Visiting Vashon Island
The rain was falling hard and a fading fog hung thirty feet above the dark Puget Sound waters—just enough light to see the giant metal mouth of the M/V Chetzemoka maneuvering in for a safe docking. Once aboard, most people stay in the cars. It’s a quick 20 minute sailing to Tahlequah. Today, I’m visiting Vashon Island.
Puget Sound’s largest island, Vashon is really made up of two islands connected by an artificial land bridge. Maury Island once sat opposite Vashon on a shallow channel off to the southeast. In 1916 townsfolk decided to fill in a narrow gap in the muddy strait creating one island. Both islands are still referred to separately on most maps and in some local conversations around the island, but the general name of Vashon, which I’ll be using, or Vashon-Maury are also used.
Both islands have been inhabited for thousands of years by different cultures due to its prime access to fishing grounds and trade routes throughout the Salish Sea. The area was surveyed and charted in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver on his initial exploration of the inland Pacific Northwest. Vancouver named the Island for his naval comrade Admiral James Vashon, once Captain of the infamous HMS Dreadnought. The neighboring island was designated Maury Island in 1841 by Captain Charles Wilkes in honor of William Lewis Maury, retired naval veteran, friend and assistant to Wilkes during his world travels. Today, to visit Vashon island, you still must sail the same blue-gray waters described in Wilkes’ journals. The only way on or off the Island is by sea or air, helping the island to keeps its rural and somewhat mysterious to outsiders’ charm.
Getting to Vashon Island
With its central sound location nestled between Tacoma to the south and Seattle to its northeast, Vashon Island has two short ferry crossings. The Fauntleroy to Southworth crossing makes a stop at the north end of the island with the Pt. Defiance to Tahlequah route sailing between Tacoma and the south end. Both docks empty straight on to the Vashon Highway, the island’s main artery for exploring. Running north and south, the Vashon Highway branches off throughout the island getting you to where you need to be.
There are a few public docks left if you are exploring by boat. Quartermaster’s Marina offers fuel and daily moorage. Tucked inside Quartermaster’s Harbor, the Marina has calm waters and dockside access to the historic village of Burton.
With major shipping lanes offshore, no good access and a pure lack of desire by residents, a bridge doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. Most locals I’ve met say that’s just fine by them.
A limited flow of cars makes getting around Vashon pretty relaxing and enjoyable.
This morning’s ferry was barely half full, so it emptied quickly and our pack of cars and UPS delivery trucks headed north on the highway veering off in different directions as we traveled.
The highway goes up and over the island dropping back down to the water again just before the town of Burton. Sitting at the curled end of Quartermaster’s Harbor, the historic waterfront village is worth a stop for the Burton Coffee Stand alone. Take your cup of joe across the road and watch for sea life in Quartermaster’s Harbor or venture into the woods at Burton Acres Park. Having explored here in previous trips I elected to skip them today and push on.
Keeping north past the harbor, the road turns inland again heading towards the town of Vashon. A few blocks before town on the left, kitty-corner to the Vashon Center of the Arts, is The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie.
The old roasterie building was constructed with old growth Fir felled on the island over a century ago. I find a dark roast and a seat on the heavy timber porch, which does little to protect against the swirling mist. All the same, it’s a good view of the slow-paced day to day island grind. Trade workers, locals both young and old, mix with travelers for their morning coffee and a scone before braving the weather.
Point Robinson Lighthouse
Rain or not, it’s hard to resist a stop at Point Robinson Lighthouse. Sticking out like a nose on the island’s easternmost point, the lighthouse has been operational since 1885. The land was designated by the US Lighthouse Survey Dept. to aid with heavy maritime traffic as the territory of Washington pushed for statehood and the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia exploded in population.
The operational side of the lighthouse is still managed by the US Coast Guard but the park and some surrounding structures are managed and cared for by the Vashon Park District.
A brief lull in the rain allowed me some beachcombing while stocky tugs pulling barges down the shipping lanes curl heavy waves onto the beach. Because of the way the park sticks out in the swift channel, it makes it a magnet for driftwood and other curious floating objects.
Walking across the tangled bulkhead of twisted wood, a massive round timber 50 feet in length lays in the sand. Forged iron nails and latches the size of my lower arm sticking out of one side catch my eye, thankfully before catching my shin, and I hop over to take a look. I’m not sure if it’s from an old pier or dock, but given the look of the wood and metalworking I’d say it’s been floating around the sound for some time.
Looking north from the lighthouse towards Seattle, Three Tree Point sticks out from the mainland on the channel’s east side and Vashon’s northeast shoreline runs up the west framing the view up through Admiralty Inlet. To the south, Browns Point and Commencement Bay are beyond that. But on a clear day, the view to be had is Mt. Rainier commanding the southeasterly skyline while the Cascades peak above the horizon like teeth on a saw. Today will not be that day as the clouds persist, but that won’t stop me from chucking a few rocks.
The other views offered at the point, even more elusive, are the whales. Point Robinson is 1 of over 100+ sites up and down the west coast from British Columbia to California known as the Whale Trail. Founded in 2008, the Seattle based nonprofit Whale Trail Organization uses key whale viewing sites to help monitor and study the health of the sea and its inhabitants. Orcas, Humpbacks and Gray Whales can be spotted swimming in the swift currents along Vashon’s shores. More commonly seen are the Pacific Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions and the occasional porpoise.
