South of Deception, West of Someone Else's Sea
Late summer and my wife tends to get restless. The heat has been less exhausting than in most summers in Arkansas but still, she tends to want to head north in one slant or another. I do not influence her. I wait to see how her mind and her wandering soul will work. It is not a frequent thing to happen to her soul. And really, I just want to go for the ride. She settles on the northwest coast. She finds an island off the coast of Washington that interests her. I feign no knowledge of such, though I have watched a website and its set of bird feeders on Whidbey Island for several years off and on. I have not been there but I know some of the bird sounds from this site. And I know much of the local bird song from trips to the coast of Oregon. We have been to Oregon many times but it has been a long stretch of years since we stopped in the Seattle area and took in the world. I took my daughter across some ferries to an isolated coast some time ago. She was just barely half my height now. I doubted she remembered. She confirmed it was vague. There is a photograph in my office that I took from that week of her arranging stones on a faraway beach.
Seattle is sunny. Has been for days, according to the locals. Temperatures all day long lower than my best morning temps at home. It is the season for birds to come down from the north. It is time for the gulls to gather. Too early for my own gulls at home yet. And these here, these are a different assortment of gulls. The Glaucous-winged Gulls, against my memory, are unexpectedly just right down inside the city streets, flying between the condos and skyrise businesses. They are up in the glassine worlds of banking and accounting, amid their own reflections in flight. Some guy with his coffee sees large gulls winging by in his mornings here. Before his mind is ready for the day, the white birds sail. Heavier than my Ring-billed Gulls at home, heavier even than the Herring Gulls which rule the northeast coasts. Most of these city Glaucous-wings are still in their summer whites. The smoky dark juveniles seem to be rarer up inside the maze of skyscrapers. It may take some parental coaching or some deeper innate hunger to lure them into these modern landscapes. These adult gulls though, along with the city crows and the urban pigeons comprise the main Seattle birdscene.
I have written ahead to Dennis Paulson, dragon expert and shorebird connoisseur who lives in Seattle. I knew for a few months that I was coming to his territory and hoped that once inside his city I might escape for a bit inside some places he knew. Up early that day, my wife and I walk out of the hotel and down slope towards the bayside. It is so early the streets are clear of people mostly. Gulls and crows again are fearlessly right down on the street. Dumpster diving. Assaulting the street droppings, the detritus of city men. The big gulls are calling out and making excellent reflectant echoes down the side alleys. At one building we find a line of people under blankets and at first we think we have found the mother lode of homeless. But these are all young girls mostly, in pricey clothes and shoes, lined up for some Nordstrom’s event. We can think of nothing so wonderful in Nordstrom’s to justify sleeping on the street for half the night. We nod to them as we walk past. Later we find it is a modelling tryout. The absolute opposite of a homeless meeting.
In the market: bicyclists and morning joggers. A window is open and it is emitting the smells of fresh baked things. We ask the young girl if she is open and she says, “no, she is just practicing.” And then laughs so beautifully we know she is joking. We have coffee and things with blueberries and peaches and chocolates. The market stalls are all just starting to get fired up for the busy Saturday ahead. Tables assembled in long rows, umbrellas going up despite the clear sky. Fish and flowers abound. Flowers that are so cheap and so striking one wants to just buy them and carry them around like a trophy or a headdress. I am the flower king, see me now.
Dennis arrives and we head through suburban traffic towards the sea. I have met Dennis twice before. The first in southwest Arkansas at a dragonfly meeting where I found him as he was leaning in to photograph an Orange Shadowdragon while Gif Beaton kept the net ready off to the side. I now think that shot 250.2 in his book Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East may have resulted from this. Though the perch doesn’t look quite right. They may have gone for several Shadowdragons that day. If you want to shoot Orangies, one must come to Arkansas or Missouri or Oklahoma. That book is loaded with photos, 500 pages worth, though he did not take them all. That was in 2006. In 2009 he came to Red Slough, at one of David Arbour’s conventions there. A group of us took a long bird walk that day and also spotted dragons. Now I was in his home town.
At the coast, it was the weekend and the pier was lined with fishermen and crabbers. Normally Dennis avoids the crowds and comes during the weekday. The sea was mostly flat and windless and the scope was farseeing. We found a spot between crab lines. And no one seemed to care if we were looking out to sea with optical equipment or not. Possibly they were just relieved to see some people who were not competing for crabs. Birdwatchers don’t take up much room. Out at sea, I was seeing the birds I never see. Young Rhinoceros Auklets (Rhinos) were winging across in groups looking distinctly unrhinoceroid with their young coloration: white bellies, no horn. Large flocks of Heermann’s Gulls were coming in as we watched. Dennis had not seen that many so far this season. This is arguably one of the most beautiful gulls in North America. Especially in full breeding plumage, which these were not. But there were some dark chocolate youngsters and deep gray adults with their bright red bills. I had seen them in Oregon and in California but not in these numbers. They have odd seasonal movements, nesting mostly in Baja and Mexico, they spill over to California in winter. But in the fall they shift all the way up to Oregon and Washington before pulling south to California’s coasts. Food movements and availability can be the only explanation. They are not often seen in true winter in Washington.
