Living the Scandinavian Dream in the Pacific Northwest

One writer on Samish Island, the family retreat that taught her the art of paying attention.

Living the Scandinavian Dream in the Pacific Northwest

The 10-acre property on Samish Island is home to two spartan cabins.

Photo by Randi Olson

My first taste of childhood freedom came in the form of something I’ll call Expedition Driveway. But first, let’s set the scene.

Location: Samish Island, Washington, which is actually not an island at all, but rather a limb on the northwest coast of Washington (thanks to a dike built in the 1930s).

Sublocation: The Property: Our family nickname for the 10-acre slice of the island my grandparents purchased in 1959. Also answers to Samish.

Main characters: Mom (Liv), sister (Aleia), me. One mighty maroon Volvo station wagon.

To reach the driveway, we first had to drive about 90 minutes north of our Seattle home. That’s not long, but I am, of course, now thinking in adult time. In kid time, it’s a good eon or two. So there was no telling what state our family of three would be in by the time we reached the driveway. I might be carsick from reading, or Aleia and I might be engaged in combat, depending on whether or not backseat border regulations were in place. (“That’s my side. Don’t you cross that line! Mooooom!”) If our mom had stopped at the corner store for ice cream, we’d be humming with delight, but that didn’t happen often, because sugar plus kids can be a dangerous sum.

All that faded away the moment we reached the driveway, the starting point for Expedition Driveway. Then, as now, the Property was heavily wooded, filled with sprawling ferns, sky-brushing firs and pines, and funny-looking, probably super toxic, mushrooms. Looking up, see a cobalt-blue sign tacked high on a tree with carved letters painted yellow: Skandia Strand. Beneath that, a long horizontal gate, which one of us would unlock and slowly push open.

Then: heaven. Aleia and I would step onto the back bumper of our Volvo station wagon, grab onto the silver roof rack, and, as my mom drove slowly down the pitted dirt road, ride like gladiators heading into battle.

There was, and is, nothing like bumping softly through a forest, feeling the cool air on your skin, as the sun trickles through the treetops and turns fiddlehead ferns into glowing, otherworldly creatures. All we’d hear were birds and our Volvo as it rocked toward its destination. And suddenly, we’d be there. The forest would give way to a grassy field with two A-frame wood cabins, a small pond, and in the distance, a fringe of trees guarding a steep cliff that overlooks Samish Bay. Freedom.

It was the kind of freedom that I hear people say kids don’t have anymore. I don’t know if that’s true, or if it’s what everyone says as they age, but I do know that Samish is where I learned to watch and appreciate the world. During the summer, we’d often spend weekends up there; sometimes an entire week. We didn’t have a TV or video games or even a radio, just endless free time and our imaginations. Our grandfather would set up a croquet course and we’d play a lawless version of the game (rules, schmules). Or we’d spend hours trooping through the woods, making up elaborate stories (magic and a fairy named Poppy were recurring themes) and hunting for the perfect marshmallow sticks. Aleia would search for salamanders by the pond’s shores while I’d row our tiny inflatable boat into the middle of the water and just sit and read.

The Property is also the first place I remember thinking I want to be a writer. It’s a little embarrassing to think about now, but I remember being in that boat—I must’ve been about 9 or 10 years old—writing in a spiral-bound notebook and pretending I was Thoreau. I’d never touched one of his books, but somehow I’d heard about Walden Pond and I knew he was a writer. And I thought, well, we have a pond and I want to write, ergo: Thoreau. And while I didn’t always write, you know, about the trees, I learned to be comfortable in nature, to enjoy the riches it offers. It’s where I picked up the art of sitting back and just listening—an art I still (try to) practice today.

Inside the cabins, there are plenty of Scandinavian references.

