Three Weeks of Island Life

In a bunch of snapshots, here is how we spent three weeks on a remote tropical island northwest of Vancouver BC. Every summer we do the same things and yet every year it is totally new. We met new friends, hiked to new peaks, overcame our fear of ‘hiking’ and no longer consider it a bad word (as long as it is accompanied by the word ‘ice cream’), defeated Mexican wrestlers and much more.


There was swimming at East Beach; this shot was taken as the wake from a tug pulling two barges of saw dust rolled up on shore.


Collecting crabs on Laurel Beach for the twenty-fifth year in the row. I did it and now my children do it. I’m sure that is the same bucket I used too. Maybe even the same crabs. Definitely the same beach.


Playing Monopoly in the cabin when the tide is too low for swimming and the crabs aren’t interesting anymore. Definitely the same monopoly board.


Swimming laps around the dock at Maple Beach never gets boring, especially if you remember the goggles and the life jacket.


Our family catch for this year’s fishing derby was one shiner. We contributed lots of marshmallow and rehydrated apple to the marine food chain over the course of our visit. Those are definitely the same fishing rods – mine is the yellow one, my brother used the green one. My dad did a grand job of jury-rigging the reels, and baiting the hooks to make two kids happy.


Hoping to find a little time for felting, I brought enough supplies to last me through a month of solitude. Instead, I quickly attracted a posse of helpers eager to felt soap, explore needlefelting and felt flowers. We felted 72 felt soaps, 12 felt flowers and six felt geodes. I forgot to photograph the brown cat made for a little boy’s birthday (hopefully his family will capture it in its native habitat for me). The kids were entranced with needlefelting;  they created insects, sleeping bags, balls and Mickey. Each child placed an ‘order’ for their favorite creature from Laurie Sharp’s book WoolPets. I told them six hours spent on the feline was all I could muster this summer, but there might be something in their future.

The highlight of the summer was the day we walked across the island and back, and then some, roughly an eight mile trek. My children are not what you would call intrepid hikers. But I think I have them figured out now: break up the walk with several intermediary destinations, throw in some ice cream in the middle and a carnival halfway followed by a bbq, drag along a pair of friends and another mom who knows every camp song in the book and we’re golden.

Keats Camp is a traditional summer camp on the opposite side of the island, facing Gibsons and the rest of the Sunshine Coast. They hosted a great carnival in between two sessions when all of the counselors were at camp, but no campers. The counselors put a ton of enthusiasm, energy and fun into the event: dressing up in costumes, luring the kids from one activity to another, throwing everything they had into the day.


At this station, a pair of counselors impersonated Mexican wrestlers. They had the posturing, the accents, the moves and the stamina to take on challenger after challenger, in the full sun. I don’t know how they did it considering the heat and the brutal attacks launched by the kids.


We played on a tire swing hanging from an enormous big leaf maple while the boys successfully bobbed for apples.


Everyone had to try out the skate park and then join the classic three-legged race, trip and fall.


It seems I manage to capture a bizarre insect each time I go away from home. I would love to know what sort of butterfly this caterpillar will become. Look at those eyebrows! He reminds me of something right out of Roald Dahl, our favorite author this summer.

Thanks to my parents for putting up with us and putting us up for so long. For washing our clothes by hand, baking countless loaves of bread, smashing mussels, supervising dock swims, leading beach walks and just being there. It was a great time.

Hot Rocks

This summer we spent two weeks at my parents’ cabin on Keats Island, a rocky paradise in Howe Sound between Vancouver and Sechelt BC. We played with the children of old friends, made new friends when the old left, discovered hidden paths through the forest, hiked to beaches we’d never seen, jumped off the floating dock, swam off the rocky beaches, and played hours of games.


Many mornings we spent around the cabin reading, writing, and playing cards waiting for the tides to be just right for swimming. One morning when every game failed to entertain, we decided to try an activity I’d read on someone’s blog in the last year: coloring on smooth beach rocks.


Collecting the rocks was half the fun. We had to find just the right buckets, skip down to the beach and scour the entire expanse for rocks that were large enough and smooth enough to become a canvas.

