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Monday, September 17, 2012

An Island Interlude: How Abbey Spent Her Summer Vacation

A Washington State Ferry and a sailboat negotiate the waters between the San Juan Islands

The foot injury that I still haven't written much about has been taking up most of my attention the way an injury that forces you to be on crutches will. I've been wearing an air cast and was not allowed to put weight on it and that means everything I do (other than sitting) involves a tremendous amount of effort. It was very nice, then, that I got to have a lovely weekend away from home that finally shifted my focus away from my foot for a few hours!

The San Juan Islands
The occasion was the wedding of the daughter of longtime family friends. She had opted to get married in the San Juans, an archipelago of islands in the Salish Sea between northwestern Washington and Vancouver Island of Canada. Her wedding was held at the Lakedale Resort on San Juan Island, the second largest island in the group, and the most populous. The islands can only be reached by air or sea, so on Saturday morning, after an hour and a half drive from Seattle, we boarded a ferry bound for San Juan.

Okay, maybe I should back up, because it wasn't that simple. It had already been decided that my father would take the car and the dog and catch an early ferry because we had decided to make the trip on the day of the wedding. Arriving in your car before a ferry's scheduled departure time is no guarantee that you'll catch that ferry: if there are too many cars ahead of you in line, you'll have to wait for another boat. Because I require a lot of sleep, it was decided that my mother and my sister and I would walk on a later ferry and my father would meet us with the car on the other end. It was a clever plan until I damaged my foot. That it how I became a roll-on passenger!

Our San Juan Island-bound ferry crosses paths with a ferry
heading to the mainland and a third docked at Lopez Island.

A pelagic cormorant perches on
pilings at the ferry dock.
Crutches are hard work for anyone, but they are especially hard work if you're at all prone to fatigue, and with my migraines, I am exceedingly prone to it! So that's why I went to the islands in a wheelchair. Frankly, I didn't mind this at all, and it only proved to be an inconvenience when we discovered--on the gangway--that the wheelchair could only make it over certain gaps and down certain ramps if I was facing backwards. So I kept having to be spun around while my mother and sister--already dressed for the wedding--struggled to get me aboard. Once onboard, however, it was--so to speak--smooth sailing. If I had been more mobile, I would have spent more time outside photographing things, but I was glad that being seated in the wheelchair allowed me to bring my heavy DSLR along at all. The weather was sunny, if a bit hazy, and the forty minute trip to the island is a beautiful one as the ferry winds through the various straits and channels. I'm always on the lookout for interesting marine life--we'd seen a harbor seal at the ferry dock and orcas roam the waters around the San Juans--but sightings were limited to some red and purple jellyfish. It was without incident that we arrived in Friday Harbor, though it didn't quite work when my mom and sister tried to push me over a largish joint in the ramp up from the ferry to the dock: the wheelchair came to a sudden halt, but the camera bag in my lap did not! Nothing was damaged and we were swiftly reunited with my father, the car, and my ecstatic dog.

My dog, by the way, has not had many opportunities to travel. She's ridden along in the car on many jaunts, but she's never spent the night somewhere other than our house or, in the days when our whole family used to travel to California, the boarding kennel. Her suspicion of strangers makes it hard to take her out and about, but my inability to travel is really what has curtailed Abbey's opportunities. This time, though, we had some excellent dog-friendly accommodations with no others about. One of my father's regular customers has a large piece of property on San Juan Island where we were welcome to stay and we thought it might be fun for Abbey to have an outing. She'd gone in the car willingly enough earlier in the day because she'd seen my dad get out the Gentle Leader (indicative of walks to come), but she was delighted to be reunited with me. She's been extra attentive since my injury and likes to keep a close eye on me when possible. She lounged, the picture of contentment, with her head in my lap as we drove through the beautiful rural island scenery. She was less enthusiastic when we dropped her off at the guesthouse, but we had a wedding to go to!

A view of the lake where the wedding was held.
(Photo by Lakedale Resort)
The weather was perfect for an outdoor wedding--sunny, not too hot, and with no icy breezes--and the location--a small peninsula jutting into a lake surrounded by forest--was beautiful. We were able to take the car quite close to the wedding site and because the remaining gravel path was rough and the distance wasn't far, I opted to go by crutches to the ceremony. It was a pretty scene: the bride (wearing a custom red and gold dress) and her dog (wearing a red collar with silver hearts) were rowed across the lake to the ceremony site by her brother (wearing a captain's hat) in a rowboat (decorated with flowers on the prow). Her father helped her out of the boat and led her up a pathway of red rose petals to stand beside her husband-to-be, flanked by a matron of honor, a best man, and an adorable flower girl. What followed was perhaps the world's shortest wedding ceremony, but once you dispense with all the unnecessary pomp, it doesn't take many words to wed a pair. It prompted some musing on my part about the power of symbols, but the beauty of the setting certainly contributed much to the occasion. A break for hors d'oeuvres gave me a chance to chat with our friends and for the bride and groom (now wearing the captain's hat) to row back across the lake for pictures. I left the festivities shortly after we made our way back to the lodge in preparation for dinner because the stress of the day and the bright light of the setting sun had brought on a significant headache and a great deal of fatigue. I bid my adieus to everyone and my father drove me back to the guesthouse.

Canada is dimly visible across the Haro Strait as sunset light
paints the grass around the guesthouse a reddish gold.

It was on that golden evening ride across the island that the real vacation began. I always love to watch for wildlife, so was utterly delighted to spot a fox hunting in a field and to spy a quail perched on a rock beside the road. After we'd both eaten some dinner, I couldn't resist taking Abbey, my camera, and my crutches out for a quick tour of the sights around the guesthouse. I attached Abbey's leash to one of my belt-loops, trusting, perhaps foolishly, that her concern for my well-being would trump her desire to bolt after any potential prey. She behaved herself very nicely, adjusting to my pace and keeping out of the way of my crutches, and didn't spot the deer grazing on the far side of the field. Once we were back inside, she did have some trouble settling down. She's on the anxious side, so hanging out in this new house, even when I was there with her, was very stimulating. Shortly after she'd she'd finally heaved a heavy sigh--but long before the rest of my family returned from the wedding--I went to bed.

An unsettled Abbey found herself in a strange new world: a different house
with different furniture and a very different view outside the glass doors!

I was given the downstairs bedroom of the guesthouse and I was very glad not to have to go up the stairs. (The entire cottage was so small and so amply furnished that I could actually negotiate most of the downstairs without needing my crutches if I didn't mind hopping from place to place.) The tall bed was soft enough that my leg in its boot (I was wearing it at night, too) managed to find a perfectly comfortable space. I opened the window to let in some cool sea air and fell into a deep sleep. I woke up rather abruptly in the night just as I heard Abbey come out of her crate (she was sleeping in it with the door open, just like she does at home) and start pacing, panting, and shaking. I finally was able to determine that she'd heard something that frightened her and I wonder if it's what woke me up, too. I had to close the window before she could settle down at all and she made it plain to me that she needed to be under the covers of my bed to get over her scare by jumping up uninvited (an unusual behavior for her) and burrowing in. It took a while for Abbey to settle down, but when she did, she got out of my bed and got back in her crate and I quickly went back to sleep.

A very happy Abbey relaxes with her entire family around her after
a nervous night full of strange sounds.

The world beyond the cottage was shrouded in a light fog when I got up. Abbey immediately went upstairs to say good morning to the rest of the family. Unlike the evening before, when she'd been restless and anxious, Abbey was cheerful, relaxed, and delighted to have her whole family around her. Home, in her mind, is where the pack is! I was dressed before the others and couldn't resist taking my camera out on the patio despite my crutches. Our plan was to go out in the large field next to the cottage and let Abbey run free in a supervised fashion. We'd been cautioned that the abundant wildlife could provide temptation for dogs to run off, but we figured she could come out on the patio with me without a leash because she's good with the kind of boundary provided by the plantings around the patio, but she was so excited that she snuck away from me and wouldn't immediately come when I called. I got this great glimpse of her capering in the grass on the other side of the shrubs around the patio, her tail up, her ears up, cavorting with glee in the strengthening sunshine. She did come back to me, but boy was she ever ready to run when the whole family was ready to take to the field!

Abbey and my sister go bounding across the field for the sheer pleasure of running.

