By Elizabeth Richter
It has been 15 months since we have been in Antibes due to the Covid and curiously in many ways it seems as if the last 15 months never were; our own Brigadoon.
With these evocative words, Katherine Harvey began her dispatch from Antibes, published earlier this summer. I could change “15 months” to “22 months” and “Antibes” to “Blakely Island” and the sentiment would be the same. Brigadoon, of course, is the mystical Scottish town that appears for a day every one hundred years in the Lerner and Loewe musical of the same name. Just as Antibes is a magical place for Katherine, so Blakely is for our family. (You can find the Blakely backstory at: https://www.classicchicagomagazine.com/dispatch-from-blakely-july-2016/)
Driftwood Beach, Blakely Island
Blakely Island in the Puget Sound’s San Juan archipelago is 5,391 miles from Antibes, in the south of France, but has its own distinct charms unique to a Pacific Northwest island. Katherine’s description of the Antibes market had me drooling. I’m a huge fan of farmer’s markets in Chicago, but there’s nothing like that on Blakely. We have a marina that sells basics like milk and wine, but for groceries, we improvise, grow our own, or lug groceries from the dock.
Initial grocery load of the summer at the Blakely dock
Like Katherine, we found many changes after nearly two years. We last set foot on Blakely in August of 2019, planning to return in the spring of 2020. COVID, of course, altered that plan and so it would be almost two years until we returned. Our habit is to depart with a “Do Not Buy” list inventorying how much is in the pantry of staples like peanut butter, dried beans, canned tuna, etc. We also make up a shopping list to start the next year. This time, we were not the first to return. Our daughter had been here in the fall of 2020 and again in the spring of 2021 to do some of her college teachings remotely, joined by some graduate school friends. The shopping lists quickly became out of date, as much as she helped us update them.
We discovered our travel arrangements would change, too, thanks to COVID and various “rearrangements” on the mainland. There were once one-way rental cars available from Seattle – no longer. We also discovered no rental cars available in Anacortes, our mainland base. We needed to grocery shop and get to the dock for the Paraclete, the water taxi that would take us to the island. Of the two Anacortes taxi services, one was already completely booked the day we would arrive. The other was a “don’t think there will be a problem.” We hoped not!
One of the charms of Blakely is a plethora of cousins, from first to fourth, who own or share houses here. Fortunately, we were able to get a ride from Seattle to Anacortes with kind cousins who took our luggage onto the island on an early boat. The second taxi company (Mike) came through for us in town. Shopping completed at the local Safeway, we were whisked by Mike to the dock for the next boat.
The Paraclete reloads at Blakely
The 30-minute boat ride gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the adjacent fir-covered islands and begin to relax. Unloading at the house, we quickly discovered imperfections in the “Do Not Buy List.” I will be researching recipes to use coconut milk and diced tomatoes!
Fortunately dining on Blakely is not all canned food. Growing or capturing one’s food is also popular! Both boats and gardens of various sizes have proliferated, offering many culinary options.
Apple trees are regularly pruned underneath by deer
Like many of our suburban friends in Chicago, deer are a major issue here for gardeners. Anyone serious about growing vegetables or flowers has constructed a high-fenced growing area. The deer even carefully trim fruit trees to an even height.
The summer climate here, like the south of France, produces marvelous though certainly a different mix of fruits and vegetables. No Meyer lemons here, but green beans, lettuces, peas, onions, herbs, and kale flourish. Luckily neighbors with overflowing beds invite one to help harvest the excess and take some home.
A gracious invitation to help harvest green beans
Hinged screens protect sweet strawberries from birds
Being on the water means seafood is abundant but needs to be caught. We often watch fishing boats heading out for a night’s work. July 15 was the start of crab season in the San Juan Islands, and small buoys dot the spots where crab pots have been anchored. A generous cousin makes sure we Chicagoans get a taste of fresh Dungeness crab, pulled from his crab pot the night before.