At home we washed off the seaweed grit and marine residue. Next we spread them out on an aluminum tray and put them in the convection oven to heat for ten minutes. While they were warming, we gathered all the small bits of broken crayon we could find behind the futon, on the bookshelf, and under the table. When they were hot enough, we carefully extracted the tray and carried it outside to the patio where we could safely spread out the hot rocks without damaging any surfaces.

Before long, it became clear that there was a magic moment in the lifespan of a hot rock, when it was hot enough to melt the crayon, but not so hot that it turned into wax soup. Letting the rocks cool for a minute or two was key, but we were forced to make several trips back to the oven for reheating as our imaginations churned away.


It was a wonderfully idyllic time spent in a place that holds many fond memories. Thanks Mom and Dad for making it all possible.

Nature Nut

We profited from unusually warm temperatures last weekend to break out a gift I bought for the family on Etsy before Christmas: a Backyard Bird Nest Experiment Kit from the TheNatureNut. In the last two weeks, we’ve seen and heard robins and  chickadees (and a red-chested bird I can’t identify) around our tree again, so this seemed like a great time to pull it out. I didn’t have to ask my son twice if he wanted to help hang them from the branches of our cherry tree; he was straddling a limb before I had found my shoes.


The handmade kit comes with four wire cages stuffed with different materials: straw, shredded colored paper, yarn and dog hair; there is an experiment observation sheet where we record the nesting material, staring date, empty date and comments, as well as a second observation sheet for recording the types of birds inspecting or taking the materials. In addition, Kathleen provides information about ways to attract birds to your yard, suggested nesting materials, resources and instructions for recording and tabulating the results of the experiment. Children are encouraged to monitor the cages to see which material is used more than the others, and to look around the neighborhood for nests built with our stuffing.


Browsing through her shop on a rainy November day, I couldn’t resist adding these maple seed butterflies to my shopping cart. They seemed full of promise for spring.


Cleverly packaged with a styrofoam block and recycled water bottles turned upside down to provide a protective casing, these little butterflies sat on our windowsill for months waiting for the weather to turn. Now they sit in our garden as a sweet reminder that the real butterflies will be out soon enough.

Big Green Island

There is a place that lives so large I have a hard time describing it to people. Keats Island is in Howe Sound, where the mountains seem to plunge into the ocean; the sound is visible from the highway that runs between Vancouver and Whistler.

My parents bought a long, narrow sliver of paradise in 1981 for $11,000; for their dollar they were given the key to a 10×10 plywood shack with rotten floorboards, 6600 sq ft of ferns, big leaf maples, douglas fir, ferns and blackberry bushes so dense they covered the front of the property, obscuring the view of the shack and completely obliterating the road.


Our first summer, we camped in the shack while building an A-frame cabin with the help of friends and a couple of my mother’s brothers. They hired a builder brimming with enthusiasm who had never built a house. I can still picture his rusty truck with no floorboards; he had to fill the radiator with a gallon of water each time he stopped.


Part of what makes Keats Island so magical is its inaccessibility. To get there, you need to take two BC ferries, or a water taxi. Should it be necessary to get building supplies, appliances or a backhoe on the island, you have to rent a barge and be in the good graces of someone who owns a truck on the island. Most people opt to hire one of two contractors if they want their project finished in less than three years; some opt to do it piecemeal, spending their weekends and summers carrying up laminate flooring and tools by hand on the Stormaway, a thirty passenger aluminum charter boat, pictured above, that serves the island twice a day.


There is no licensed commerce on the island, so groceries have to be carried up, and all garbage is packed out. The exception is Barnabas, a Christian family camp located midway across the island; they have a small general store, open three hours a day, that serves espresso and ice-cream.


Both of my parents worked in the school system, so we spent most of our summers at Keats when I was growing up. These were formative years, shaping my love of the ocean, and also my expectations of summer leisure. We were never a family of hikers or mountaineers, nor did we camp. Why would we when there was ‘Twin Maples’, a cabin built to provide just enough comfort to keep us warm? Until my parents renovated this year, we always relished the sense that we were roughing it.