Poor Abbey, she's a wonderfully fast runner, but because she can't be trusted with other dogs or people off-leash, and because I'm not usually well enough to take her to one of our secret special spots, she seldom has the opportunity run free. But here she could run as much as she wanted, streaking across the grass after my sister, then turning around to speed toward me, her body low the the ground, a beautiful, primal animal in motion. Because she doesn't get much exercise these days because I'm unable to walk her (she's older now, too), she tired quickly and decided to try to eat grass instead. We discourage this behavior because she has an unfortunate tendency to throw up any grass she eats and we were all going to have to be in the car with her for several hours later in the day. Abbey is never sly or naughty--except when she's hoping to snatch a mouthful of grass! You can leave food unattended or put tempting items in the trash and she will ignore them, but if she's out and feeling frisky, she's going to try to start snacking on grass every time your back is turned! We wanted to check out the pond at the bottom of the meadow anyway, but getting Abbey on the dock, where she'd be unable to munch any vegetation on the sly, was an added incentive. (I'm pleased to report that none of the grass she ate came back up.)

This is what joy looks like.

The perfect pond.
The pond was everything a pond should be, with reeds at the water's edge, rafts of lily pads and flowers dotting the surface, and a lovely blue rowboat tied to the dock. We could see tadpoles in the shallow water and heard several frogs jump, but the frog sculpture on the end of the dock was the only mature amphibian we saw. There were raccoon paw prints on the dock, indicative of nighttime visitors. While they undoubtably visited the pond to hunt, we enjoyed the pond's more aesthetic pleasures. I took dozens of photos of the rowboat, eased down so I could sit on the dock and look into the water, and Abbey thought long and hard about going swimming before ultimately sticking to dry land. Light glinted off the wind-pushed ripples, the reeds swayed, golden eagles circled high above, and all around us was a deep and restful silence. Of course, it would have been MORE restful if Abbey hadn't still been wound up and trying to sneak grass snacks on the side, but it was the kind of scene that soothes the soul.

The roof of the guesthouse where we stayed is visible in this view across the pond.

The rowboat.

A happy Abbey on the prowl for grass snacks!

The beautiful landscaping around the buildings...
At length we got up to explore the rest of the property. Because I had definitely maxed out all of my energy conveying myself from the guesthouse to the pond on my crutches and the property is extensive, this tour was conducted by car. We drove through madrona woods and stands of firs on the slopes that rose up from the grassy meadow and peered out at the garage that houses the car collection, the fitness center, the artist's studio/gallery/guesthouse, the kitchen garden, a variety of outbuildings, another pond, and the main house. Most of the buildings had a perimeter of beautiful landscaping, consistent from site to site, and then the plantings would once again give way to vast expanses of the natural flora. I appreciated that they hadn't tried to eradicate all of the native plants and the landscape portions were so nicely done. We had noticed that the grasses and shrubs around the guesthouse where we stayed were specifically chosen so to screen it from other parts of the property so guests wouldn't be disturbed by other people going to and fro. The buildings themselves were stained rather than painted, with dark green trim, and also fit nicely into their surroundings.

...gave way to a natural landscape of firs, madronas, and black-tailed deer.

After all this fun, clouds were starting to move in and we had to get going in order to catch the ferry home. It was decided that I would ride on the ferry with the car since I was tired. In order to fit my wheelchair in the trunk, Abbey's crate had be transported in the back seat. She has one of those plastic-bodied crates and the top and bottom halves can be unscrewed and stacked, so she got to ride in the car in the bottom half of her crate. It took her a few minutes to get adjusted to the novelty, but when she realized she could lie in her bed, rest her chin on the edge of the crate-half, and watch the scenery through the front window, she was mightily content!

Abbey enjoyed ridding in her deconstructed crate!

Although we'd arrived an hour before the 1:50 ferry was to depart, we discovered that so many people were in line ahead of us that we would not only miss that sailing, we'd miss the 2:15 as well, and would be catching the 3:45 ferry home. After some dismay and then a regrouping, the rest of my family met up with our friends who were also waiting for the ferry while I stayed behind to train the dog.

