Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Though we were doing OK on the island, I looked forward to the days when I could go to town. I left the kid and my husband at his parents’ house, ran to my apartment, and shut the door behind me with a sigh of relief. My cashmere blazers were still in the closet, my all-natural toothpaste by the sink, my herbal shampoo in the shower. I had DSL. I could walk to the coffee shop, people watch and window shop. I was within walking distance of three grocery stores filled with whatever I wanted to eat. I could go to dance class, work out at the club. It was great, but I started to miss the clean air and wide-open spaces on the island.

Susie Homemaker

Back on the island, I kept careful watch over how much food we had in the pantry and the frig, measuring against when we would have to go to town, watching the weather. Finances dictated that could get to town once a month in the winter, every couple of weeks in the summer. At least I wasn’t in Alaska, getting supplies in September that had to last until June.

I wasn’t unhappy in my role as Susie-frickin’-homemaker, but I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy either. I certainly had plenty to do. Cook, do the dishes, do the laundry, hang laundry over wood stove, haul wood, chop wood, stack wood, bring wood into the house, sleep: repeat.

My childhood friends took every opportunity to tease me about being back out in the sticks. I was fair game, having made such a big deal about getting out and to the city and never, ever coming back. I wasn’t going to get married again, I was never going to have kids, and heaven knows, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s stepmother.

But I got lucky. The kid was cool, we all worked hard at adapting and the hardest thing I had to do was grin when my friends kept teasing me.

Living in the Dancehall

Kristi and I had both moved to dark, 100-year-old buildings. She had a log cabin and I had a mess hall with a dancehall upstairs. It was meant to be a temporary structure, built quickly of local cedar. It’s long and skinny and a great mess hall, but a rather inefficient dwelling. While Kristi struggled with soot, and dingy walls. I had to deal with one layer of rough cedar planks between me and the outside. Snow blows in through the cracks in the walls but mice don’t bother with us. They’d rather live in the woodpile, where it’s probably warmer.

The dancehall has been repaired, re-roofed and shored up many times over the years, but is almost impossible to insulate. (Imagine building a house and waiting 80 years to insulate it.) When the wind is blowing hard from the wrong direction it blows the wood smoke right back down the chimney. The windows rattle and lace curtains flutter. The lace curtains look lovely, but are of no use in the winter.

A blazing fire in the woodstove will raise the temperature in the main room to 60 degrees—if we hang curtains in all the doorways—but the rest of the building will be whatever temperature it is outside. On the coldest days of the year the kid’s bedroom in the back of the house was impossible to heat and I had to make up a bed for her by the woodstove.

Still, in a world of cookie-cutter houses, it’s an original.

Garden in Bondage

A friend emailed me about the wonderful produce he was getting from a local CSA for just $25.00. What I wouldn’t give to have someone deliver fabulous produce to my door! I support the idea of CSAs and would happily subscribe to one. Ah, but once again, we’re just a little too far off the beaten path to make this idea work.

Most of us have gardens. There are community gardens, backyard gardens, container gardens. There are some lovely microclimates on the island—and ours happens to be more like southern Alaska than anything else. Everything I grow has to grow fast and be cold hardy.

At least I’m not trying to garden over permafrost although my “soil”, such as it is, is four inches of topsoil and sand over what feels like 100 miles of gumbo clay. Regular carrots grow straight down for 4 inches and then turn right or left when they hit the clay. (I’ve learned to grow short carrots.)

I no longer try to raise plants that can’t survive in snow and/or mud during the winter or dry soil during the summer. Over the years, my garden has filled with stubborn plants—the lettuce will grow when it’s snowing, the snow peas will sprout in January and I can’t kill the kale.

My garden is surrounded by a deer-and-rabbit-proof fence. The strawberries are under bird netting. The towhees, sparrows and robins will eat seeds and seedlings. Anything I try to grow (with the exception of plants in the Allium family) has to be under thermal plastic or floating row cover until its big enough to survive. Everything is tied up, tied down, on a trellis, or under netting or plastic: a garden in bondage.

One Room School

How many kids today can say that they went to a one-room school?

When we came to the island we brought a student for the one-room school. The school always seems to be on the verge of closing because there aren’t enough students, and bringing in a student to support the school was good for the community.

The K-8 school is among the last of the “small but necessary” schools in Washington State. There are seldom more two, three, four or five students and the school and the teacher serve as the social hub for the island community.

Lucky for us, the kid is adaptable and independent. She meshed with her new island life and the school quickly. And although the five girls in the school regularly formed different cliques (three against two, four against one, two against two with one standing out) they generally got along quite well. They slept over at each other’s houses almost weekly, rotating through our place every three weeks or so.

There are lots of adult eyes to watch the young kids on the island. Almost nothing they do goes unnoticed and the adults are quick to correct the kids if they step out of line. The “takes a village” stuff is true, but also frustrating if you’re a kid.

Staying Afloat

I was lucky enough to have several freelance projects to work on when we first came here–one with Kristi. I was able to keep going as a curriculum writer, sending in my work via a slow and cranky dial-up connection. (We have DSL now.) When the freelance work dried up, I cleaned houses. Between my little bit of income, a small but steady paycheck from my husband and our savings, we keep going. But barely. I think we fall somewhere far under “migrant worker” in annual income.

We have no health insurance. Sorry, eating comes first. Our healthcare plan is not to get sick.

One of us would have to leave the island in order to make a decent living. Most of the long-time residents have done just that: working on other islands, or in town, working four days on and three days off, keeping a motor home or apartment in town or commuting by boat and water taxi. Many who live on the island are retired, living on pensions. Others keep going by fishing in Alaska in the summer and crabbing in the fall and spring.

I never thought I’d dream about the days when I went to work, punched the clock and collected a paycheck. As Kristi says, it’s complicated to live a simple life.

Being an Artist

I signed up for a printing workshop. We were introducing ourselves when I blurted out: “Well, I moved to an island with no ferry service, so I guess I can spend the next few years being an artist.”

Well now.

I dug out my camera and decided to do something…anything to remind myself that I could still…still what? Be a photographer. An artist.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, put that camera to work. Gotta be some great shots around that island of yours. I've got tons of fire wood, but the logistics of getting it to you from Texas would be a little iffy.