Our cabin is located amidst a small community of cottages in Eastbourne; there are roughly 150 families on our end of the island, though no more than one third of the homes are ever occupied. ‘Who’s up?’ people ask as they get off the ferry at the government dock, wondering which of their friends might be staying that weekend.


My closest friends were Amy and Laurie, sisters who lived two cabins away, just close enough that we could stand on our front porch and yell ‘Kayo’ to see if chores were done and they were free to play; their family bought an old cabin the year before we did, so they already knew the Grays, sisters Tara and Alana who lived near the path to Maple Beach. Alana and Laurie were ‘up’ last week with their children; our children played together just like their mothers did so many years ago.


The family who owns the cabin across the road from ours have four children, gifted with inventive spirits. Perhaps it is because they have been renovating their cabin for eight years, a heritage relic of the early years, their property is the defacto depository for all things potentially useful, while not immediately obvious to the adult observer. The favorite toy was a go-kart built out of a rusty tricycle, a handtruck or dolly and a boogie board.

Summers are about families and children falling all over each other; the headache that comes from swimming in the Pacific Ocean for more than fifteen minutes; pooling the last egg, cup of milk and three slices of bread with homemade blackberry jam for a shared breakfast on the patio, the freedom to read a book while your children are playing somewhere, and serenity of a long walk in the woods.

Letterboxing: A New Trail

Since there isn’t a lot of time for crafting at home, but I’m still full of stories from our summer in New Hampshire, it seems appropriate to share some of those tales.


One cool morning, when we had no visits planned, and the kids seemed like they would benefit from a little one-on-one attention, Sophie and I kayaked across Thorndike Pond to visit our friend Emily, a retired kindergarten teacher from Rhode Island. Several years ago, she built a nature path through the woods next to her cabin, stocked with tchotchke you wouldn’t expect to see in a woodland setting. Sophie and I thought it would be fun to create our own letterboxing trail on Emily’s path for other children to visit.


If you’ve never heard of letterboxing, it is a scavenger hunt that leads to a buried box where adventurers collect a stamp on their notepad and leave a stamp, signature or note in the trail box. The creators of the trail return periodically to see who has left their mark in the book and to check on the supplies. There are letterboxing trails all over the world; you can look up a list of trails for your next hike or walk, and if there are none registered you can create your own.

We found a plastic deli container in the kitchen, filled it with a stamp, a small inkpad and a notepad. Starting at the end of our trail, we buried the container in some loose dirt under a tree. Then we went back to the beginning to create the clues that would ultimately lead to the letterbox.  


The first clue was left with Emily. It directed adventurers to the birdhouse where the second clue was tucked in the fin of the wicker flying fish. And so on and so on.


Thank you Emily and Rosie for sharing our enthusiasm, and to Kristin for introducing the idea to our preschool class. 

Worms For Sale

My children learned their first lessons in marketing and economics today. While working to turn our vermipost, my children noticed just how much the red wrigglers had reproduced while we were away. They scooped some out for a closer look and a little play. When Sophie was done, she suggested scattering them in the garden; my son remembered a story he heard about his great-uncle who sold nightcrawlers to fishermen when he was a boy forty years ago. “We should sell them,” he piped up, “to fishermen going to Green Lake”.


Before long, they had scrounged some recycled yogurt containers from the kitchen, poked air holes in the lids and counted out their stock. They decided on prices, made signs and moved a table from the patio to the street.


Their first customer was our regular postal carrier. “Worms? Don’t you have lemonade? I don’t need any worms right now”. Two more cars stopped to ask about lemonade before we decided to provide what the market was demanding. We made bigger signs, and the kids took turns dancing around the table with their signs held high to attract attention. Sophie stayed at her table for 2 1/2 hours, bringing in $6.05 in lemonade sales; the worms have been relocated to a larger container for safekeeping.

