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San Juan Island, an awayschooling family travel log

Monday—travel to San Jaun

Up well before the sun and out the door with its rise. Our flight left at 10:30, but we like to be plenty early. The flight to Seattle was easy and we landed with plenty of time to spare. Plenty enough time for a wine and smoothly stop at an airport bar and some good reading (Moby Dick—I'm finally going to do it!), and we were off to the island on a 10-seater plane. We made it. Aunt Cookie and Unlce Michael picked us up with snacks in teh car. They live ten miles from town, and a beautiful ten miles it is. n our drive home alone we saw black-tailed deer, rabbits, and a fox who waits for people to stop and feed him, so he's this close to you, always. Back at "home" we fed the black-tailed deer, practically by hand. Also an Anna's hummingbird and local sparrows. Their inlet is beautiful—serene and lovely. Our first fun (or second, or even third, if you count the wildlife) was to go right out on the boat to retrieve the crab pots put down earlier in the day. No keeper crabs, but several to put back, which Calvin helped with in great delight. And after that work was done, we took a spin around a rocky island to see the Harbor Seals and sea birds (gulls and Oyster Catchers and a Great Blue Heron). Back on land, a delightful dinner of salmon far surpassing any store bought fish, and after dinner a trip down to the dock with flashlights to view the night aquarium: the sea anemone, shrimp, ghost shrimp, and a fascinating array of zooplankton that call the area around and under their dock home, viewed to best advantage after dark with flashlights. We are exhausted but content.


Up earlier than expected (or later than expected if you consider that it was already eight back at home), and nothing is boring here. The sun rises to reveal wildlife galore on the serene inlet: Blue Herons, gulls, grebes, the hummingbird is back, and the deer want their breakfast. Before anything else this morning, Uncle Michael and Calvin disappeared into the Radio Room (where all his radios are kept) and made contact with the outside world. They did this for a first time last night, and I'm not sure I've seen Calvin so thrilled about something in a while. After that and breakfast, our first order of business today was a hike up Mt. Young—a moderate hike with beautiful views at the top. Then lunch at the northwest end of the island, at the marina in Roche Harbor, a stop to get Calvin a fishing license, and a stroll among the marina boats—not unlike the Lake Michigan boat collections, although skewed to the larger side as a whole. After lunch? A stroll in the woods to a hilarious mausoleum (I'm sorry, I can't hep it: the people were buried in chairs around a table). The stroll and the woods were beautiful. On our way back to the southeast tip of the island we stopped at English Camp National Park, the English encampment from the pig war (which we will learn more about from the American Camp side in a couple of days), where we sighted an Osprey and some enormous Maple trees of a special breed, and then at Lime Kiln State Park, where we found Harbor Porpoises, Harbor Seals, Ravens, and beautiful water views. The day was so beautiful, and our hosts so accommodating, that when we got home we headed right back out on the boat in search of sea lions. And wouldn't you know? We found them exactly where we'd hoped they'd be! Yet the seals from yesterday were not on the island where we'd left them; it's as if the wildlife is on parade expressly for our pleasure. Crab and steak for dinner before collapsing into exhausted sleeps.


This morning started almost as early as yesterday, but I have hope that we may adjust to the time, probably just before heading home. This morning all three guys went out for a fishing adventure (Calvin caught 5 king salmon, but all just too small to keep), while I sat and watched the inlet wake up before Aunt Cookie and I went for a walk to the beach where the driftwood is the size of a mast head (reading Moby Dick, remember?) and covers the entire shore, then up a grassland hill and through a forest of still more sizeable trees. After a companionable lunch together, our family of three went into town to the whale museum there. It was a thrilling stop, especially since we are reading Moby Dick, and I believe the artifacts from Melville era American whaling vessels may have delighted Calvin as much if not more than the bleached bones suspended from the ceiling. On our way back we spotted a bald eagle in a pine near the road where we stop every day to visit the fox we now refer to as Tommy. And after a relaxed happy hour at home it was back to town for Thai dinner (yum!), and before bed another go at the ham radio. Those two, Uncle Michael and Calvin, are now referring to themselves, and each other, as hamsters.


Our final full day on the island. It started out like yesterday with the guys out on the boat, only this time their efforts yielded not even a thing to throw back, only the hope of later crabbing success in the pots they put down. And again Aunt Cookie and I hiked, this time to the top of the hill that is big enough to have its own name: Mt. Finlayson. Lunch was a calm affair at home, and then we shoved off to see the last of the island parks: American Camp, South Beach, and Cattle Point. At American Camp (vast, coastal grassland with more rugged, debris strewn seashore) Calvin proudly earned his Junior Ranger Badge by learning about the Pig War and exploring the park in great detail. At South Beach (more coastal grassland but made largely barren due to an overabundance of rabbits) we observed Surf Scoters diving en masse for their food while Calvin combed for rocks and constructed with the smaller pieces of wood. And at Cattle Point Glacier Learning Center we observed glacial striation on the exposed rocky outcrop, which we also enjoyed climbing upon. Back at home a boat ride out to the crab pots yielded the promise of a fresh dungeness crab dinner! So Calvin was able to participate in the entire process from dropping the pots through collecting them, killing, cleaning, and cooking the crab, and finally to cracking and eating it. For our final night we took another trip to the night aquarium (back to the dock with flashlights), another hour on the ham radio, and music and dancing late into the night. 

Tomorrow we leave the island for peninsula. I have no doubt that our adventure will be as exciting there, but it is hard to leave our time here with family and all the enriching experiences they so lovingly provided. I have always referred to these trips as our fall awayschooling adventures, but when we left for this one I had no idea how great the learning part of the adventure would be. For Calvin especially the time on the sea alone has been wholly new and enriching, a time submerged in a new vernacular and a new way of living, plus the radio time, the American history time, and all the physical activity. I call it science, history, ecology, and even art. Plus the reading—this really was a great time to tackle Moby Dick together. 

