Spars, Planks, Keels — Oh My!

Hello everyone,

I’ve been installed in a small cottage in Port Hadlock, Washington for nearly a month now, and I’ve been in class every week day (but for holidays) from 8 to 5, learning about wood, tools and how to build wooden boats.  I miss all of those close to me terribly, but I couldn’t be happier.

A few words about my surroundings:  Port Hadlock lies at the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, facing Port Townsend Bay, which means it’s near the entrance to Puget Sound.  The town is little more than a crossroads, but when the clerks at the grocery, hardware store and thrift shop know you after two weeks in town, it’s comforting.  Hadlock was a much bigger place 110 years ago, but today, there’s little in the way of industry.  What there is, is the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building.  Much of the school hangs over the water in historic buildings, with the rest of the campus just up the hill.  I live in a cottage across our dead-end street.  The surroundings are spectacular, and they reveal new surprises daily.  The maples and oaks just now glow in shades of yellow, orange and red with an intensity I’ve never imagined.  Some classmates showed me a secret path to an artesian spring that gushes forth the most delicious water only a few feet from the shore.  One recent day on morning break the guys in the smokers’ ghetto next to the classroom building were lucky enough to see a bald eagle snatch a gull off the water.  On clear days (they don’t come too often) the most prominent peaks in the Cascades — Mt. Baker and Mt. Ranier, along with the Olympic Range, shine with white luminescence under their mantles of snow.

About those Olympic Mountains:  Since they rise to more than 7,000 feet along the spine of the Peninsula just a few miles west of where I live and study, we’re in a rain shadow.  Hollister averages 13 inches of precipitation annually.  Port Hadlock averages 18.  But it comes a teaspoon at a time, and I’m still adjusting.  The day may start sunny, or foggy or cold, or wet.  Twenty minutes later, the playbook has changed.  I’m dressing in layers of layers, because 30 minutes of hard rain is often followed by balmy sunshine, then hard wind.

I’m writing this on Sunday night, after a full day before returning to class.  My neighbor and fellow student, who is exactly my age and moving into a new career after life in the Coast Guard,accompanied me this morning.  We left just before dawn to catch the low tide at a beach facing the Strait of juan de Fuca.  Had it been less overcast, we could have waved at Canada from there.  Nevertheless, there was a lot of ship traffic to watch.  We rambled down the beach until our pockets were bulging with treasures we did not need but could not live without.  Two miles down the beach, and old dump spills into the sea, and the beach glass there is abundant.  It’s like picking jewels off the sand.   There have not been enough storms lately, and the tide was not low enough, but we returned to the car staggering under the weight of our haul (thanks to some great driftwood finds).

As we walked, two bald eagles called to one another.  When a third entered the area, a peregrine falcon became testy and chased it off.  Then a pair of golden eagles soared along the cliff edge.  The falcon was prudent enough not to protest.  The shoreline swarmed with sea ducks, mergansers and harlequin ducks.  If you don’t know the latter, do yourself a favor and check out a picture on the internet.  Harlequin males may be the most beautiful ducks any of us will ever see.

Tomorrow means a return to class.  Our instructors have all worked in the industry for many years, and in every case, done great things.  A google search of their names reveals accomplishments and awards that they would never reveal themselves.

In short, the weather is gray, the school outstanding, the people unimaginably friendly, the surroundings the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered, and the lonleiness — at times — a heartcache.  But, in balance, I’m in the right place at the right time.

I stay busy on weekends cycling and hiking, and there are a lifetime’s worth of adventures to be had close to hand.  Less than a tank of gas yields more parks than I have bothered to count, a ski resort and a hot springs complex.  A bit further are rain forests that have no compare in North America.  I’m waiting for utility bills to come in so I can become a local resident, and save $80 on my fishing license, because it’s frustrating to watch people pulling salmon, sea-run cutthroats and dungeness crab from just off the dock across the street.

Sometimes the paper mill down the road stinks.  Often, I feel pangs of loneliness.  But overwhelmingly, parked against Port Townsend Bay, next to Skunk Island, I feel like I am the luckiest man alive, and grateful beyond words for a partner who continues to encourage me in this endeavor.