The crab men around me were hauling up their cages off and on. I was under the impression the urge to pull up and check your cage overwhelmed their patience sooner than it should have often and repeatedly. Someone pulled up a cage with Red Rock crabs. And then just ten or fifteen feet away someone pulled up one with Dungeness and the news rippled down the pier. Highly desirable, Dungeness are large crabs and apparently they had not become common yet in some other kind of migratory, seasonal pattern I did not understand. Out at sea, Harlequin Ducks and a pair of Surf Scoters came in. Harbor seals and a few porpoise were surfacing. Salt water smells wafted in my nose.
Next stop was a small marsh. Mainly freshwater I presumed. Though I could still smell the sea. From anywhere I stood for most of the week ahead of me, I found I could stop and smell the sea. The two local chickadee species were both talking in the bordering trees. And, on the boardwalk, shorebirds and Anna’s Hummingbirds at the same time. The Anna’s were flycatching and making chase. The Western Sandpipers were striking and mixed in with a barrage of Killdeer. Marsh Wrens called and one of them popped up with my hopeful pishing sounds. They don’t look like the same bird as my eastern version. Same with the Song Sparrows: dark things, skulky and very talkative. A big group of Bushtits came in, confusing me with their sounds. I am never around them. Apparently they had already ganged up for winter foraging. No other species invited. The Bushtits all rushed out into the open, fliting about out there in the marsh rushes chasing something. Blackberry fruit was ripe everywhere around us. Most of the birds seemed to ignore it.
We headed next to Dennis’ favorite local dragonfly location. He normally did not check this area until later in the day but he was interested to see what was up and about in the midmorning. It was a place not too far from his home. And without consulting him at all, someone in the city planning system had envisioned, drawn and created this dragon haven with its series of shallow fishless ponds all on the city’s pursestrings. Well, at least the city taxpayer’s pursestrings I guess. There was a large freshwater lake nearby and fishermen were scattered in the parking area. The trails held a few dog walkers. Suburban parks draw people outdoors. Though many of them still seem to only see the faces of their phones or the tail ends of their dogs.
Dragonflies were aflutter immediately and everywhere. The plant stems at the boundaries of the clear ponds were decorated with the exoskeletons of emerged dragons. Dennis can tell them apart. I cannot. I looked for one in mid-emergence but never saw one. Wrong time of day for it. We were continuously buzzed by Blue-eyed Darners and Paddle-tailed Darners. The fresh ones hid in the underbrush. Dennis was amazed to spot a perched one by the shine of its fresh wings. Cardinal Meadowhawks dazzled. Encircled by dragons and distracted I still did look up now and then for birds. And found a small dark hawk in one of the taller trees. Dennis walked carefully around to take its picture. It was a young Coopers. They nest abundantly nearby. We saw several. Newly minted crows spoke and perched close. Pondhawks and skimmers flitted: I think it was the most dragonflies I had seen at any one time anywhere west of Texas.
My family was hungry by this time and Dennis zipped down the now open freeway and deposited me back in the city. It was a true kindness, giving me one of his mornings on a beautiful clear day. He is one of those rare true naturalists. Everything is of interest. An expert birder. And truly above-an-expert on dragonflies, I doubt I could walk in dragons with anyone more knowledgeable about this group. He knew the plants and trees. He knew the beautiful Sphecid wasp we found among blackberries, the Loraquin’s Admiral that we saw fly by. The lesson again: if one is out, watch it all. He lives in a beautiful place. Scant of lizards and snakes. No buzzing cicadas that I heard, but a seabird paradise with a rich western plant flora. And, at least in his one spot, dragonflies.
The next day my wife and Josh and my daughter and I have breakfast and make for the sea. Or the channel? The inlet? The sound? Something, at any rate, big and salty. I drive by some confusing signs for the ferry lanes. Get in the lane; don’t get in the lane, fines are displayed. Cutting in the ferry waiting line is taken rather seriously. I suppose it should be. It should be everywhere. Rolling onto a boat in a car never seems natural to an easterner. But up and in we go crowded inside row by row like stout and orderly boat parasites. Out on the front of the deck, the cold breeze across the water is a stunner. I watch the gulls, the scoters, and the rapidly approaching shore of Whidbey Island.
