September 1, 2011

Is anything better?

IT’S ONE OF sailboat cruising’s most wonderful feelings. As I open my eyes my first thought is: “We don’t have to go anywhere today.” We’re anchored with a line ashore in a cozy little cove fringed with tall evergreens. It’s an uninhabited island. Just the right-sized island. And we’ve been here before. Much as we enjoy new experiences, we have also come to appreciate the advantages of returning to places we have known and enjoyed.

It’s cool and crisp as I sit in the cockpit with my hands wrapped around a cup of steaming coffee. The sun, already high in the sky, is striking sparks on the calm water and a small river otter is hauled out on a rock nearby, making loud crunching noises as he chews on his breakfast fish. A few puffy white clouds are drifting high overhead, but the barometer is high and we know it will be 75 degrees by mid-afternoon.

One of the wonderful aspects of summer cruising in the Pacific Northwest is that it cools down at night. We can climb into our berths in tracksuits, pull the sleeping bags up around our necks, and get a good night’s sleep. I have spent enough restless nights in sweaty fo’c’s’les in other parts of the world to be very thankful for that.

You wouldn’t guess, by looking at the shore from here, that there is an old apple orchard in the middle of this island. As the otter wipes a paw across his face, I wonder if there are still the golden plains of pale dry grass, smelling of sweet hay, drifting down to the beaches.

I remember one large grassy clearing where an old cast-iron handpump reached down deep into the earth for pure ice-cold well water. Although it wouldn’t have been out of place in a medieval European village, it still worked perfectly, and June and I slaked our thirsts there before heading south along a little-used trail. To our surprise, the trail turned into a newly repaired boardwalk for much of the way, and we enjoyed a wonderful lazy stroll side-by-side in the sunshine. Wild flowers blooming along the trail attracted bees and insects with gossamer wings. The air was laden with a spicy, sun-warmed smell we couldn't identify until suddenly we found ourselves among towering brambles quivering under loads of ripe blackberries.

We ate and walked, ate and walked, until we thought we'd burst. And then we came to the apple trees. Bent and ignored, untended and unpruned for decades, they still produce delicious apples. We had to taste those, too, of course, and keep a couple each to eat on the boat.

And what about the balancing stones? Were they still there? On headlands all around the island someone had built little cairns, piles of balancing stones silhouetted against the bright glitter of the sea.

The geological formations here are perfect for building these intriguing stone cairns. There is an abundance of small dark-gray rocks in the shapes of rectangles and cubes, all with good square edges and flat faces.

The first one we came across was three or four feet high, cleverly constructed on the cantilever principle. But a confirmed meddler like me can always see where a small improvement might turn a merely competent job into a wonderful work of art.

"It needs a small wedge just here to change the fulcrum," I explained to June. "Let's see if we can find ..."

"I wouldn't change it," she said flatly.

"Why not?"

"We don't know who built it. Or when. Or why."

"You think it's a sort of religious shrine?"


The thought that I might evoke the wrath of ancient Indian spirits dampened my ambitions. But not for long. "I'll build one of my own," I said. But the best place had been taken, and I couldn't find another. Besides, the rest of the island was beckoning, smelling of warm resinous pine trees and salt on hot rocks.

"Maybe I'll come back tomorrow," I said.

"Good idea," said June. She knows me well.

So we explored some more, trekking down to a prominent bluff, and finding the rock pools full of exotic purple starfish. There were delicious oysters, too, and I ate one straight off the rocks. I knew I'd probably go to jail if the oyster police ever found out, but at that particular moment I considered the risk justified.

Now, Mr. Otter disturbs the silence with a little splash and swiftly disappears under water. Meanwhile, there's a delicious smell of frying eggs and bacon coming from the galley, and I stretch my legs contently across the cockpit.

What a wonderful day lies ahead. What joyous rediscoveries we will make. Is there anything to beat cruising?

Today’s Thought
The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.
— Ashley Montagu, The American Way of Life.

“If you’re really a police officer, why are you wearing a white suit with little black squares all over it?”
“Oh, this is just a routine check, ma’am.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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