It’s good to be Soot
Posted March 8, 2022 at 2:21 pm by Jeff Arnim
Living on a boat. Regularly speeding across the harbor in a skiff. Working part-time at Griffin Bay Bookstore. Taking relaxed walks through the streets and parks of Friday Harbor. Sailing to the outer islands for an afternoon hike. Sleeping soundly next to your favorite person each night.
It’s the kind of life to which many Islanders would aspire.
For Soot the cat, it’s just life.
Born last year in Moses Lake, Washington, adventure has been Soot’s destiny since he was three days old. McKayla Bower, his caretaker, lives aboard a 30-foot sailboat in Friday Harbor, and had rebuilt the interior of the boat last winter with a cat in mind, purposely blocking off areas where a furry friend might find itself too cold, too wet, or too dirty.
But while the boat was ready to go, McKayla had been waiting to find the companion who would call it home. That changed with a timely call to a friend last April.
“I happened to tell him that I was looking for a kitten for my boat,” McKayla says. “He was literally the first person I mentioned it to. And he happened to say, ‘One of my best friends had a litter of kittens three days ago!’”
Soot’s foster family helped prepare him for an outdoors life on McKayla’s behalf soon after, starting harness training when he was only two weeks old.
“As soon as he could walk, they cut up a sock and some little arm holes, so he got used to having something on him.”
Soot – a Savannah-Bengal mix – arrived in Friday Harbor two months later, where the structure and rhythm of his life changed dramatically. Instead of living on land, home was now a sailboat swaying in the wake from ferry boats entering and leaving the harbor. Where the animals outside were once dogs and other cats, now they were seals and otters and seabirds. He had to learn to travel by dinghy, whether or not he particularly wanted to.
After three days of living aboard the boat, McKayla and Soot went for their first walk together. Or rather, they tried to go for their first walk.
“That first day on land, he didn’t get off my lap at all. He thought about getting off onto the grass, but then turned around and sat right back down.”
The hesitation didn’t last long – not with so many interesting places to go.
“Now he doesn’t like being carried,” McKayla says. “We walk through Fairweather Park, and in front of Downriggers, then we’ll walk up through town or up the stairs, out and around the courthouse, and then back down to the harbor. It’s about a half mile, and during the summer we’ll do it three or four times a day.”
Soot is hard to miss, partly because there aren’t a huge number of cats on leashes in Friday Harbor, but also because he’s just plain huge. Even though he’s only 11 months of age, Soot already weighs 20 pounds. McKayla believes he’ll top out somewhere around 25 pounds.
Even though he’s young, Soot’s adventures are already numerous. One of his most demanding trips took place last summer after sailing over to Stuart Island.
“He walked most of the way from Provost Harbor all the way out to the schoolhouse,” McKayla says. “It was around six miles roundtrip. I was amazed. We went slow, and I carried him some of the time so that he wouldn’t hurt or strain himself, but he walked a surprising amount on that trip.”
That’s just a taste of what McKayla and Soot might experience next.
“I’m a rock climber as well, and I hope to get him out to be a little crag kitty someday. He doesn’t like the backpack very much, so I imagine doing short climbs where he can explore.”
Until then, there’s work to do.
McKayla took a job at Griffin Bay Bookstore at the end of last summer. During working hours, Soot spent his time with McKayla’s partner on the boat.
“They would take Soot for walks and keep him up during the day. But then they had to move back to Seattle, and all of a sudden he was left with all of this time at home. When he gets bored, he just sleeps, so I would come home and he would be up all night, like, ‘It’s playtime, let’s do things, you’re home now!’ So I didn’t sleep for a lot of November.”
Eventually McKayla asked Laura Norris, the owner of Griffin Bay, if Soot could start coming into work during the day. Laura agreed, so in January he became the latest chapter in the long history of San Juan Island bookstore cats.
“He gets free rein in the bookstore – everywhere but the bricks in the front,” McKayla explains. “He really likes sitting in the back window, because the sun shines in. And he likes sitting in the front window, because he can watch people go by.”
When asked what he enjoys most about his job, Soot refused to comment, choosing instead to dash up the stairs and into the back half of the store, where he proceeded to lay in the middle of a walkway and roll around on his back.
Once there are more than about six or seven people in the store, Soot goes on a leash behind the counter, where he also has a cozy bed tucked into the bottom row of a shelf near the register. Otherwise, he’s free to spend his days wandering as he sees fit, interacting with customers whenever the mood strikes.
“He really likes observing,” McKayla says. “He’ll come up and say hello to people and get a pet or two, and then he’ll wander off and watch. A lot of time he’ll sit among the bookshelves and watch people as they come around the corner.
“It’s going great. He’s never had a bad interaction with a person. His entire life, people have always been positive.”
Soot doesn’t roam the bookstore every day McKayla works. He typically gets Fridays off, and sometimes another day as well, to ensure that he’s able to regularly get the 16 hours of average daily sleep that an 11-month-old cat requires. The upcoming summer season will be his first, and it remains to be seen how his bookstore experience might change as the size of the crowds inside Griffin Bay start to grow.
Whatever the world throws at him, Soot will find a way to adjust, as he has so many times before. If you happen to see him on a walk around town or while wandering the aisles of the bookstore, feel free to say hello – just try not to feel too jealous of his glamorous Island life.
Photo credit: McKayla Bower
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