by Patty Gelb
While it may sound romantic to jet off and go live on an island, there can be a lot of things to consider before making such a move. My husband, University of Toledo alumnus Grant Gelb (Univ Coll `92) and myself (a former Alumni eMagazine writer) were recently given the opportunity to consider such a lifestyle change, and, as of April, can now say that we are Island Living.
What happened to make us quit our jobs, sell our home and most of our possessions, rent an RV, load our two dogs, cat and clothes to move across the country in our version of a mid-life crisis? It all happened very quickly and started with a phone call back in October from my father.
My dad, Rich Zegar, told me to call Pete Cosmos, a lifelong family friend. Pete and my father had flown together in the United States Marine Corps. I don’t remember a time when the Cosmos family wasn’t a part of our lives.
Following retirement from the USMC, Pete, and his wife, Joan, became the estate manager of a large private island estate in the San Juan Islands in Washington state. My dad said they were retiring from the position, and when thinking of potential replacements, they thought of Grant and me.
I honestly thought my father was joking at first. I had an opportunity to visit Pete and Joan at their home on the island in 2008. My family had taken an Alaskan cruise that summer, and, at the end of the cruise, spent a few days on the island with the Cosmos family. I remember being in awe of the beauty of the area and being jealous of Pete and Joan for having the coolest jobs in the whole world. Still wondering if it was a joke, I picked up the phone and called Pete for the first time in years.
He was serious! The dream position was really going to be available. He and Joan loved their job, and loved the place, but decided it was time to retire after 22 years. I was blown away that this was really a possibility.
Grant had been out of the house during these phone calls. I literally paced the floor, waiting for him to get home to tell him about the opportunity. We had talked about wanting to make a life change like this for years. We played around with the idea of starting over and taking off for a beach to open a bed and breakfast (well to be fair, the dream was more ski lodge than beach for Grant).
Beach or mountains, the idea always remained the same. We loved the idea to actually do something outdoorsy and more adventurous than what our careers had been to this point. This estate manager position, on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, was intriguing and sounded like the kind of thing we had previously discussed.
On top of being something that was always interesting to us, this opportunity came at, what seemed, to be a great time in our lives.
Grant had carved out a very successful medical/surgical sales career over the previous 24 years representing companies like Johnson & Johnson, Datex Ohmeda and Advanced Medical Optics, until becoming regional sales director for a medical startup. At that point in his career, his territory covered the entire Midwest. This meant he was out the door most mornings, often at 4 a.m., for meetings or to be in surgery a couple of states away. The medical field has experienced many changes during Grant’s career. Through layoffs, corporate mergers and changes in healthcare reimbursement laws, Grant always had success, but lived in a high-stress environment with a lot of uncertainty. That inspired many of our discussions of taking off for the mountains.
I had been working in nonprofit organizations for the last 13 years after transitioning from a corporate marketing position in Detroit. I had a position as the director of marketing and development for the Toledo Area Humane Society. As an avid animal lover, working for an animal shelter was emotionally draining, so I was fortunate to transition to a job I loved at the UT Foundation as their development writer. I was happy in my career, but worked at a desk sitting in front of a computer all day. I dreamt of a more active job that would motivate me to live a healthier lifestyle.
Financially, this was an interesting career change for us. The job included onsite housing which meant we could downsize in a way not easily possible for people at our career level. Imagine freeing yourself of your mortgage and all other expenses associated with your home. The dream of walking away, taking off and restarting our careers had always felt unrealistic — at least until we received the phone call.
When Grant got home, I talked with him about my discussions with Pete. Grant had not been with us on the part of the trip to visit Joan and Pete in 2008, so he had no idea what the place was like. I showed him vacation photos of my visit so he could see the island. That first night we stayed up until 3 a.m. looking at the pictures, researching the area and just considering this very different lifestyle. If we applied for this position, and actually got it, it would mean leaving everything we knew behind to move across the country to become caretakers for a large estate. That first night we couldn’t even wrap our minds around the idea.