Abbey would MUCH rather hold eye contact with
you for a Cheerio than bark at strangers!
Abbey, who has always been suspicious of strangers, has recently become paranoid that people are going to attack our car. She didn't used to pay any mind to people walking by the car or on the sidewalk or in other cars, but we suspect that getting older and not seeing as well has given rise to this fear. It's gotten to the point that when we're stopped at traffic lights, she'll growl or bark at people in other cars who are doing "suspicious" things with their hands like holding cellphones or adjusting their hair! We recently started a training program to redirect her attention away from anything that makes her start to fixate and get in that mindset, so waiting for the ferry for several hours was going to provide lots of opportunities for practice! Cars waiting for the ferry are lined up in parallel lanes are really no wider than your average parking space. When there's a long wait, most people get out of their cars and walk up the lanes to go to visit the shops and restaurants. We were parked near the top of one of the lanes, so all the people coming up from below us were going to pass within a foot or so of the car. So I armed myself with Cheerios and the "look" command (Abbey has to hold eye contact with me until I release her) and we went to work! Fortunately, Abbey would rather do tricks for Cheerios than bark at people walking past the car, so it didn't take too many repetitions before she was either focusing her attention on what I was doing with the Cheerios or settling drowsily into her bed. My mom and sister brought me some books they bought at a bookstore and so I took my boot off, put my feet up on the driver's seat, and began to read while watching for approaching people out of one corner of my eye and gaging Abbey's alertness level out of the other. By the time we caught the ferry, she was either glancing at passersby without any interest or ignoring them entirely--with one exception. She took an intense and immediate dislike to the young man sitting in the passenger seat of the car on our left and every single time he got out of the car or even moved so that his hands or head were visible through the window of his car, she'd burst into a frenzy of "stay away!" barking. I have no idea why she thought he was trouble--perhaps he resembled the abusive man from her past?--but I had to keep a close eye on his movements so that she'd already be focused on me and the Cheerio whenever he got in or out of his car!

A sailboat plying the waters between the San Juans.

My family rejoined me shortly before it was time to board the ferry, bringing a delicious sandwich from the restaurant where they had lunch, and then once again left me and Abbey (at my insistence) to our own devises in the car after we boarded the boat. I resumed reading, occasionally looking up to watch the islands slide by as the ferry plowed on toward the mainland, and Abbey drifted off into sleep, barely even registering the occasional ferry workers--hollering loudly to each other to be heard over the throbbing of the ferry's engines--that passed our car. The forty minute journey seemed to fly by. Abbey indicated with pacing and panting that she needed to make a pit stop after we arrived in Anacortes, but the drive home was otherwise uneventful as the unfamiliar beauty of the Skagit Valley farmland gave way to the forest-lined freeways and well-known cities close to home. When we at last pulled into our own driveway that evening, it felt as if we'd been gone much longer than a single night. In the wee hours of the morning, the gray skies that had rolled in as we left the island unleashed a torrential rainstorm, ending a streak of 49 days without rain.

The last time I spent a night away from home was in August of 2009. Since the migraines started in October of that year, I have seldom left my house for reasons other than medical appointments, much less traveling long distances for pleasure. I have missed many gatherings with the same group of friends that attended the wedding even though they've taken place much closer to home. Spending the night in other houses while dog-sitting is the closest thing I get to a vacation these days. Thus, this weekend away was such a treat for me. I love scenery and San Juan Island is dense with rural beauty: fields dotted with cattle and round hay bales, wind-gnarled firs and peeling madrona trees, a red fox trotting through a field aglow with golden evening light, sea and sky merging seamlessly in the Haro Strait, the blue rowboat placidly drifting on its tether in the pond. Against this peace and silence, my joy was doubled by Abbey's fierce delight in running free across the grass, her amazement of finding all of her family united in a strange dwelling, the clash of her handsome brindle stripes against the pastel patterns of the guesthouse interior, watching her discover the joy that can be found in the tension between the familiar and the new, the sight of her sweet face resting on the edge of her crate as she began to doze off in the car on the journey home.

Island farmland.

A distinctive, red-barked madrona tree.

Sea and sky blur into one.

The perfect rowboat.

Abbey standing out against the pastel patterns of the guesthouse.

My little animal explores a new world.

Running for joy.

An ecstatic Abbey leans in to give my sister a kiss.
I've always been someone who is sensitive to the demands of that ineffable mix of mind and emotion that we call the soul and since the disabling effects of the chronic migraines took hold, finding ways to soothe and feed it have become increasingly important. Macro photography, especially of natural objects, is good for my soul. Being with horses is good for my soul. Unable to be with the horses or engage in my usual photography since injuring my foot had been nearly as burdensome as the pain itself. Our overnight trip to the islands healed those hurts and a week later, the memories I made there--Abbey running, the island farmland, the fox at dusk--sustain me still.

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