Creeping across the bow of what came to be known as “Bad Boat,” I discovered a thin sheet of ice had glazed the fiberglass while I was at a concert on Orcas. Not only was I was alone at the dock, on this November night; there was no one anywhere on the dark island that loomed up from the community dock. It was up to me.
Crossing the water, I had been blinded by the red and green running lights of the boat. Only when I switched them off could I see the silhouetted of the North Dock outlined against the black of the island. Only a few lights across the mile to Orcas hinted at any humanity anywhere.
With Bad Boat against the dock, I had cut the engine and grabbed the stern line before the boat slipped away in the current. The stern attached, I found there was no bow line to grab. It was hanging down into the icy water from the towing ring. Normally such lines are attached to side cleats. Bad Boat didn’t have a proper cleat in the proper place so the line was on the tow ring, right above the water on the stem. The line was now out of reach as the bow swung out into the current. The only way to tie off the boat was to crawl over the windshield, cross the curved deck, hang over the front, and fish the line out without slipping in myself.
“If you could see me now!” This thought was directed to my mother who had opposed my move to the island. Here I was, a fifty-five year old single woman, living on a non-ferry island. Knowing there was no one who would know if I slipped into the icy water I did it right. I retrieved the line, finished tying off the boat, and walked up the hill to my tiny cabin, the only soul on the island.
This island property had been mine for three years before I moved up. My introduction to the Islands had occurred when I came to study with Rex Brandt. Brandt is one of the deans of watercolor in the twentieth century. Hearing my stories, my students from Oregon started pestering me to teach them in the San Juans so I started teaching an outdoor watercolor class in the Islands each September. During those years, property prices kept climbing. Two hundred feet of waterfront on Orcas had been $30,000. By 1989 it was $200,000. That year, I decided that if I was ever going to own property in the San Juans, I was going to have to find a place soon! Oregon money was no match for the California money driving the prices up. My September watercolor class traveled with me for a day of painting on each of the ferry-served islands. But none of them seem right. I said to myself, “Well, you are a boat person. Why don’t you consider a non-ferry island?”
One day, we painted at Obstruction Pass on Orcas, using Obstruction Island as the backdrop for the boats at Lieber haven Marina. It was a happy day – a day of complete balance: good weather, good paintings, happy people, a cheerful coming and going of boat traffic to the county dock. That night, I spotted an ad for a property on Obstruction Island.
A month later when I saw it, I realized I had always had a place like this in my mind: facing the western island-dotted sea and sunset; tall, mature firs and cedars, mixed with golden big leaf maple, red-barked madronas; stately old-growth firs whose broken tops advertised them as perfect nesting places for bald eagles; handsome rocky cliffs, and my own 386 feet of (questionably accessible) waterfront. I’d take it!
Are you a romantic adventurer braving new frontiers when you move to an island that is only a mile away from another island where there are most of the comforts of civilization? I was just moving to where I was the happiest. Yet, my friends treated me either as a brave adventurer or someone who had lost her sanity.
My quick answer to why buy such a remote piece of land was, “Well, at worst it is a good investment.” After the first winter of owning it, my younger son came up with me to see the property. We rowed a small, borrowed inflatable across the water between Orcas and Obstruction, crossing on one slack tide and returning on the next. In between we thoroughly explored the new property and walked the 200-acre island. When we got back, my son said, “Mom, you have the best piece.” I thought so too. After that day, I knew – I didn’t know when, but I knew — I was moving up. Much like when you are sailing and change the point of sail — I was on my way to live on this island.