Whidbey is shaped like a milk spill with a heavy triangular pool at its bottom or southern end. Vaguely, it is like a 60 mile long seahorse facing east. If you look at the sound north and west of Seattle on the maps there are the two great near islands and then you come to the cluster that is the San Juans. We come onto Whidbey on its expanded south end. Evergreen and cool, it is a pleasure to drive. We cross up and over to Langley which is near where we will be staying. It is the small town that will be home base. Its population was 1045 two years ago. I think it is one of those towns that have five times that many people during the summer tourist peaks though there don’t seem to be that many hotels or B&Bs there. My wife is the one who chose and scheduled our choice of stay.
Inside the boundaries of the city, there was one remarkable and immediately visible oddity. Not the humans. The place was clean. The school I passed looked like an old prison. Still not sure of the details on that. But out on the grass, right next to the roads, hopping around like it was Wonderland were some unusual bunnies. None of the brown and normal colored bunnies. At the sign of the first one, I almost stopped to knock on the nearest door, to offer my assistance in capturing what surely must be a pet rabbit out on the lawn. Because these bunnies were black and white and piebald and orange and coffee and cream colored. It made me check the rear view and hit the brakes. “Look at that.”
My daughter, who is a lover of most animals, but is abnormally fond of bunnies, nearly jumped out at the first one as well. She also thought it was an escapee. And I guess in a sense it was. Or well, we learned later it was the grandbunny of escapees. Apparently at some point in the last ten years some bunnies made a breakout from the cages of the Langley fair and established themselves, essentially only in the Langley area. Suburbia may have been some sort of protection for them. The island woodlands outside the city limits have predators. These homes in Langley likely offer protection from all but free domestic cats. And I saw some very large domestic cats, though never any that were eating downed bunnies. Most of these rabbits had frankly surpassed the size of cat prey. Only an Osprey weary of fish or a bold Eagle could lift one of these from the green grass of bunny Neverland. When we walked around these city environs, my daughter many times said “oh, look out, I am so going to touch that bunny!” Only to have them bound off quickly at her approach. I laughed every time she said it.
The Eagle’s Nest is down a quiet highway north of Langley. We took the top two rooms which gives you the top two decks overlooking their excellent trees. The little hill at the top of the road into the Nest is about an 18% grade. I know. I rode up it on my rental bike several times. Gravel lot, decks and a hot tub, a view through trees out toward the water to the east. Jerry welcomes you to the place, gives you the quick tour and the rules. He keeps a range of bird seed feeders out and earlier in the summer he keeps hummer feeders out but the Rufous hummers had mostly retreated by our arrival time and the hummer feeders were now mostly down or empty.
Atop my personal deck for the week we did not even reach the first branches of the tall evergreens. The boats were far enough away they were generally silent. And the highway was low traffic passageway. Jerry had a grass section around the back that abruptly turned to thick brush and sea grape and thorny, fruity blackberry. Dense brush that I could see shifting and twitching right before something emerged, often the local black-tail fawns, sometimes in a sudden burst of speed. These were the spotted youngsters. Still very small, Jerry said the mother had put them out, though she still stayed around the grounds mostly. These youngsters were now fending for themselves. And the Nest was safe ground. Mom had taught them enough to avoid my daughter, though they often looked like they were pondering giving the very persistent Amelia the benefit of the doubt. (What model, I wonder, had mom used for “don’t go near those!”) Chipmunks were constantly present as well. If you ignored those stripey guys they would hop up in the chair next to you. And the reddish Douglas Squirrels ran amok, certainly one of the most vocal creatures in the island woods.
I found I could place most of the bird noise, except for one very persistent call. And up on the deck with my ever present binoculars, I could see gangs of birds flitting through the tallest trees. It was some time though before I saw them come down to the bird bath. They never went to the feeders. When I did find them I was amazed by them. And I watched them all week from my high perch. They were all Red Crossbills. It is a bird I knew from living in Montana for a year. But in Arkansas they did not live in my county. They range over the pine forests in the north and south part of my state. The books always show them as being winter migrants there. But Crossbills are a rare bird in the world of birds in their habit of nesting whenever and wherever the food supply is good. And there may be ten or more species hiding in the big map of them all. Ten of them that are virtually identical except for their calls and the average size of their bills. These in the northwest were definitely different even from the ones I had seen in Montana. And never had I gotten to watch them so closely before especially at the water bath where they frequently bathed and drank in groups. I pestered Jerry several times to fill up his birdbath. Fresh water was a rare commodity, at least in these woods with some poor recent rainfall totals overall. And the Crossbills came every day, multiple times in groups of five to eight, splashing and drinking away. Not once did one of them ever take any seed from the feeders. I am not sure with that beak of theirs they are capable. Named for the beak with the crossed tip it is perfect for extracting pine and hemlock and spruce seeds from the cones, but it had to be awkward for feeder use. I did watch several feeding on hemlock cones up in the trees. They sometimes removed the whole cone and held it with one foot like a parrot while prying out the seeds. They hung upside down like parrots as well, whatever it took to get the right angle on the live cones. On my deck, they were endless entertainment.
