ISLAND-HOPPING IN THE SALISH SEA (September 7, 2022)
Nancy and I dedicated August to our summer vacation. The plan was to get away from the San Francisco Bay Area during the worst of the summer heatwave. With hindsight, that timetable clearly needed recalibration!
We drove up and back to Washington State’s Puget Sound. (This crowded waterway is in the process of being rebranded as the Salish Sea, in belated recognition of a once locally prominent Native American tribe.) There we boarded a fleet of ferries that carried us through a series of week-long vacation rentals in the San Juan Islands.
In this post, I’d like to share with you some encounters and impressions that made this Northwest expedition so refreshing.
Passing the Ball
From the rear balcony of our Anacortes motel room, the docking ferries dominate the skyline. But directly below us, in the foreground, a 50-yard-wide green lawn invites occupation by guests and pets.
Before sunset, soon after our arrival, an animated family steps onto the grass. No tank tops or gym shorts — definitely foreigners. Strong genes and facial resemblances sort the individuals into two shapes and sizes. Compact, fair-skinned Slavs include a handsome woman in her mid-30s, her 60ish parents and her pre-school son. Rounding out the sextet are the woman’s tall and lean, black-haired husband, perhaps Balkan, with his lookalike six- or seven-year-old daughter. The jolly travelers joke and stretch, perhaps working out kinks from a day on the road or the waves.
Like a magician, Grandfather produces a soccer ball from behind his back. Toes aligned along an imaginary sideline, he lofts the sphere down the field with a two-handed, overhead toss. The game is on.
Mom sets off like a streak, overtakes the rolling ball in four strides and back-heels it to her grinning husband. He blocks it with his chest, rests it momentarily on shoe-top, bounces the ball on a ready knee and drives it down the ad hoc pitch. This couple may no longer be earning bonuses in European elimination matches, but they are clearly no amateurs.
I’m ready to applaud with beer in hand. But that was only the preview. The next generation takes the exhibition to another level. The slim six-year-old overtakes her mom, filches the ball without looking down, turns and dribbles with both feet, taunting with glee.
Grandmother waddles forward with purpose, decades past her prime but still no slouch, feinting, then stealing the ball from her distracted granddaughter. The entire squad moves in unison. Watching, sensing.
Only the grandson isn’t remotely interested. He kneels by the lawn-bordering hedge and plucks at some critter beneath the plants. His dad approaches, again with the ball. Bending from the waist, he speaks softly to his son, inviting him to join the round-robin. No sale. There’s a disconnect, a resistance, discernible from 100 feet away.
Granddad changes the subject, picks up the boy and spins him like a carousel from extended arms. Dearly beloved, on or off the pitch.
Raven Turns the Table
Nancy and I had no agenda; we were just wandering through Friday Harbor shops, getting acquainted with downtown. Arctic Raven Gallery was a cut above the competition, displaying bold specimens of Northwest Coast indigenous art. Red-cedar sculptures, painted canoe paddles, ceremonial masks, paintings and prints. Red and black were the dominant colors, the designs blending realistic animal images with stylistic symbolism. To my surprise, my eye was lured past the prismatic intensity to a relatively muted note card.
In the right foreground, a profiled raven pointed a wing over a sheet of drawing paper, tracing a swirling sketch of his own stylized image. In the distance, through a cloak of fog, a historic photo of a Haida Gwaii village featured raven sentinels. The artist’s signature was understated: Marvin Oliver. The composition’s title printed on the back of the card added wit and resonance: “Raven sketching a portrait of himself in the Northwest Coast style.” Delighted by the juxtapositions, I purchased a copy of the card and soon ventured a rolling Google search.
I’ve been fascinated by Northwest Coast art and culture since at least 1965, when an architect friend and I visited artisan enclaves on the northern rim of Washington’s Olympic peninsula. Decades later, Nancy and I marveled at the stunning First Nations collections in Vancouver and Victoria museums. The tribes that once occupied coastal inlets from Washington to Alaska attracted me as savvy survivors, harvesting sea and land resources without depleting precious stocks. Their artistic imagery and communal architecture – including 120-foot longhouses, massive carved doors and high-prowed seagoing canoes – spoke to me with evocative power, somehow sparking Polynesian comparisons.
The raven is arguably the most powerful mystical force in the Northwest Coast pantheon. Raven is inventive, intelligent, a mimic and mischievous trickster, but equally a transformative teacher. Raven traverses the spiritual and tangible worlds, shape-shifting in and out of human form. More spirit than god, Raven symbolizes the complexity of nature and subtlety of truth. Never a mere mascot, he influences and intervenes. His exploits are recounted and interpreted around clan campfires on winter nights.
My research revealed that Marvin Oliver was a respected role-model and mentor: as creative artist, long-time University of Washington professor and Native-American political activist. My near-contemporary, Oliver was born in 1946 and died in 2019. Drawing on his Quinault and Pueblo heritage, he took inspiration from the rich array of Northwest Coast traditions, from Haida to Salish. He produced memorable works in blown glass, cast bronze and carved wood. His large installations were commissioned for public spaces in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and foreign sites as distant as Perugia, Italy. I reached out to his widow, Brigette Ellis, herself an honored tribal elder and founder/proprietor of Ketchikan’s leading indigenous art gallery. She graciously gave me permission to reproduce his note-card design in this post.