The next day, we spent several hours on the phone with Pete and Joan to learn what the job would actually entail. We needed to know, what does an island estate manager actually do?
The position sounded exciting with wide-ranging responsibilities.
Pete and Joan explained that they managed the staff that handled the landscaping, maintenance and cleaning, working alongside them, to maintain the needs of the estate. They stocked and shopped for supplies using the estate boat or water taxi; created floral arrangements; hired contractors; decorated for the seasons and holidays; maintained gardens, which includes formal gardens throughout the 65-acre estate, an orchid, cutting garden and large greenhouse; maintained and stocked a fish pond and kept trespassers off the estate. Several times a year the owners hosted large parties at the estate and Pete and Joan managed preparations for guests, including being sous chef to the estate chef.
The list of responsibilities was long and varied.
The estate itself is very wooded, so there are also a lot of animal-related issues. They spoke about living approximately with majestic animals like whales that swim right past the property, beautiful deer grazing on the lawns, otters in the pond, bald eagles right by their porch, seals on the estate beach. Interacting with a wide variety of wildlife was part of their daily routine. Pete and Joan also spoke about the negative animal issues that go with living on the island like battling mice, bats setting off alarm systems at 3 a.m., deer eating everything you just spent the last day planting, and the never ending battle of animal droppings from deer, otter, birds and geese everywhere.
Even with the description of the challenges, the position sounded intriguing. Too intriguing not to explore.
Based on what we knew to this point, we felt like we actually had a lot of life experiences we could adapt to this job. I had worked on galas for years, handled large parties, created floral arrangements, decorated and managed staff. I also had a lifelong love of gardening.
Likewise, Grant has always been very handy. We flipped a home a few years ago and Grant and I did almost all of the work ourselves. The personal home we bought was a fixer upper which we did. He also maintained our pool (there is one on the estate that requires maintenance). Grant was very comfortable doing handyman work; electrical, plumbing and minor repairs. When needed, he hired contractors and through his work experience he knew how to negotiate large contracts and manage staff.
What the heck…we decided to throw our hats into the ring and apply. We were captivated by this potential adventure and an inherently healthier, outdoor lifestyle. Grant wanted to visit the island to see what it looked like and I wanted to see it from the perspective of actually living and working there. We decided to go for it with the intent that if we got the opportunity, to go visit the island and better see if it was a good fit.
We would never have believed then, that just a month and a half later, we would be selected to fly across the country to interview for the position. The interview was such a positive experience. We felt we had a great connection with the people who owned the estate and who would potentially be our employers. That was incredibly important to us. We then spent the rest of the weekend on the island, our heads spinning with all of the information we were receiving and with the beauty of the place. It was breathtaking for us to think that this place could be our new home.
It was also a bit intimidating. We walked around the estate talking about the potential of living there if we were offered the position and what that would mean. We thought we would have a few weeks after our interview to discuss the idea before there was a decision. This was Grant’s first time visiting the island so our surprise came at the end of the weekend when we were asked to have a second meeting with the estate owners. During the meeting, they offered us the position. We were delighted, but felt the need to discuss it more. Grant’s first response to the offer was that we needed a few days to think about it.
While we went into the interview wanting to pursue the position, we really didn’t think we were in a position to make a decision on the spot. We needed to go home, talk through the specifics and chat with our family and friends.
Our biggest consideration was our family. Our kids, Aaron and Miranda, lived with their mother only 20 minutes away. Although they are both grown with Aaron turning 21 and a proud member of the Army National Reserve and Miranda a sophomore in college, we still saw them fairly regularly between jobs, school, dates and friends. That would absolutely change with this move. We knew they were spreading their wings and moving into their adult lives, but not being with them regularly would be hard.