Vashon Park Trails
A park employee was scanning the shore picking up a few pieces of trash brought in by the tide as I balanced over driftwood making my way around the point. We exchanged some pleasantries and he encouraged me to check out the trails leading up the hill from the beach.
On his advice, I started trekking up the muddy path at the tree line and stumbled right into a Bald Eagle perched so close overhead that the branch shaking underneath his takeoff dropped debris at my feet. Neither of us were expecting to see the other, and he was up and gone before I could even reach for my camera, but still a thrill. A small network of trails on both sides of the entrance road zig-zag across the woods. I found the north side’s high banks a bit more picturesque with some open sound views and picnic tables
The Keeper’s Quarters
The park offers overnight accommodations at The Keeper’s Quarters. Two early 1900s structure’s that once housed a succession of lighthouse keepers and their families were renovated and now offer a unique overnight or weekend retreat. Sitting side by side, the homes have unobstructed views east over the water towards Mt. Rainier. I can picture morning coffee under the covered porches and a private sunrise over the Cascade Mountains. Maybe throw a breaching Humpback or two in there for good measure and I will be adding this one to the to-do list.
The park is also part of the Cascade Marine Trails System. Designed for human or wind powered sea travel only, the trail system of beachside campsites is a unique way to see the Salish Sea stretching from Olympia to Canada. Limited inland access gives paddlers and sailors primitive camping accommodations with world-class views. Vashon’s other Cascade Marine Trail site is on the Island’s west shore at Lisabeula Park along Colvos Passage.
Without even trying, I spend half the day wandering the park until my stomach reminds me that it’s lunchtime.
The Town of Vashon
The town of Vashon is set upon high ground towards the island’s northern half and is the epicenter of activity. Restaurants, local retail, museums, coffee shops and the farmers markets all happen within a few walkable town blocks.
I found parking pretty easy and set about looking for some lunch. The Hardware Store is a classic Vashon staple, a dilapidated old hardware store turned award-winning restaurant. The story is as good as the menu, which the crowds will attest to, but crossing the street, I found a brewpub called Camp Colvos Brewing.
Never one to leave a local brewery unattended, I went in for some food and drink and wound up having a great time.
The inside had great natural light and plenty of table and bar seating. I ordered a lager and braised beef meat pie and soon found myself in conversation with Matt, founder of Camp Colvos Brewing, pouring pints and keeping the ship afloat at the same time. Matt was a great guy—we talked the beer vs. cider debate, Kölsch’s, island life and the history of Vashon.
Small Town Charm
I asked him how long the island could resist the urge to give in to overpopulation. “Water rights” he said, freshwater wells being a coveted resource on the island. “Water rights and no bridge access will keep the island small,” he said. I’m convinced for the time being, and I hope he’s right.
With their 1-year anniversary coming this month and a brand-new taproom in Tacoma’s Historic Brewery District on the horizon for summer of 2020, business seems to be doing well around camp these days.
After lunch, I had another stop to check off my list. My must stop while in town is always the Vashon Bookshop, a small independent store with a great selection dedicated to writers from Vashon Island and the greater Pacific Northwest. After thumbing my way through the shelves, I leave with a book from Spokane’s own Jack Nisbet.
The Town of Dockton
Back in the car now, I head back towards the Maury Island side again on a tip from Matt back at the pub. He told me to check out the town of Dockton and its town park.
A literal dock town, the village of Dockton grew up around its dry dock repair facility located just inside the safe waters of Quartermaster’s Harbor. As the 20th century approached the Puget Sound busy trade ships trying to keep up with a new global demand looked to the immigrant shipbuilders of Dockton to keep the fleet running smoothly. Workers from The United Kingdom, Baltic and Scandinavia brought their families and started lives on the shores on Dockton.
A sculpture at the waterside park shares a brief look into the lives of some of those families. Standing on the spot where the dock once met the shore is a tall, glistening obelisk decorated by shards of dishes and porcelain left by Dockton’s early families, only to be found over a century later, buried in the beaches and soil near the old docks.
Follow the interpretive signs of the Dockton Historic Trail leading out of the park and into the old village. The one-mile trail covers the historic landmarks and events of the seaside village and its shipbuilding people.
Across the street from the waterfront park is Dockton Forest. An 86-acre parcel of mature forest that is connected to the Maury Island Natural Area along with some other surrounding natural habitat land in the area. All together it adds up to an impressive 470 acres of protected land with over 10 miles of hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking trails stretching all the way from the shores of Quartermaster’s Harbor to the Puget Sound on the islands southeast side. Signs and maps at the trailhead keep it pretty simple.
I have to assume the sun is setting somewhere behind the weather because my gray day is growing even darker and I have a ferry to catch, so fighting the dusk I head for the car. Vashon doesn’t necessarily get rush hour traffic but ferry lines can get long so I make my way back towards the Tahlequah dock and my boat home.
Sitting on the side of the road with everybody else waiting for our boat, I think on my day. I got sucked into the depth of just a few places, the beauty of just a few landscapes, I spent more time at fewer places than I usually do and relished in losing track of time. I got hypnotized by the waves, shrieked like a child when I thought a Bald Eagle was landing on my head and had a quiet conversation over a cold beer and hot chow. Sometimes going with the flow of the moment and not setting expectations on your journey can lead to some of the best days. Living the island life.