By SUE ELLEN WHITE
Special to the Record
In the dark tent I find my earplugs.
Listening to the pounding surf at Fort Ebey State Park is making me nervous. In the morning my husband and I plan to launch through the breakers and head south on the second leg of our circumnavigation of Whidbey Island.
I’m a bit skittish. Last year a failed surf landing here resulted in a bad dump and a rock-driven hole in my boat. Though it’s easier to launch than land through the waves, I’m hoping the surf will flatten out overnight.
At 8 a.m., with a few jolts over calmer water, we launch and turn south toward Admiralty Head and the Keystone ferry. Our destination is Clinton.
This is arguably the most exposed location on Whidbey Island. The mighty Pacific Ocean dead-ends here after it hits the continental shelf and rushes down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It sometimes slams this section of the island with frightening force.
Conditions at Deception Pass are somewhat more predictable with printed current tables to guide the boater. Here the weather can change very quickly with winds opposing the expected currents and tides. Add the effects of the land topography, and the erratic combination demands respect even from the experts.
“It’s a pretty tricky piece of water,” said Matt Miller, a state ferry captain on the Keystone-to-Port Townsend run.
“When the current is coming in from sea it will run left or right for a while. In closer to Keystone, water will hit the land and go the opposite direction — a tide rip. It could be the exact opposite of what your current is predicted to do.”
Miller and his crew keep careful track of the tides, currents and weather. They alter the big ferry’s course so passengers don’t get a rough ride when tide rips are roaring. Passengers can easily see the rips from the passenger cabin, Miller said.
Today, it’s overcast with a gentle wind, lending a soft, insulated feeling to the morning. Through gray light, the bluffs are hazy and the horizon to the west infinite.
John and I ride south on swells toward Admiralty Point. Our trip was planned to take advantage of neap tides — between the full and dark moon — when tide changes are moderate. We chose to travel south as winds along Admiralty Inlet in the summer tend to come from the north, giving us a push down-island. Currents flowing into Puget Sound tend to be weaker than those going out. We plan to pass Admiralty Point, our riskiest location, at slack tide.
Shining like a brilliant emerald, Ebey’s Landing features a low slotted ravine that surely beckoned to the island’s first white settlers, and it leads up to the back of the historic Ferry House. From the water it is easy to see why they chose this location. Tall bluffs on either side give way to a long, wide beach and gentle slope. It provided access to the rich prairie kept clear of trees by the Salish people, and was an ideal commercial location near the entrance to Puget Sound and across the water from the new town of Port Townsend. The town was dubbed the “City of Dreams” due to hopes and speculation that it would become one of the largest port cities on the West Coast.
Our own hopes of an easy passage past the strong rip tides of Admiralty Head are realized as we go by the dominant gun emplacements at Fort Casey and then take a rest stop at the state park campground. From the water, the ferry’s navigation into Keystone is impressive as the big ship glides neatly into the very narrow slot.
It was the presence of strong rip tides that was the clue to a team of divers and researchers who recently located and retrieved what they believed was a lost anchor from the HMS Chatham, the ship that accompanied HMS Discovery and Capt. George Vancouver on his famed 1790s exploration of Puget Sound. Historians had placed the lost relic in Bellingham Channel.
Doug Monk and Scott Grimm’s research paid off when a 900-pound anchor was raised in Admiralty Bay last summer. It is now being studied to see if this is the same one lost 223 years ago.
We pass Whidbey’s low, green waist at Greenbank. Now south of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, we begin to see more boat traffic.
Tankers, container ships, tugs with their barge tows, U.S. Navy vessels and fishing boats use the waters west of Whidbey as a major thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to Seattle and Tacoma. We paddle nearshore, out of their way, as the mist clears and sun bounces along the wavelets.
Steep, sandy cliffs and narrow beaches are punctuated by spots along the shore like Lagoon Point where small remodeled cabins are tucked in between beachside vacation mansions. It is a contrast in the expectations and aspirations of those only a few generations apart.
Rounding the point at Smugglers Cove we get an idea of what native people and early settlers likely saw. Backing the beaches lined with alder, maple and brush, massive evergreens at South Whidbey State Park tower above the shore. Not packed together like badly managed third growth, each tree keeps its own space with tops of the tallest Doug firs seeming to tickle the clouds. Understory plants fill layers below. What we see are the remnants, the trees left behind by early loggers as the undesirables. But it is enough to be a striking sight from the water, different from any other place on the island’s west side.
Even if camping were not closed at the park, it is not a suitable place for a marine campsite. There is no water-access public camping from Keystone to Possession Point — about 28 miles — longer than the most accomplished paddlers would want to go.
As we head down the channel we get the first view of downtown Seattle with the monolith Columbia Tower and a few other buildings tiny and hazy in the far distance. Mt. Rainier, encased in clouds or haze, has eluded us this trip.
We stop for the day at Mutiny Bay where we stay with our friend Amy and her two delightful children CeCe and Chord. After John and I set up our tent, we all relax on the sunny deck with cold drinks. Amy’s just returned from chaperoning a hundred South Whidbey fourth graders’ trip to the Woodland Park Zoo. It’s not clear who has had the most challenging day, but we all enjoy a feeling of well-being as we watch the sun dip toward the Olympics.