Another huge consideration was Grant’s mother who still lived in his childhood home in Lorain, Ohio. She lived close enough to visit regularly, which would not be the case if we moved west. Also, Grant is a diehard Ohio boy, growing up in the Cleveland area and living the rest of his life since college, in Toledo. The thought of leaving that area of the country was a difficult decision for him.
We came home from our interview/job offer and held a family meeting with the kids. Their reaction was instant. They said, “Go for it.” They were truly excited for us. They loved the idea of the job and being able to come visit us regularly. One of the benefits of the position is the house in which we would live. It has two bedrooms on the lower level and a bedroom and small attached apartment upstairs that we could use for our guests. Pete and Joan let us know that having our family and friends visit is not a problem as long as it didn’t interfere with our work or estate functions. We were touched by the family support we received from the kids, Grant’s mother and my parents and family.
We decided this was too exciting of an opportunity not to take. We loved the place, we loved the people we would be working for and we loved the idea of the type of work. So after several days of discussion, on November 1, Grant’s birthday, we called and accepted the position. We decided to make the leap to completely change our lives.
We agreed to begin at the beginning of April. We had five months to make the transition from Ohio to the Pacific Northwest. That is when things got really interesting.
First things first, we had to sell our home which was not in condition to be sold. We loved our home and did a good job of maintaining it, but there is a difference between it being ready for guests and where it needed to be to actually put it on the market. We had a lot of painting, updating and organizing to do.
We also had to downsize our material possessions. We were moving from a 2,700 sq. ft. home with four bedrooms, full basement, attic and two-car garage which all felt packed to the gills. It was truly remarkable how much “stuff” we had.
We started by separating everything into four categories: junk, donate, sell and move. We rented a dumpster, organized an estate sale and made arrangements with local charities to collect items. We pared everything we owned to the bare minimum. It was such a liberating feeling.
The next couple of months required us to work 14 to 16 hour days regularly. We worked our “day” jobs then came home to paint, pack and organize our belongings through the evenings. We made arrangements for movers, rented an RV to drive ourselves and our pets across the country, sold a car, researched medical insurance, put our house on the market and gave notice at our jobs.
We also spent as much time as possible with family and friends. We had the last Thanksgiving in our Toledo home, the home that had been the family gathering place for the past 10 years. We had amazing friends who came over for painting and organizing parties. We grew closer to everyone through this process, which made the prospect of leaving even harder as the time for us to actually leave came closer. There were a lot of poignant times with family and friends over those months.
It is amazing how quickly time flew by and before we knew it, it was time for the movers to arrive and pack our remaining items. Suddenly it was our last evening in Toledo. We had a special dinner with the kids which was an incredible night. The kids brought presents for us. There was a framed picture of all of us in Hawaii during our last vacation, a copy of the book “Oh the Places You Will Go” by Dr. Seuss, and a framed print saying “Let The Adventure Begin.”
Before we said our final goodbyes, we took a family picture in front of our home we had lived in for the past 13 years and made plans for the kids’ first trips to visit us. Grant did not want the kids waving us goodbye when we pulled away the next morning. He was worried it would be too difficult for him while driving down the road in our 28-foot RV. So we said goodbye the night before.
The final morning, we got up, showered for the last time in our home, and got dressed in a present that was sent by my parents earlier that week. They sent us matching sweatshirts that said, “Adventure In Itself Is Worthwhile.” Wearing our new shirts we took a selfie in front of our RV, loaded our bags, dogs, cat and supplies and got on the road.
The trip across country was incredible. We planned to take the time to stop at a number of places along the way. We toured Little Big Horn, the Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower and the Crazy Horse Monument. We stayed in KOA RV parks along the way, ate pizzas that we brought with us from our favorite pizza place in Ohio and had an amazing time getting to see the countryside.
We arrived at our destination on April 1 much to Grant’s dismay. Grant felt that starting our new job on April 1 was potentially a bad omen. After everything we had accomplished to get there, if anyone joked “April fools,” we would have lost it.
