. “You sure do have an interesting life!”

“It’s true. I do!”

“Wait, so what do you do for a living out there on your island? I didn’t even ask that earlier!”

“I’m an artist.”

“Well, of course you are!”

This is another edition of a weekly-ish series of [slightly edited] stories taken from my travel journals from this past years’ sabbatical in the islands of BC and Washington.

drivingdirections01
Emailed directions to Lauren and John’s place:

After getting off the ferry, take the immediate right. The road skirts along the water, and sometimes, it’s only a one-lane road because the cliff is eroding and the county hasn’t gotten around to fixing it. Don’t worry, there’s not much traffic so you won’t run into anyone. Follow that road around until it heads inland. There’ll be a fork in the road, choose “up.”

We’re at the top of the mountain, so whenever you come to a fork, always choose “up.” After the third fork, you’ll see a private road marked “Hilltop Drive.” Take that. Our driveway is the first one, the one with the “Watch for pigs & dogs” sign. You can park at the base of the hill next to the boat and pig yard, or drive further up to the house.

See you soon!