Early morning, it was trail test time. I woke before dark. The top floor was invaded by the earliest light in all directions but it was generally full dark when I headed out. I had to walk down the entry road and over maybe fifty yards of highway to the slim road that cut up into the preserve. The last stretch was covered in rock hauled in from some beach head somewhere, though no one was supposed to drive on it. I timed it so that early light was breaking well enough to see by the time I was in the trees. It was late summer so bird song was limited. I never heard crossbills over in the trail areas. But in the dense ferns and undergrowth the Pacific Wrens were frequently the dominant dawn songsters along with the Song Sparrows. Pacific Wrens have one of the most beautiful and complex songs in the United States. I had never tired of them in Oregon. They worked the roots and lower densities of brush like mice, singing back and forth to each other. I would often find two or three together chasing and making noise. I didn’t see much difference in appearance from my Winter Wrens out east: both little balls of brown exuberance with excellent vocal programming.
I walked the trails many times during the week, both alone and with my daughter and Josh or with my wife sometimes later in the day. I think every time I went I saw my friendly owl. He was a Barred Owl. Not the rarer Spotted. They are closely related but the Spotted in the northwest is more dependent on truly ancient and old growth forests. I doubt any Spotteds live on Whidbey. But the Spotted was the one that stirred up all the logging rulings and forest cutting limitations back in the battle election years between Bush and Clinton. Some even speculate that this was a deciding factor in the election. The owls oblivious. Ross Perot’s famous statement at the same election cycle was that the only thing we needed to know about the Spotted Owl was “what was the best way to cook them.” Some thought the more common Barred Owl was partly responsible for the Spotted’s decline in these big woods. I cannot speak to that. I heard and saw only the Barred here. I had heard Spotted in the bigger woods in Oregon. I have Barred Owls nesting in my swamp woods at home. They are with me all year. Barreds are birds I associate with my normal world. They ground me. I have never heard one and not smiled. I think this Washington bird on the trails was slightly crazy.
We did hear him most nights. And maybe there was more than one owl living close to the Eagle’s Nest but the night noise always seemed to come from this one wild section of the woods. Jerry had photos of a Barred adult sitting on some of his yard decorations. Anyway, this particular owl would head right for me whenever I met him on the trails. He would zoom right up and perch over me and look me over with those large and dark pupils of his. Once my examination was interrupted when he spotted a bird right across from me and nearly brushed my upper lip with his flight feathers going across to crash and miss the panicked sparrow in the ferns. And another time he turned suddenly from looking me over and flew in a bobbing mothlike flight right down the road to a deer standing ahead of me. The deer had its ears up but was walking away when this crazy owl zagged up and popped the back of the deer’s head with his talons. It made me laugh and sent the deer shooting off at high speed. I had to wonder at his motive in dive bombing this doe. Was he just showing off for me? Was he truly annoyed by deer in his area? Did he get a rush from counting coup on a deer head? I did watch him a little more carefully after that over my shoulder as I walked by him and out onto the trails.
Breakfast at the nest was at 9 am sharp each morning. A very reasonable hour that allowed for my early morning walks and bike rides before breakfast. Joanne was in charge. Jerry was the standby waiter/ conversationalist/tour guide/ local commentary provider. Joanne cooked and gave the daily news and local events. She was a great supporter of many of the island businesses. Everyone in town and on the island seemed to know her. Jerry gave quite a bit of map and travel info on request. We never had any trouble finding anything. At breakfast, your coffee cup was never empty. Local goods were used for cooking and the egg dishes and pancakes with fresh fruit were generally impressive and sometimes amazing. The sage sausage was excellent enough to hunt down and use at home. We stayed all week; other guests would come and go. I don’t think this island was made for a two day trip. Some came for weddings. Others were stopover guests on the way to boarding Alaskan cruiseboats. The Seattle area is a major launch point for Alaskan cruises. Whatever the occupancy, after breakfast the place was yours. The work of keeping such a place up and feeding 6 to 8 people each morning sounds enough for anyone. They had been doing this for over 20 years.
