DENNY AND HOLLY ONSLOW CHATTER chatter about their second home in rapid bursts, barely pausing to breathe as we motor a chartered boat toward Decatur Island. They speak through smiles, immune to the craft’s noxious gas fumes and roaring engine. As the island grows on the horizon, they’re practically bouncing on their bench. The Onslows are almost home.
Decatur Island sits approximately 15 miles west of Anacortes. No ferries dock there; the four-square-mile uprising of earth is accessible by private boat or via a tiny airport, which is nothing more than a sparse wooden control “tower” and a dirt clearing in a swath of Douglas firs. A small general store and a one-room school serve the 60 or so residents who live there year-round. The roads are gravel or dirt packed, all with their share of potholes and deer rummaging for food, and abandoned trucks littering the shoulder like artifacts. Raccoons and birds nest in their seats, and moss and grass grow on the hoods as though the island is reclaiming the spot their flat tires rest on. Phone service arrived in the ’70s. Some call the island more crude than quaint; the Onslows just call it paradise.
When Denny, a developer with Harbor Properties, and Holly, a self-employed interior designer, decided to augment their primary residence in Leschi with an island retreat almost 20 years ago, they weren’t sure how to go about choosing the right spot. They found the ferry traffic associated with Vashon and the San Juans off-putting, so a friend pointed them to little-visited Decatur Island. “We rented a boat and then biked around the island,” says Holly. They had trouble finding the parcel of land for sale—everywhere they looked they saw only dense forest. When they finally discerned what could be theirs, they were hooked. “We fell in love with it, but then we had to buy the land, build a house, buy a boat…” she trails off. The Onslows’ densely treed, 12-acre parcel sits high above an east-facing beach. Standing alongside the mammoth conifers Denny, a former civil engineer, formulated a mental blueprint for their new home. A follow-up visit, however, changed their plans. A violent storm had ripped across the island, felling hundreds of trees, including dozens on the Onslows’ property. “We were devastated,” Holly says. “But it actually opened up views from where we planned the house. We could never have cut them down ourselves, but now we get a lot of sunlight, which we love.” The couple had their land, and their clearing. What they didn’t have was a house. So the Onslows, both in their 40s at the time, built one. Just the two of them.