In order to get to the estate, you have to take a boat. There is an estate boat available for our use, but there are also water taxis that take passengers to various destinations in the San Juan Islands. Pete met us on the mainland in the marina of the water taxi. We had been there before when we interviewed back in October, but it was still very relieving to see the familiar face of Pete to make sure we were going to the correct location at the end of our journey.
It was no April fool’s joke. We were welcomed by our new bosses and estate crew with open arms. We have worked for the last four months settling into our new world.
Pete and Joan stayed aboard for the entire month of April to help train us, learn about our new home and how to actually manage the estate and crew. That first month went by in a blur and everything was so overwhelming at first.
Our job is basically to run a small town. We are the fire department, police department and maintain our own water system. For those who live in the Toledo area, you know how important it is to have access to a good water system. We manage a staff of five – a maintenance worker, landscaper and building maintenance/woodworker and two housekeepers who all come over by water taxi daily.
No day is ever the same. Somedays we are mowing lawns and planting vegetable gardens, others we are pulling out chainsaws to cut apart trees that have fallen on the estate and even others we are working in the kitchen helping create gourmet meals for parties. We have dealt with squirrels chewing through the cushions of the main house lounge chairs right before a big party, water leaks at 2 a.m., irrigation issues, taking the estate boat out to pick up vendors and pests in the gardens. The things that make up our regular job are varied and interesting.
Shopping has been an unexpected learning curve. When we need to get supplies for ourselves and the estate, we have to take the estate boat or water taxi over to the mainland. When we take the estate boat, we have a boat slip that is over a quarter of a mile away from the parking lot. That is a long walk to get to our car; but it feels even longer when we are rolling carts full of groceries and supplies all of the way back to the boat. When we take the taxi, we are limited by the times that they run. It is closer than our slip, but we still have to deal with loading ramps.
We are learning about the tides. When it is low tide, the ramp down to the boat dock can be at a very steep angle which makes loading groceries even more fun. Grant has learned to hate my avid love of canned Diet Coke!
There is one small “mom and pop” seasonal store and marina gas station that is a 20-minute drive across the island on a dirt road through the middle of the woods. We have gone over to grab ice cream and a few supplies, but it is not a grocery story. Literally everything that we need for the estate has to come over by boat or flown in by seaplane. That means when we need to order two tons of fertilizer, Grant has to make arrangements to have it barged over from the mainland. When I needed ground cover in a certain area of the estate, we had to bring over flats of plant material over by boat. When we need a large number of flowers for arrangements in guest rooms, we have to go to a florist or gather them from our various gardens. Stocking the bar and cleaning supplies at the beginning of the entertaining season was an interesting trip. We had two carts full of bottles, mixers and various cleaning supplies. We get some looks going through the store on a big shopping trip. Costco has become a regular stop for us.
Another challenge of not having stores or restaurants means we have to better plan our meals. I was the queen of carryout. After a long day of work, I could pick up the phone and order any type of food for dinner from pizza to Chinese. Now, we have every meal at home and if we don’t have it here, we have to improvise. We do have a full vegetable and herb garden at our disposal and Grant and I have learned to make meals that we would never have tried before living here. For example, neither Grant or I had really ever cooked with tomatoes. We had used canned tomatoes and sauces, but now that we have over 12 tomato plants all producing tons of tomatoes, we decided we needed to learn to do something with them. We are eating healthier than we have in a very long time.
In the first four months, I have lost over 20 pounds and Grant has gone down to his high school weight. We are both in better condition than we have been in years. The job is very physical but the place is so beautiful that after a long day of working, we still go out and spend the evening hiking around the estate with our labs, Molly and Duke. There is a beach on the estate and most evenings we spend an hour throwing sticks for the dogs who love swimming.