Jerry also had the tide tables. And we headed for Double Bluff beach on a day when he told us one of the lowest tides of our week would occur. Beaches in the northwest are not generally sand beaches. They are stone. Cold water and stone. Though the stone can grind down to a near sand consistency in some places. The bluff beach was such a place due to the fine clay beds and exposed sandstone above it. It was bordered by a long line of beach homes to the southeast (it is on the southwest side of the island). A tremendous flat of shallow water stretched out towards the south that was known on the map as Useless Bay. The shoreline curving off to the sea horizon to the west was miles long and mostly uninhabited. It was a superb collection spot for driftwood. All sizes of driftwood abounded. And makeshift constructions dotted the long beach stretch, like the homeless occasionally gave the place a shot as a temporary lodging place.
The tide was indeed way out for our visit. Though in these shallows a few feet of shift likely bares broad stretches of real estate. It was a dog walkers dream area. And there was even a specific flag point down the beach, beyond which was the leash free zone. My own dogs, I knew, would quickly learn that this was the critical spot: from there, they were free. My daughter spent her time between bending to the stones and the sealife and watching for new dogs that she could stalk and try to touch. One couple had three generations of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Loping and running after thrown objects, breaking each other in great spalshes into the water of the tidal pools. Another had a Mastiff, who was calm and tolerant of all the wildlife that was smaller than her. Most of the visiting humans in fact were smaller than her.
The beginnings of the bluffs were too steep for climbing and were shedding layers of compacted rock history down onto the shore. Osprey perched above on the best snags and shuttled out to sea and back. Along the tideline the Harlequin Ducks fed quietly. And the various gulls either stared out to sea or worked at grabbing the exposed clams and carrying them up-up-up above the rocks to drop them with a plock in the hope the shell hit just right. The Glaucous-winged Gulls were essentially professional at this. Across the flats if you stooped over and looked into the light just right the clams shot siphoned water into the air, clear arcs of falling shimmer: ‘here, I am clam.’ The fattest gulls seemed to actually watch for this sign. Bending the neck, and actually running sometimes across the flat towards a new siphon signal. The smaller gull species may not have been capable of beaking the big clams up off the ground at all. The Heermann’s seemed content to just watch the sky and the horizon with me: the distant islands, the boats carrying strangers off the edge of the world.
Before my arrival on the island I had communicated with the only bike shop surviving there. Bike shops, like book shops and all privately owned small businesses are endangered by internet commerce. I suppose even in the world of island tourism. Perhaps the last specimen of any sort of shop in the Darwinian law of businesses can survive just from the focus of all the desperate attention. I have taken to biking in the last two years or so, like something that has come back from long memory. It would be a detailed and long description of what bikes had meant to me in the last several years. But I knew for the week that I would be staying on Whidbey that I did not want to be without a bike, even though it would not be my own familiar machine. The day after my island arrival I had Josh drop me at the shop and I rode the rental bike back to the Eagle’s Nest. It was up a long sloping hill back into the land of the colored bunnies. Both Jerry and the bike shop gave me a detailed and excellent map of all the roads on the island. Showing the level of the hills and the dangers involved. I knew, deep down I could still get lost, but I appreciated all the efforts to keep me centered and sun oriented.
The shop was in a convergence of roads not far from the fine double bluffed beach. A garden shop, a Mexican restaurant, a draft beer bar, a soap shop, it was a varied shopping location. The bike was a hybrid tired machine and was made of sturdy metal, aluminum. Flat handle bars, Shimano thumb and forefinger shifters, I thought I could work with it. The young man in the shop was alone at his job. He said it was the first bike shop he had ever worked in that had a space heater. And for the winters here, I could imagine him in this brick rectangle with the warm stove going, doing mechanical things alone. It rarely snowed on the island and never kept any snow layer for long apparently. But the winters were gray and wet and lengthy. I doubted the market for either rentals or sudden bike purchases was high in the darkness of January, though this past summer had reportedly been their busiest summer ever. Joanne and Jerry at the inn apparently stuck it out until November or December themselves, tending to guests at the Nest.
Out on the bike the island was surprisingly hilly. Several hills made me wish for a flatter vacation spot. The temperatures in late summer were cool enough to make you huddle in an aerodynamic posture on the big fast downhills at dawn, at 49 degrees. Traffic was minimal and polite, I saw more deer and rabbits than cars in the early mornings. And on a quiet bike you can hear the birdlife. I could even hear the skittering twitter of Anna’s hummers in several places. Noisy rockets zipping by in places where hummer feeders still hung. There was the cry of gulls of course and the talk of the local pair of Ravens who seemed to constantly locate each other with marco/polo noises of exceptional variety. They lived near the Eagle’s Nest, because they often came to my deck trees, barking and cooing at each other to my east and my west. I heard a few Pheasant, introduced and breeding on the island, but never had one dash across my bike’s path. Now and then an Eagle would cackle out over the bay. At one early morning grassy opening: a troop of coyote youngsters, silent but gawking and soon away.