When one’s shopping is inadequate, and gardens or crab pots don’t deliver enough, we have a very civilized option, established the summer before COVID struck. Instacart! Anacortes’ Instacart shoppers are prepared for island delivery providing crates and where appropriate in large coolers, which are loaded onto another water taxi service, the Island Express. For a fee of $25, your order is brought by boat from Anacortes stores to our dock. Coolers and crates then go back on the boat for the next customer.
We would certainly love access to the wonderful restaurants in Antibes. While there are notable dining establishments on nearby islands, we have the marina which occasionally hosts a simpler Wednesday night menu.
10 of the 50 lucky enough to get reservations
COVID made its mark on the marina as well. Seats at the counter were removed to improve social distancing. In previous years, fresh branded merchandise, t-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, all-weather gear, etc. were available, but this year, supply chain disruption meant that new items ordered did not arrive for the season or could not be ordered at all.
Limited Blakely Island clothing this year
But life on Blakely is not all food and eating. We don’t have the Cannes Film Festival to attract movie luminaries, but we have minus tides! With the full moon or new moon when the moon and sun are in alignment, one has very low tides, below the mean sea level or “minus” tides. In summer in the San Juan Islands, these are during the day. These are the days to walk the beaches and see the wonders of undersea life.
Beach area accessible only at low tide when one can walk to the small island on the left rear of the picture
The beaches here are very rocky and at low tide, dangerously slick with seaweed. A walking stick is very helpful! Barnacle-covered rocks invisible at high tide emerge as does access to strips of beach normally inaccessible. The fun is not just finding beautiful rocks and shells, but the living organisms that populate the shoreline.
Bright orange sea cucumbers dot the beach at low tide
Sea cucumber up close
Tiny specs of bright red-orange alert one to creatures called sea cucumbers. The ones we see are tiny but large ones are harvested and sold for food, fresh or dried, eaten primarily in Asian cuisines. These are the first signs of marine life one sees in the tidal flats. Then one begins to notice tiny spurts of water…clams are there for the digging, but it’s a rocky dig. The real treasure for me is the starfish. There used to be many more than I find now, reduced in number by a virus exacerbated by warming water temperatures. But that makes finding a few more exciting.
The once-prolific Purple Sea Star
Starfish like to lurk under rocks – a shady spot at low tide – so one often has to bend down to find them. The colors are astonishing, intense purple and pale or bright orange. Seemingly innocuous, they are known as tidal pool predators. Lacking jaws and teeth, they feed by protruding their stomachs to dissolve their prey, including barnacles, limpets, even clams, and mussels. They sport thousands of tiny tube feet that act like suction cups. Seagulls and humans alike have difficulty prying them off their rocks. We, of course, just photograph them.
Low tide reveals the rocky seafloor
Seaweed leaves elegant trails on the mudflats
While the beaches retained their natural beauty, life on the island had changed during COVID, most evidenced at the tiny post office. The US Postal Service and UPS both serve the island by plane and in the past two years, online orders have dramatically increased the volume of packages. Since we were last here, the post office had to be doubled in size to make room for the volume. Yes, one can use Amazon Prime for rapid service, but a good rule of thumb is to add two days to the promised delivery date. A bulletin board also posts community announcements.
But where one really finds out what’s going on is at the marina. Opening at 8:00 a.m. the marina offers freshly made doughnuts and lattes, popular with residents, boaters, and workmen alike who stop by for fuel, both personal and diesel. A group of regulars is usually on hand to share local news and comment on who’s coming and going from the island.
A major change has been the improvement in communications with the building of a cell phone tower on the island and faster Internet service. For better or worse, that has meant it’s easier to keep up with the outside world. That’s the dilemma: we come here to unwind and yet sometimes find it hard to let go. Unlike Brigadoon, we are fortunate that Blakely – and Antibes – last more than one magical day, giving us a good chance of really getting away.