The wildlife around the estate is truly amazing and just as we were warned, we have dealt with some ugly things. On one of our hikes, we came across the carcass of a dead goose who had a losing run-in with a bald eagle. Grant had to go and get a shovel to remove the dead bird while I held the labs back who thought they found a great treat to roll in. We’ve dealt with a million bird nests and the messes they create around the estate. We even attempted to foster some baby birds whose nest fell. Sadly, we lost all of the babies after several days.
Right now we have seals giving birth on the beach. There are magical moments when we are walking on the beach, seeing seals playing in the waves with their babies swimming right up to us. We also saw a baby seal that was killed by the eagles right after it was born. That was a disturbing sight.
The deer on the property are incredible! They are everywhere. Every evening, around dusk, they start coming out of the woods on the estate grounds and there are times when we can stand on our deck and count over 20 deer. They are also our nemesis because everything we plant in the gardens that are not surrounded by electrical fencing is a potential midnight snack for them.
The eagles here are majestic. One evening we had a massive eagle land on a tree limb right over our deck. Our lab, Duke, went nuts and spent several minutes barking underneath the beautiful bird. The size of the eagle’s wingspan was an awesome sight and often the sounds that the big birds make around here inspire thoughts of Jurassic Park and pterodactyls. When there is a number of these large birds circling overhead, calling to each other, it can be slightly intimidating.
Joan had always fed the hummingbirds and asked if I would keep up with feeding them. I was thrilled because I loved the birds, but had no idea how many we were dealing with. I have two, one gallon feeders that we have been filling every two or three days for months. We have to get several ten pound bags of sugar to the island every shopping trip to make their food. There have been times when it seems there are 50 hummingbirds all feeding at once. It was incredible watching the babies come to the feeders, and fortunately, their season is slowing down so we don’t have to make hummingbird food every two days.
Probably the coolest animals are the whales. We have had several sightings of killer whales right from our home. One afternoon I was walking across the property near the water and kept hearing a sound like an elephant blowing. I had no idea what it was. I looked out at the water and it was a pod of orcas right off our island. I just sat down and watched them breach and play in the water. It is pretty amazing as we work around the estate to look up and watch seals go by, bald eagle fly right overhead, deer take apples that you toss them from the orchard, or whales swim by.
Besides the animal watching, the views out here are always gorgeous. We love watching the boats. The Washington State Ferries go right past our home several times an hour. We have seen everything from kayaks, sailboats, motorboats, and 200-foot yachts, to commercial boats sailing right by our home. Many evenings we eat dinner on our deck, listen to the wildlife and watch boats. Grant has his telescope set up in the living room and is often watching the ships.
Another major change for us has been the way we dress daily. I used to work in a professional office, which meant office attire, makeup, nice shoes and jewelry every day. I regularly had manicures and pedicures and shopping for clothes was a constant. Since moving here three months ago, I can count on two hands how many times I have even put on makeup. My daily attire is now jeans, sweatshirts and tennis shoes. Grant and I went shopping and outfitted him in Carhartt and steel-toed boots. Grant working with backhoes and chainsaws called for the proper attire.
This has been an incredible life change for the both of us and it has made us closer than we ever have been as a couple. We now work together as partners on a daily basis and are often our only company for days on end. It takes a strong relationship to make that work and we are learning more about each other than we ever have.
This new life has also been wonderful to share with our family. Miranda visited at the end of April and spent a week with us. Aaron and his girlfriend of six years, Kassara, came out for ten days a few weeks later. We had an incredible time with them and they fell in love with the place just like we did. They have planned a second trip out together in September and we can’t wait to have them here again.
At the end of July, we spent a week in Lorain and Toledo to visit Grant’s mother, kids and friends. In August, my parents who live in Hawaii, and sister with her family from Florida are all coming for a visit.
Now every day is a new adventure. We still feel like we don’t know 100% what we are doing, but we are having a ball learning everything it takes to run an estate on an island. We look forward to many more adventures in our new lives of Island Living.