I’m intrigued by this composition’s possible messages and meanings. First, the playful riff on an artist’s conventional self-portrait. Nudging the human aside, the raven traces an avian likeness. The model turns the tables. “I can paint myself,” the substitute artist declares. “Even left-handed!”
But genre-parody can’t be the whole story. This raven is no Disney cartoon. Its profile is solid, dominating, and representational. Maybe this is Raven – not an individual bird but the human artist’s muse, his guiding spirit. This cross-species connection is supported by the sepia image of the Haida Gawaii village, where ravens defended humans.
Perhaps Oliver is implicitly laying claim to an endorsement of his own art by his mystical mentor. The substitution may signal influence, inspiration, even possession. Or perhaps what’s being validated is the Northwest Coast stylistic iconography.
I keep revisiting this beguiling composition. Mystery and magic in an art-gallery note-card.
An Asian Import
Many vacation accommodations are utilitarian sleep-stations: roadside hotel rooms, even rental-house basecamps. It’s an exceptional treat when internet-booked lodgings become a highlight of the away experience.
Our Orcas dwelling turned out to be a modern Japanese house tucked in the island’s southeast Olga region. Since our first, independent visits to Japan in the 1960s, Nancy and I have deeply admired Japanese architecture and residential aesthetics – restrained forms and palettes, natural materials and lighting, multipurpose furnishings, ingenious partitions separating public from personal living spaces, calming suites of domestic privacy. Here was a structure for experiencing these admired values within the United States.
On first viewing, the house was a dark gray, two-storied cube deposited in a meadow, its entire focus and glass-walled façade oriented towards southern cliffs and the inland sea. To the west and behind but blocked by the cube’s solid walls were diverse neighboring houses. To the east, a dense second-growth forest of Douglas fir and Lodgepole pine. Bordering a gravel path to the tomato-red front door were beds of lavender, rosemary, rhododendron and bamboo.
Inside, beyond a traditional entryway for taking off shoes, the living-room atrium rose two stories, all directed to the glass wall, front deck and shorefront vista. The ground floor’s back half was allocated to a horizontal row of bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The second floor, accessed by a dramatic stairway above the entry space, was the master-bedroom loft, spanning the width of the interior. Adding together the areas of the 30×30-foot ground floor and 15×30 second-floor platform, the cube’s trim living space totaled 1,350 square feet. With the vertical sweep, it felt much bigger.
Floors were blond, simple furniture mostly black, natural light pouring in. A relaxed blend of Eastern and Western accents was illustrated by the towering exhaust pipe of a Scandinavian stove, shoji screens blocking the kitchen’s recycling bins and an antique Japanese cupboard housing the living-room TV. (As an index of our weeklong serenity, we never turned it on.)
We enjoyed browsing in the mini-library devoted to small-house and East-Asian design. One delightful component of this compact residence’s configuration was the Japanese bathing complex: a shower space with stools for soaping and rinsing, a deep soaking tub, and an enchanting miniature garden with privacy fence to inspire bathing meditation.
I wondered how the owners of this iconoclastic rental house got along with their chockablock neighbors. One nearby resident shared with me the intervention that had sealed neighborhood harmony. An ambitious but insensitive developer had proposed to erect a McMansion in the common meadow cherished by all four neighboring couples. When the purchase fell through, the neighbors pooled financial resources to buy and preserve the commons. Now they contentedly rotate responsibilities for mowing and weeding.
Environmental pressures will not so easily be held at bay. On the hottest days, the chronic Northwest drought is already baking the Japanese house’s interior. Sunlight-blocking south-facing blinds plus screened doors and windows can be installed but will provide only limited relief. Meanwhile, the rental management agency is sternly warning tenants to keep water consumption to a minimum, tacitly reducing the soaking tub to an out-of-bounds artefact.
Global warming aside, we loved occupying this work of art. Just sitting in the crafted space, observing grazing deer and paddling kayaks, enriched the quality of our islands’ getaway. The house became the holiday.
There was much to appreciate about our homeward-bound visit with Bob and Valerie Collins. Their Vachon Island house was exceptional, perched on a steep western slope overlooking Puget Sound with massive Mount Rainer shimmering in the distance. The timing of our stopover was optimal, fitting in neatly between three weeks in the San Juan Islands and our five-day drive home to central California. The hours spent chatting with B&V about family histories and relatives, travel plans, political concerns and recent readings combined to strengthen our reacquaintance.
Bob and I had been high-school classmates in 1950s Southern California. We’d reconnected when he took the lead in organizing our 60th class reunion in 2020, while I’d lent some program support. In subsequent years, we’d had a couple of near misses on prior attempts to schedule two-couple rendezvous. Now our Vachon detour gave us quality time for growing closer by catching up.
On reflection, I believe what made this visit so successful was Bob’s and Valerie’s sensitive flexibility as hosts. Nancy’s and my 36-hour time constraint for this drop-in could have encouraged a jam-packed hosting agenda. When the shoe’s on the other foot, I’m sometimes tempted to try and show brief visitors everything about our nest or to fill every instant with activities.
Bob and Valerie were thankfully more relaxed and more mature. They confided that they had roughed out a general plan for giving us a glimpse of their island lifestyle. But we arrived visibly fatigued after a 10-hour, three-ferry travel day. When Nancy had a very poor first night of sleep and awoke hypoglycemic and weak on her pins, our hosts took note and quietly diluted their agenda. Nancy spent the morning recovering her strength. Bob, Valerie and I went on a one-hour forest hike. The Collinses shifted their planned picnic venue for the four of us from a remote site to a village park. After a stroll through a few local shops, we all enjoyed an afternoon nap. Our friends selected a nearby restaurant for our evening meal. And knowing that Nancy and I needed to be up and away the next morning, they insured that we all turned in early.
This scheduling flexibility was so deftly managed that the program modifications were silently and smoothly incorporated. But they actually embodied a spirit of responsive welcoming. One agile-aging takeaway for me is that adept hosting pays more attention to being and growing together than to implementing structured entertainment. Even a very brief rendezvous can strengthen a friendship.
Thank you, dear friends, for this gentle reminder and demonstration.
Do you have a familiar highway route where you rush straight through but invariably declare, “We really must slow down some day and check out that [side road, inn, village or historical landmark]”? Nancy and I tacked on an extra day to the end of our Northwest road trip, pausing for once to explore a passing fancy.
The Avenue of the Giants is an environmental and historical marvel, hiding in plain sight directly adjacent to U.S.101. A 32-mile conservation corridor between Scotia and Garberville, California, the Avenue was part of the main highway’s original right-of-way until the artery was realigned in 1960 to separate through traffic from tourism. The downgraded bypass became a neglected time capsule, ignored by motorists accelerating up the grade.
The corridor offers easy access to the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest (17,000 acres) in the world. These awesome specimens soar over 350 feet in height, measure over 15 feet in diameter, with lifespans exceeding 1,500 years. After clear-cut logging invaded the area in the late 19th Century, these groves were saved from destruction in the 1920s by a militant posse of pioneer environmentalists, dubbing themselves the Save the Redwoods League. John D. Rockefeller contributed two timely donations of $1 million each and the core of Humboldt Redwoods State Park was established.
Today you can cruise through this shadowed lane, pulling into any of two dozen mini-turnouts before hoofing it into the woods. Nancy and I sampled two enchanting pedestrian loops. The Drury-Chaney Grove was a temperate rainforest, moist with moss, carpeted with sorrel. The William Stephens Grove was much dryer, despite a lacing of creeks. Its tree trunks evidenced widespread fire damage. In both plots, the soaring sequoias were thrilling. We had to brace ourselves to tilt heads back far enough to take in the beginning of their foliage, 100 above the ground. It’s an anthropomorphic cliché to compare redwood forests to Gothic cathedrals. But we both felt that these vertical spaces conveyed an enveloping atmosphere of silent serenity.
Less scenic but also dramatic was the site of Dyerville, once the area’s booming hub, complete with stagecoach station, shipping port, schools, baseball team and brass band. The catastrophic Eel River flood of 1955 destroyed most structure and dozens of lives. A 1964 sequel completed the wipe-out. A roadside pole recorded the high-water mark, 31 feet above the modern pavement.
The State Park Visitor Center featured bubbly docents and a respectable bookstore. The affiliated museum offered exhibits on the ancient conifers’ remarkable resilience, surrounding flora and fauna, Indigenous Peoples’ respectful stewardship, the timber industry’s evolving technologies, and the early conservationists’ quick/quick mobilization. (An illustrative mini-seminar: a single old-growth redwood can produce 100,000 cones a year, each cone projecting 100 seeds. But only 10% of those seeds will be fertile and only 1% of the latter will find adequate conditions to germinate. A low-return propagation strategy. The species probably wouldn’t have survived without developing Plan B: mother-trunk, ground-level sprouting.)
The Avenue also preserves a string of quaint hamlets, with evocative names including Pepperwood, Weott and Miranda. We noticed dozens of shop closings and chatted with one couple who own and operate a roadside snack-bar, gift shop and RV park. They confided that COVID cut their revenues in half. Despite optimistic political projections, they’ve experienced little recovery. In more positive signs, a rebounding Miranda café and a Garberville gourmet bakery affirmed that small-business ingenuity and determination are irrepressible.
For human interactions as well as botanical marvels, Nancy and I were delighted we had taken the Avenue bypass. Slow down. Turn out. This is our final stage.
Sincere thanks to the San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau for use of their schematic map, Brigette Ellis for her permission to reproduce her late husband’s artwork, and Nancy Swing for her photos and trail companionship.
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