At dinner, we had an extensive conversation about the endeavor. How much can you charge for homemade lemonade? Is it worth the higher material cost to make it from scratch? Should it be listed on the poster? Do cookies provide a good return on your investment? I charged 10% of their profit for the materials that went into today’s lemonade, plus my dishwashing service since we were using our own cups and they didn’t want to wash them. If they put the stand up again tomorrow, they are going to pay for the sugar and lemons out of today’s profit. Now, about those worms…

Box of Tricks

Blair inspired me yesterday with her post describing a box of tricks to pull out all summer long to stave off boredom (make sure you read last year’s post and all the comments for a gillion extra ideas*). I love the idea of an unstructured summer, but I also know that without some sort of schedule, our days deteriorate quickly into chaos. The reality of our house is that we each want to do our own thing, and they aren’t necessarily compatible, and my son-who-will-not-be-named really craves everyone’s attention. (My son agreed to let me blog about him occasionally as long as I don’t use his name and as long as I make everyone who reads this promise never to speak of anything you read in front of him. Please, please, please, with the gracious exception of Grandma, Mammy, Aunt Maria and Erika Carlson because he does want you to know what he is doing – everyone else is just too scary).


Last year, we brainstormed a full summer’s worth of activities organized around thematic days, similar to a traditional summer camp. However, we forgot to take into account that we were fully scheduled in swimming lessons, space camp, yoga camp, clay camp and a dozen other things that resulted in way too many thigh burns from hot car seats. Some of our favorite ideas:

  • costume day, pajama day, crown day, hat day (lots of dress-up)
  • wheel day (scooters, bicycles, skateboards, matchbox cars)
  • flight day (kite flying, float plane watching, airplane gazing)
  • red day, orange day, yellow day (clothes, foods)
  • juice day (making, squeezing, freezing, drinking, spilling)
  • fish day (aquarium, fish store, Puget Sound)
  • fiber day (token nod to my obsession)
  • bird day (bird store, feather art, urban chicken tour)
  • playground day (explore all the city parks)
  • water day (sink, backyard, wading pools, lakes and oceans)
  • music day (ZooTunes concerts, Seattle Symphony’s educational center “Soundbridge”, dancing in the kitchen and basement to our favorite music, making instruments from found materials)
  • construction day (watching house construction in our neighborhood, large machinery working around the city, super fort building and lincoln log townhomes)
  • boat day (ferries, water taxis, tug boats, fire boats, kayaks and canoes)
  • nature day (woodland parks, letterboxing, gardening at home)
  • art day (crafts, clay, painting)

I imagined we would do a couple of these every single week, and rotate through the others over the course of the summer.


I would be doing a disservice to myself and all of the young parents reading this if I didn’t own up to the reality of life** around our house. Mixed in with the field trips and activites we will still go to the grocery store every two days, spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen, mow the lawn, avoid folding and putting away the laundry, gripe over the doghair dustbunnies reproducing in the corners. Life will go on as it always does, with acts of aggravated assault, the continued injustice of one extra strawberry, dog torture, and sensory overload that leads me to shout, “Can I have five minutes to myself at the computer?”


I will feel hijacked by my son’s constant demand for my attention, wondering when “my” day will come and why we can’t spend all summer wrapped in craft projects. Sophie will complain that life isn’t fair and “he” will insist over and over that someone has to play baseball with him right now or he is going to get really, really angry.

While I have lofty goals for a relaxed, unprogrammed summer, I have to face the reality of who my children are (1 active/explorer/inventor who loves to tear things apart to see how they work + 1 cerebral/planner/detailer who spends hours finishing a project just so), who I am (solitary/planner/organizer who craves time to process the whirlwind churning in my brain and needs to exorcise the ideas so I can function), and the fact that we all get along better when we are away from our home.

So, instead of letting the kids fill their days of boredom, I will schedule and plan our days so when we wake up we know where we are going and what needs to be done. We can blow it all off if the prevailing winds are just right, but I’ll keep the master plan tucked in my back pocket just in case I’m right, and we all live up to the precedent we’ve set.

 *Some of my favorite craft ideas gleaned from comments on Wisecraft:

  • making fimo buttons
  • sun prints (cyanotype) with photo-sensitive paper
  • painting birdhouses, clay pots, rocks
  • making block prints
  • painting muslin with block prints or brushes
  • making paper

**Just in case I needed to justify to anyone where my time goes, read this column by Carolyn Hax in the WashingtonPost. Thanks for the tip, Jen. Feel free to send me any more snarky columns you find.