To be continued in our travel log on the Olympic Peninsula...


[a very splendorous place unnamed]

We are just back from our (almost) annual summer trip to [a park that shall go unnamed]. Almost, because we were frightened off last year by the promise of grizzly weather, and unnamed because in the five years since we started camping there it has become so popular that it is now nearly impossible to book sites without babysitting the bookings on the freezing January midnights when they become available for reservation. We may actually have to try that this year.

It is because of this popularity that we found ourselves camping in what I consider to be the earlier—the iffier, the chillier—side of the summer. But, while we did spend a full 36 hours huddled against high winds whipping bitingly out of the north, the majority of our trip was sunny and completely enjoyable. There's a part of me that lives for sweaty summer days, but the low-seventies were perfectly pleasant with the sun, and the icy early-summer water didn't deter the boys from swimming. Not much, at least.

There was hiking—almost mosquito free thanks to a dry summer and chilly weather. There were ice cream afternoons in town, fried perch at our favorite hole-in-the-wall bar, and putt putt on our way out of town. There were fires, and s'mores, and whittling, and doing dishes with the good old camping 2-pan system. There was snuggling up together in the tent to read at night, the lantern swaying as we were buffeted by an insistent wind. There was sand construction, and rock hunting and skipping. There were pancakes on the camp stove, popcorn over the fire, and a nip of Scotch under the stars after lights went out in the tent. 

And on our very last morning, as we enjoyed a final coffee by the lake, Calvin playing with a new friend soon to be left behind, we saw an eagle tracing overlapping circles in the air, gracing our final moments with a natural splendor. 

Until next year, [very splendorous place that shall go unnamed].


Birding (plus) log, May 2016

May has come and gone, and with it the bulk of bird migrations. Most of our summer residents are settling in for their summer routines. The orioles are just about done using our feeders, the robin is back under our deck, and we've gained a song sparrow amongst our yard residents.
This year's migration month (or two) was an odd one. We had an early warming trend followed by the abrupt return of cold, and through it all a dearth of rain. The migration was slow and we never had birds arriving in the large masses that hobbyists call "bird falls". Instead they trickled in and we had to look harder and farther to find them. 
This is only the second year that Calvin and I Have followed the migration. We saw several birds that were completely new to us (a hobbyist would refer to these as life birds), and we experienced a welcoming into the local bird culture through the county Audubon Society (we attended their guided hikes and assisted with their annual spring migration count), and through strangers that became less strange and less aloof the more we saw them on regular trails throughout the month. It became normal to stop and visit with people whose names we did not know, but whose routes and methods had become familiar to us, like the gentleman with the enormous camera I coveted, the husband and wife team that aggressively shushed birds from the brush, and the young man who hiked every afternoon following school.
This new-found camaraderie was warm and welcoming and provided us with the education and tools to find some of the birds that were new to us, but it was also a competitive and overwhelming at times. For every then helpful birders there was at least one who was jealous and guarded, not willing to share sighting location for fear someone would rival their observation numbers. And then there was the day that, on our usual early morning science hike, we ran into a birder we'd seen regularly who pointed out a pair of Common Nighthawks resting on a tree out in the open, a rare easy sighting. We enjoyed them and went on our merry way. When we left the small park an hour later the usually quiet parking lot was so full we could barely move. He has posted the sighting on a group list and within the hour tens of rabid birders had swarmed the park to see the hawks. We were not unhappy to be leaving at that point.
And now the season has slowed to a crawl. The migrators are gone, and with the leaves out the birds are harder to see, but we plan to continue our birding through all seasons for the first time this year. 

Eastern Phoebe (summer resident)

Yellow-throated Vireo (summer resident)

Cooper's Hawk (resident)

Eastern Kingbird (summer resident)

Yellow Warbler (summer resident)

Painted Turtle

Blackburnian Warbler (migrator)

Blue-headed Vireo (migrator)

Magnolia Warbler (migrator)

Philadelphia Vireo (migrator)

Green Frog


Palm Warbler (migrator)

Cerulean Warbler (summer resident)

Blue-winged Warbler (summer resident)

Northern Parula (migrator)

Pine Warbler (migrator)

Carolina Wren (resident)

Northern Mockingbird (my first look, and not a great picture except for the doofy robin photobomb)

Chestnut-sided Warbler (migrator and sometimes summer resident)

Common Nighthawk (summer resident)

Eastern Wood-Pewee (summer resident)

Swainson's Thrush (migrator)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (summer resident)

Warbling Vireo (summer resident)

Canada Goose (ubiquitous resident)

Wood Thrush (summer resident)

Turkey Vulture (ubiquitous resident)


Back at it

Calvin reminded me this morning that by this time last year we had already logged several weekly hikes to watch nature wake up. This year we're way behind. The mild winter made chickens out of us and we stayed inside too long. But with or without us they're all coming out of hiding, the snakes, the frogs, the little things that sprout under the leaves, so we decided that we should finally join them. And late as we were, we still caught some winter-only residents before their annual trip north, plus lots of regulars who came out to say hello again.


Spring poems, by Calvin

The sun comes out, 
Its heat penetrates the snow
To the grassy layer below,
The clouds grow thin,
A blue sky beind,
Spring has sprung anew.

The springing spring is bouncing in,
With birds and foxes alike,
It fills the winter white with warm,
And melts the snow to slush,
And takes its place where spring should go,
With flowers and grasses alike.

Spring wakes up,
Pushes aside its bedcovers,
Rambling out of bed,
Into its dayclothes it goes oncemore,
Never to sleep for three months,
Goodbye winter, hello spring!