Inside the cabins, there are plenty of Scandinavian references.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

But before all that freedom, there were chores. The moment we arrived, there was the unloading of coolers, which lived in the main cabin, where we’d prep and store food and, occasionally, eat. (The Property has no refrigeration.) We’d open the Dutch doors to air out the dark cabins, which always smelled of something wonderfully ancient, and pull open the curtains sewn by my grandmother ages ago. We’d collect kindling for the campfire and use old Minute Maid orange juice jugs to haul water from the spigot near the “sleeping cabin,” though no one slept there—most of the time, we’d crash in sleeping bags sandwiched between two tarps on the grass.

The Property—if it isn’t clear already—has zero frills. Being there is like traveling back in time to a Scandinavian version of Little House on the Prairie. (We even have an early 20th-century wood-burning stove that we’d need to get going at least 30 minutes before we wanted to cook anything.)

At that time, I knew nothing about the connection between Nordic countries and nature. To me, the Property was just the Property. But by buying these acres so close to the water, building minimalistic cabins, and making them the center point of our family life, my grandparents essentially created the traditional Scandinavian summer experience in the Pacific Northwest. Which makes sense, given that my grandmother is Swedish, my grandparents were Scandinavian folk dancers, and the Property was purchased to support their community-oriented life.

At times, we’d be there when the Property was taken over by Scandinavian musicians—fiddlers, guitar players—and people spontaneously springing into folk dances. Usually, it was just my grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles, cousins and us. During the day, we’d mow the lawn, weed the gardens, cut down trees, repair the cabin roofs or the wooden outhouses. Well, the adults would do those things. We kids weren’t tasked with much more than picking the blackberries from the brambles near the main cabin—our grandmother would tell us to fill a bowl, which takes an extraordinarily long time when you’re eating every third sun-warmed berry.

Walking the beach at Samish is always an adventure.

Walking the beach at Samish is always an adventure.

Photo by Aleia Greene

In the afternoons, the projects would end and the family would troop down to the beach, which isn’t a beach in the traditional sandy sense of the word, but more dynamic and interesting. This was a place for walking and collecting—not swimming and relaxing. We’d wander over the smooth stones, turning them over to discover tiny crabs; stand atop boulders colonized with barnacles and the occasional purple starfish; pick our way between great wads of fresh seaweed in the water, and higher up on the beach, dried husks of bull kelp.

Nighttime had its own rhythm. We’d cook dinner, then walk a loop around our part of the island, and maybe spend a few hours by the campfire or jigsaw puzzle by an oil lamp. We never stayed up past 9 or 10 p.m. When you live Amishly by lamplight, you tend to wind down with the sun.

The two cabins, surrounded by towering cedars and pines.

The two cabins, surrounded by towering cedars and pines.

Photo by Aleia Greene

All this to say: There was a simplicity and a grittiness to growing up at the Property. My sister, cousins, and I were like plants being hardened for winter. We learned to not be fazed by bathing with freezing water or waking up covered in dew and mosquito bites, or spending 90 percent of our day running around outside, dirty and disheveled. (As kids, we complained plenty about these things, but let’s go with the rosiness of my memory.)

While I loved spending childhood summers there, as a young adult, I ran away from that simplicity. I wanted glamour and adventure; I craved change. Over the last handful of years, that’s shifted again, and I’ve become increasingly grateful for those early freedoms. My comfort with camp-like conditions got me through the Northern California power outages that left us without running water for a few weeks last fall.

Now, the ability to make a lot out of a little—to create my own fun—is getting me through these long days at home. In fact, I can’t help but see that I’m pretty much back to that inflatable boat, reading, bobbing, and thinking about life. Only now, I’m in the houseboat I call home and if I could, I’d be Taffy Brodesser-Akner or Rebecca Solnit or Rahawa Haile. (My frame of reference has, thankfully, expanded beyond Thoreau.)

I don’t know when I’ll visit Samish again. But when I return, I know it’ll be with a greater appreciation for its lessons. Because how can you not be grateful for the place that taught you, to borrow Mary Oliver’s wise words, “how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass . . . how to be idle and blessed”?

>>Next: A Ferry Ride Away, a World Apart: A Weekend Retreat to Whidbey Island

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR