A fire glowed on the beach and a full moon rose high above the nearby treetops on the night Gail Dupar met her future husband, Mark. "I was having a cookout with a girlfriend," recalls Gail. "It was especially quiet on the island then.
We were drinking wine and feeling silly, and we began to howl at the moon. Someone howled back from the trees. Then this man came down the beach and introduced himself to us. It was Mark. I thought, Wow! On Decatur, of all places."
Tiny Decatur Island ― a 3 1/2-square-mile speck of forested and rolling agricultural land off the ferry routes in Washington's San Juans ― is an unlikely location for sudden romance.
But that's where Gail, a freelance artist in Seattle, had come to see if she could live simply at the farm that had been in her family for more than 100 years. And where Mark, who worked in the hotel business, had come to help his dad build a cabin. And where, after that beachside introduction, the two urban refugees fell in love and stayed to build a future together.
"I was naive to move here alone," Gail says. "The house needed work. I was catching rain in pots and asking neighbors to help me fix things." Mark, a self-taught carpenter, was happy to help. "He felt sorry for me," Gail says with a laugh. "He'd come down and cut the grass ― he brought a tractor."
The couple began working side by side, first just making repairs. "My eyes would pop open at 4 a.m.; we'd clean up, brush up, get projects going," says Gail. "We both had the same vision for what the property could be."
Four years after they met, the couple married (on the porch of what was the island's original post office, which they'd just refurbished) and settled into their new life. Not long after, their determination was tested by a lashing winter storm. "The wind was so strong that the house shook, single-pane windows flexed in and out, and the power was out for days," Mark recalls. "We were the new kids here. Neighbors were afraid we'd perish; they checked on us."
"I didn't think I could live here permanently if the future was going to be like this," Gail adds. "The storm was dramatic and violent. We stuck it out; now we're pros at storms."
And they persevered. The couple refurbished the farmhouse and built a barn and a garden shed.
They planted a kitchen garden, hooked up an ancient well to water it, and learned how to live off the harvest. As they worked, they discovered family treasures. Letters from Gail's grandpa to her grandma, proposing marriage. Great Aunt Helen's gnarled plum tree. When the tree was small, according to family stories, a grazing horse pulled it out of the ground and ran off with it, Helen in hot pursuit. Fortunately, Helen rescued and replanted the traumatized tree, and it continues to produce luscious plums that Gail, an accomplished cook, uses to make jams and sauces. Today the Dupars live mostly on Decatur, though they also spend time in Anacortes where their daughter, Saide, 17, attends high school. Do they miss the buzz of city life? Hardly, says Mark. Friends come for dinner, or neighbors gather for cookouts on the beach. And on special occasions, Gail and Mark often take their boat to nearby Orcas Island for a candlelit supper, then cruise home by moonlight.
"It's romantic in summer when you putt back home just after dark and the water is calm," Gail says. "The wake behind the boat is phosphorescent, like a trail of sparkling stars."
Home by Sunset: Get the latest finds, tips, and projects on our home blog