Certainly, I was not in charge of the vacation week itinerary most of the time. And was mostly not alone on a bike. I missed only one Joanne breakfast due to a ride that went too long. The city of Langley was nearby and we would wander into town whenever we wished. There was a delicious gelato/chocolate shop that seemed to draw us in repeatedly. The main drag had several lovely shops including one that specialized in chocolate scented flowers. The lady in charge was preparing for a big spread in Martha Stewart’s magazine. One of the shop owners kept a dog inside that she had adopted from Quito, Ecuador, which gave me pangs of deep guilt. It was a lovely mongrel female, bright eyed and friendly. There was a rock and jewelry shop that lured both Josh and the girls in over and over. He had really nice creations from local stones and from distant places. The owner and creator was often right there at the counter with the stories of where and how each jeweled and stony thing came about. I bought my artist friend Robin some marbles rounded down out of local rock that made me want to start collecting marbles all over again, as I had in my far away youth. The necklaces in this man’s shop sparkled; the sea shown outside his window. Out the door and down some railed stairs, the breaking waves made whispering noises. Beyond the same windows of the rock shop, the gulls came over and went here and there to places much more important than my own assignations.
And then on another of the directed (required, important) excursions we went to an alpaca farm. Daughter’s choice, though animal visits are always backed up by her mother. There were several alpaca farms in the area-- two on the island not far from us. I had no prepared insight into the world of alpacas. It was an animal that had been allowed out of the South American landscape only since 1984. But according to Hal, owner of Fern Ridge Alpacas, there were something on the order of a quarter million in the US now. The openherd website had 3000 listed farms in the US and Canada. Two were near Conway, my current home town, though I had no idea at the time. This number is compared to 3 million alpaca in Peru, the heart of alpaca land. I will eventually go and see some of the alpaca ancestors, the vicuña, in their native habitat. But at that moment, there on the island, I had some highly bred alpacas close by in the Whidbey world. Hal Schlomann is the owner of this place called Fern Ridge. And we were the only ones there on the weekday we arrived. Open fields surrounded by evergreens with tall fences dividing mostly the girls from the boys in these quiet, long-necked camel relations. Among the camel group these South American animals have the densest, richest hair growth, possibly because they normally originated above eleven thousand feet in the Andes. Though the vicuña is still wild in the same place and has a much finer and slower growing coat. It is more likely the high mountain peoples selectively bred for the dense alpaca hair from which they still make many wearable items.
Hal was clearly a big hearted lover of these animals, likely of most animals. He treated us like we were the only thing he had on his agenda for the day, though, in truth, we were just out strolling among his animals, likely where he would have been anyway. These fuzzy topped things had been sheared already this year. Apparently once in the spring they give off about ten pounds of hair each. They can get pretty burly with that fine hair of theirs prior to the shearing. The hair is not lanolin covered like a sheep’s shear and is much more nonallergenic. I asked Hal if he did that work himself, and he informed me that shearing was clearly a young man’s job. Neither Hal nor I qualified as young men anymore. I got his meaning. These were sizable animals. And one man against one of them that did not want to cooperate in whatever was planned would be a handful. They also required some periodic tooth maintenance with active and permanent tooth growth. And they had hard foot wear, which was different in genetic origin from the horse hoof. Horses walk on their modified third toe. Alpaca walk on the third and fourth and have quite a bit more balance and dexterity. They also have two nails growing over these separate pads and not a hard horse hoof surface. So alpaca did not need shoeing but they did need nail maintenance.
Hal also had Llamas, another camelid, the bigger one from South America. Big enough to be used for pack animals in those countries of origin; they did tower over Hal’s alpacas. And had a more intense facial appearance, the forward facing eyes of both animals made it very clear when they were concentrating on you. The alpacas and llamas are both herding social animals and they herded together apparently without any bigotry. The larger Llamas protected the alpaca from dog or coyote invaders. Both had a deep dislike for dogs in general. And both alpacas and llamas were capable as adults of killing canines. Toothy and narrow faced, Hal’s Llamas seemed to be judging me whenever I looked straight into their eyes. There was a slight dare there. And Hal reminded me that when they stood on their back legs in threat, they could be eleven or twelve feet tall. These big Llamas weighed over 400 pounds.
