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Friday, 01 November 2019

Fins, Forests and Ferries: A Visit to the Salish Sea

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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The Salish Sea is a huge area encompassing much of the area between Vancouver Island in Canada to the southern end of Puget Sound, but it mainly refers to the waters of the Georgia, Rosario, Haro and Juan De Fuca Straits between Canada and Washington State. Many groups of the indigenous Salish people made their homes along these shores and gave the region its name. A multitude of over 400 islands dot the waters of the Salish and it has over 6,000 square miles of coastline. I chose to visit three islands: Fidalgo, Whidbey, and San Juan Island.

Anacortes sits near the northern tip of Fidalgo Island and is called the gateway to the San Juan Islands. I drove over the Swinomish Channel bridge which connects the island to the mainland and began to explore its scenic beauty. It has much more to offer the visitor than just a ferry ride to its more famous island neighbors. Washington Park sits near the ferry terminal has a small campground and boat launch. A peaceful two-mile loop road allows you views of the San Juan Islands as well as access to the shorelines where pleasure boats, freighters, and the green and white Washington State Ferry boats can be viewed. At Green Point, a great blue Heron fished as an older couple beach combed for treasures at low tide. I looked down from the highest point in the park, Fidalgo Head, on the fog enshrouded channel of Burrows Pass and Flounder Bay. A fishing boat sped out of the mist churning the blue green waters into a froth as it passed. This city park is worth a visit.

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Traveling along Marine Drive and Rosario Road brought me to Mt. Erie. The twisting narrow road is passable for most cars as its climbs to a panoramic viewpoint. The viewpoint to the north is obstructed by trees but the views to the south over Campbell Lake to Whidbey Island were filled with the islands of Skagit Bay that mark the entrance to one of the most dangerous waterways in the Salish Sea, Deception Pass.
Deception Pass is narrow, and the tides can rip thru the passage causing whirlpools and large waves. Boaters usually wait till slack tide and then pass through at full power to safely navigate this famous channel. I looked down on the turquoise waters from the steel arch bridge that crosses the pass. Numerous pullouts at both ends of the bridge, which connects Whidbey Island with Fidalgo, allows visitors to watch the boats passing through.

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Deception Pass State Park is one of the best parks in the state. The Whidbey Island side has two nice beaches called North and Sunset as well as a small lake where you can rent kayaks or floats to enjoy the calm water. I hiked along Sunset Beach, which was crowded with families on a Sunday afternoon, toward the pass till I could view the bridge. Deception Pass Bridge is two bridges connected to a central island in the channel to complete the roadway. The Fidalgo Island section of the park features rocky headlands for kayaking on Burrows Bay and a nice hike to Lighthouse Point which doesn’t have a lighthouse.

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Many of the boats plying the Salish Sea around Fidalgo Island come from the Cap Santé Marina in Anacortes. A headland above the marina allows for stunning sunset views of the islands and the marina. I could even see the glaciers on Mt. Baker in the North Cascades reflecting the evening sunshine. Boats returning from a day in the San Juan Islands cruised slowly into the marina as the sun dipped lower in the evening sky. A Ferry boat cruised toward the islands on one of the last runs of the day. I would board my ferry the next morning to explore San Juan Island.

The “Yakima” was painted in the traditional green and white of the Washington State Ferries. The crew directs you to your parking spot in the tight spacing on the car deck. I wandered up to the passenger deck to enjoy the hour-long journey from Anacortes past the timber clad islands of the Salish Sea to Friday Harbor. Black Cormorants crowded the pier as if to bid the ferry “bon voyage” as it left the dock and passed into Rosario Strait. The morning fog was persistent as we passed Decatur Island. Another ferry seemed to be shrouded in mist as it motored by Lopez Island. Pleasure boats cruised the passages between the islands as we passed the secluded bays and inlets that would harbor them at night.

Friday Harbor came into view nestled in a beautiful bay reflecting the morning sunshine. A float plane glided into a landing ahead of us and coasted up to its dock as we nudged gently into the ferry landing on San Juan Island, I headed north from the town after leaving the “Yakima”, on the eastern roadway that led to my first stop on the island, Roche Harbor.

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Roche Harbor wasn’t always the beautiful azure bay sheltered by rocky headlands that is the haven for pleasure boats and yachts it is today. It was first a lime producing company town founded in the 1880s. The Hotel de Haro was in built in 1886 to accommodate the influx of workers and businessmen. It still is operating today along the shoreline amid the newly constructed houses of this gentrified boating hub on the north shore of the island. I enjoyed lunch at the dockside restaurant and marveled at the variety and size of the cabin cruisers and yachts that crowded the docks of the bay.

I continued by exploration by heading along the west side roadway to one of the best-known spots to see killer whales from the shore. Lime Kiln State Park takes its name from its former industrial history. It sits on the western shore guarded by a picturesque lighthouse among the red and orange madrone trees. Killer whales had been seen off the shore a few days before but were scarce during my visit. After my fruitless vigil for the whales I drove thru the farmlands of the lower island to wander the streets of Friday Harbor before catching my ferry for my return to Anacortes in the early evening.

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Friday Harbor is a very walkable town dotted with stores and restaurants. It also is the county seat for San Juan county and boasts a world-famous Whale Museum where you can learn about the island’s most famous residents, the Orcas of J, K, and L pods. I chose an outside seat on the upper deck of Friday’s Crab House and sipped a microbrew and dipped manila clams in drawn butter as I watched activity in the harbor. I saw my ferry arrive and walked back to my car parked nearby in the ferry loading area. I could have spent another day exploring this island, but I was going whale watching the next day for the elusive Orcas of the Salish Sea.

Whale Watching and Sea Kayaking are two of the most popular activities in the Salish Sea. Whale Watching boats depart from all over the area but the ones from Anacortes and Friday Harbor always seem to find whales. Many of these tour companies guarantee a whale sighting during the summer or you get a free trip. I chose Anacortes for my excursion as you don’t need to take a ferry to get to your tour boat.

I spend the afternoon scanning the waters for the black and white cetaceans, but they did not make an appearance. I did see a barnacle covered gray whale, some very cute harbor seals, dolphins, and a majestic bald eagle. I also had the bonus of cruising thru Deception Pass as my tour boat headed home to Anacortes. The resident pods of Killer Whales are very endangered, and their numbers have been declining due to lack of the prime food source, the Pacific Salmon. Hence, they wander over a wider area in the search for these fish instead of sticking to their home waters in the San Juan Islands. I have seen them on previous trips, so I wasn’t as disappointed as some on board. However, while the killer whales have been scarcer there have been more humpback, minke, and gray whale sightings in the northern Salish Sea than in past years so the whale sighting guarantee is still in effect on most tours.

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There are very few places where you can see so many types of cetaceans that is one reason that makes the Salish Sea so popular. The Salish Sea offers the visitor a variety of wonderful experiences: beautiful parks, timber covered islands, quaint seaside towns, and abundant wildlife. I enjoyed my visit to this picturesque area of Washington State and if you're a wildlife lover I think you will too.


©Jim Chamberlain

Last modified on Thursday, 31 October 2019