We visited another alpaca farm while there. It was a rescue home. A darker place, revealing a rule in the world of domesticated stock in general: wherever there was a boom that didn’t quite pan out as it should, and it involved animals, the animals often suffered. The kind hearted and overworked owner of Paradise took in many abused and abandoned alpacas and llamas from virtually anywhere. She sometimes took in six or eight at once. She drove long distances at her own expense. She saw them degraded and beaten or injured. I knew many like her in the world of dog salvation. She was unique in my experience for this kind of animal. You would think some species would be exempt. But we are careless, driven things with short memories. As you might expect, she had quite the herd: a testament, well, a testament to something. Supported by her own generosity and from donations and the little she could get from alpaca product sales. Her gardens were beautiful. And she had some extraordinary animals. She whistled one youngster up from a far pen by calling its name. Like an intelligent and leggy dog it came up to be snuffled and petted and weighed. We attempted to feed it some milky product. The owner was still worried about its health: a surprise newborn from a now dead mother. The world can shatter you suddenly, like a dropped ornament sometimes. I forget. And then I remember. We bought piles of her yarn.
We left Hals after attending to his yurt. It is the Mongolian equivalent of a rounded tent that was both his store and display area. It was mostly the place where he finished up his stories inside a controlled temperature environment. One wants all the lovely woven alpaca products when faced with them. Socks, shawls, hats: we knew we were contributing to Hal’s efforts and taking home things to remember the island by. I am also now a firm alpaca sock enthusiast. Hal was like a small course in camelid history. If you are in the area, go see him.
The north part of the island holds the only standing bridge to and from Whidbey. Everywhere else requires a ferry ride. The pass there, known as Deception Pass, is narrow and this made for a narrow bridge construction project. I think you could hit the far lift of land across the straight with a really well thrown rock. It still looks like it required quite the focused and elevated effort. We crossed through the most populous region of the island from our southern home base to get up there. It was a minor sprawl that supports and surrounds the local naval community apparently. But the trees returned at the pass beyond suburbia where they have preserved a large portion of this head of the island. We soon walked out onto the stony beaches. The tide was coming back. Fog banks loomed here and there and the world in general seemed to surprise me from all directions. The rushing cool water dropped the air temperatures. Washed driftwood lines were stacked up again, belying some winter waves that must be astonishing, cold and high. And, behind me the fog kept rolling through the evergreens like something alive and ephemeral. I kept my camera close, sometimes stunned to forgetfulness. Out ahead, another small island slowly emerged in the distance. Dogs came by. Fisherman fished both elegantly and awkwardly and caught nothing with both styles.
Out among the stones my daughter looked for sea glass while Josh searched for interesting evidence of the past, of geology. I kept walking out myself and staring into this same geologic mix, searching mostly for items to carry back to my artist friend, wanting particular contrast and strange shapes to pop out of the random sprawl. My friend paints such small things in great detail, enlarging their importance. So I would wet each selected stone and hold them up to my eye close in the light. It is a different eye when you are looking so. And then you pull down a given stone from your eye and the sea draws you off, stony freckled afterimages fade from your retina, the passing cormorants strike lines through the fog. My wife is sitting up on the large driftwood logs, watching the tidal currents rip, watching me watching her. She may be wondering if I am trying to fit myself for a new stone eye.
I go up to sit with her and watch my daughter walking and staring down along the waterline, in the rattling seawash. So many times I have watched her walking on sand and stone in so many places, from our own home rivers to this far off sea. Now she is the age I was just before I married my wife. Tall and cautious and patient, she no longer threatens to bound off, or totter into all the waters everywhere. At age five here she would have held out her arms and run straight into the sea. With me, the linebacker that protected her from her own fearlessness running at speed to intervene. The deep trust of childhood: the world wants to keep you safe. When really, just your mother and your father do, sometimes desperately. I turn to see the fog coming once again to paint the trees, like some island God has blown smoke into the ancient heads of the hemlock and spruce. The great white beast is floating toward us all. And I stand up to face it. (Are you safe? Yes.)
It is not long before I am weighed down with artistic stones in my pocket for the artist back in Arkansas. I clack and sag, my pants conspire with gravity and geology to make a break for it. I could walk out in to the sea like Virginia Woolff and take them all with me. The stones of course would just readjust, a minor diversion from tide and time in the pockets of a fool. Me in the bluegreen water washed towards Seattle like a seaweed doll. My job would be done. It is not a wish but a glancing thought. The water would be cold. My wife looks up from her book below the tall trees. She may have detected my thought. No doubt my pants look comical. Though frequently to her, I likely look comical even with better pants. She shakes her head slowly at this or some other flaw that she knows too well. (Are you there? Yes.)
In a small cove before we leave the pass, I find a wall of striped stone circling more stone. It is detailed almost scripted stone. Shapes and shadows and patches of wet and dry stone all add to the underimages of the blue rock with its cursive white veins, I cock my head for a hidden message. I try and shoot the light there. Try catching what it looks like at the moment. My daughter walks carefully around this walled room surveying the ground. There is a stone stretched on the sand that looks like a woman trying to rise up from the sand. I cock my head to see if I have imagined it. But she stays in place. And it looks like she has been struggling to stand for a very long time.
We walk up through the trees to the bridge. We are several hundred feet up higher and quickly. Out on the bridge itself, the pedestrian walkways are narrow. The traffic zings by just off your elbow. The blast of some fish truck knocks my hat off and I scrabble for it. It is actually tipping into oblivion when I grab it. I am lucky my ass isn’t popped by another truck. Me and my hat into the far tidal rush below. “At least I saved my haaaaatttttttt.” I take a picture of my daughter and Josh on the other side of the bridge, across the traffic. It is a tourist’s photo op, I know, but somehow it looks right.
Throughout the whole week back in civilization, we attend Farmer’s markets. But in our final day we attend the largest one, down near the bike shop. It is a busy sprawl of local goods in tents, loose and friendly. Some girls on a handmade bench are playing Bach on violins. Under the broad sky, Bach does not travel far. Dogs run everywhere. They are selling whole pies and racks of lamb, African dishes and macaroons. The lady selling African food, steaming and complex, looks truly African. Her story must be long. At a dessert stand, the chocolate dipped macaroons are so good, I want to propose. They call for polygamy. More musicians. More jewelers. Puppies on the loose. Clearly this is a weekly festival as much as a straight market, at least now in the summer growing season, the time of harvest. It must burn out soon. But it was hopping that day, communal and alive. In a place that still smelled like the salt sea.
On several of the nights in the darkness of the room I slept in, up the ladder to the tower at the top of the castle, I heard my owl calling. Either I awakened perfectly on time most nights to hear him call out. Or I was missing the first call in my deep sleep but my subliminal owl mind was bringing me up in order not to miss the rest of that night’s voicings. I never knew which. In the scheme of things the owl was not loud. My wife was usually breathing quietly, still gone. And it was deep black-purple dark in our room at two or three in the morning even with all the windows open to the world up in our lookout. The Barred would call a few times and then I would wait to see if he spoke again. I heard almost nothing else in the night other than my own rushing blood. If I tilted my head just right I could find a star through the treetops. And then nothing again.
On the last walk through the trails, I did not see my friend the owl. I half thought I might spot an alpaca suddenly raising its head from the brush. One gone rogue, chewing the ferns carefully and giving me that forward, wide-eyed look. “Why aren’t you eating the ferns?” the animal’s question. I take a zagging wider trail that morning. And I come to a sign on a tree that looks carefully hand made that just says ‘Sleepy Hollow’ as though this is the real one, where headless horsemen roam. I can hear no traffic. Occasionally I think I hear someone far off cutting firewood. The Ravens call to each other somewhere over the Nest, west and east again. I step around the big black slugs that edge down the trails at the speed of spilled honey. The Douglas Squirrels rattle and drop cones. At the last of the trail, back out to the road I stop and stand to hear one more Pacific Wren. The Winter Wrens, its cousins, back at my home these next few months, may not call at all, other than the chink-chimp sound they mindlessly make as they feed. I don’t have to stand long before the singsong whisper of the wren laces out of somewhere, fortifying some place in my head that needed fortifying no doubt. Before I headed back to where the leaves were already falling.
Birdsong in faraway places - is it better than Bach from two happy young girls on a bench?
Better than ravens finding each other for the ten thousandth time? Call and response, bird to bird over twenty to thirty years:
Are you there? Yes.
Are you safe? Yes.
Can you see me? Yes.
Can I come to you? Yes.
All transmitted in gronks and caws and quorks. But just the right gronks and quorks. Every answer is better than silence.
Is this better than wren song at summer’s end? Bach’s
Cello Suite number 6? A sunflower bud about to burst?
A sunflower bud about to burst?
As Bill Nelson said (and others I am sure), “time is a swift arrow my friends.” Choose your questions better than I do.
Thanks to Jerry and Joanne for their hospitality, local guiding, and breakfasts times seven. The Eagle's Nest awaits anyone.
Thanks again to Dennis Paulson for a morning with dragons and birds.
Thanks to Hal at Fern Ridge Alpacas.
Thanks to Mary Donaty at Paradise Found Farm for the singular work she does with such battered animals.
Everyone go order some alpaca scarves and socks.