Puget Sound Area by Ferry

The smooth body emerged from the dark water, sending slight ripples across the glassy surface. Then it was gone. Only the ripples remained and they quickly merged with the wake left by the passage of the Elwha. The movement had caught my eye and I walked across the outside deck of our ferry. I grasped the handrail and looked out, enjoying the bracing salt-tinged breeze. Presently, I spotted the seal again as it poked its slick, brown head from the water. Soon it flipped up and submerged, gone again. The Elwha continued weaving its path through the wooded mounds protruding from the sea. I turned to my wife and she smiled. No one else seemed to notice. It was our private seal sighting.

Actually, catching glimpses of harbor seals is commonplace along the ferry routes through the San Juan Islands. The seals are the most numerous marine mammals among the islands. Whales are also seen regularly, and the area is a paradise for bird-watching. The San Juans lie in the northern part of Puget Sound. This inland arm of the ocean forms an array of amazing waterways along the Pacific coast of Washington State. Heavily forested banks, rising from the dark blue ocean with glacier-crested peaks towering above, offer stunning displays. Many sailboats ply these waters to soak in these images. But it is far easier to explore the wonders of the Puget Sound area by following the extensive ferry system that carries passengers and vehicles alike along the various routes.

Puget Sound is an estuary nestled between Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula interlaced with a labyrinth of forested islands and inlets. The inland body of ocean is continually fed by freshwater plunging from the nearby Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges. In between, world-renowned temperate rainforests flourish with centuries-old growth. Modern development, with all of its confusion on land, has little diminished the grandeur beheld from the sea. From the deck of a ferry, when wisps of fog shift to obscure glimpses of civilization on a far shore, it is easy to perceive the majesty of the primeval land of centuries ago. Native Americans inhabited the wilderness of undisturbed beauty for thousands of years before Spanish explorers first sailed the waters. Much later, in 1788, the British captain John Meares investigated the area and was stunned by the natural wonder. He sailed toward the estuary from the Pacific Ocean along a water passageway that he named the Strait of Juan de Fuca after a Greek sailor who supposedly joined a Spanish voyage in 1592. To the south, beyond the ocean, a massive mountain range surged above vibrant green lushness. Glaciers intermingled with the shrouds of clouds. Meares beheld the home of gods and dubbed the utmost peak Mount Olympus after the legendary mountain in Greece.

Soon after, in May 1792, another British ship arrived to this wondrous natural region with George Vancouver. He further investigated the numerous waterways beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca, naming the inland arm of the ocean after Lieutenant Peter Puget. Recognizing the area’s value, he extensively explored many of the inlets and bays. He even resorted to travel by rowboat when passageways became too narrow for his ships. Vancouver’s own name became an integral part of the landscape, identifying the vast island north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca as well as the city in British Columbia. Puget Sound became part of the United States with the 1846 Oregon Treaty, and settlers soon arrived, lured by the vast natural resources.

The current ferry network originated at the beginning of the twentieth century with a group of small private steamers known as the “Mosquito Fleet.” By the 1940s, the Black Ball Line had main control over most of the ferry service out of Seattle. Then, in 1951, facing rising costs, the company sold most of its assets to the State of Washington. Only the Seattle/Port Angeles/Victoria line remained private. The State intended to run the ferry line only until cross-sound bridges could be built, but, of course, the cost of such bridges was never approved. Today, Washington State Ferries has the largest fleet of passenger and vehicle ferries in the United States, serving the entire Puget Sound Area including the San Juan Islands.

A multitude of ferry routes exist today connecting the Seattle metropolitan area with the rest of Puget Sound. Commuter traffic can be high at certain times on routes coming directly into Seattle from outlying areas such as Bremerton and Bainbridge Island. Ferries provide escape routes for those employed in the city but are drawn to the relative peace of the various peninsulas and islands throughout Puget Sound. From the Olympic Peninsula, it is much quicker to reach Seattle by ferry than by driving around the southern tip of Puget Sound through Olympia and Tacoma. But commuters are not the only people who take advantage of the ferry system to seek out some semblance of tranquility near Seattle. Weddings and other family gatherings are frequently welcomed to take advantage of nature’s beautiful backdrop. Others, appreciating the perception of solitude out on the water, often scatter ashes and perform other memorial services. Some limited restrictions may apply for such events (such as no open flames, even birthday candles), and the ferry service encourages parties to choose non-peak times. On a simpler level, the ferry routes offer a quick and enjoyable way to access the scenic wonders of the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Victoria, located on Vancouver Island, is the capital city of British Columbia in Canada and a spectacular destination just north of Puget Sound. This city revels in its uniqueness, carefully nurturing its image as some forgotten outpost of the British Empire. Double-decker buses roam its streets and high tea is still served at the Empress hotel where noble and famous figures have made appearances for over a century. There are various ferry routes that lead to Victoria. Washington State Ferries operates a route that departs north of Seattle at Anacortes. This scenic route winds its way through the web of the San Juan Islands. It arrives in British Columbia just north of Victoria at the town of Sidney, famous for its bookstores. Canada’s BC ferries run from Vancouver on the mainland, through the Gulf Islands, to Swartz Bay near Victoria. Various passenger-only ferries also run to Victoria, such as the popular Victoria Clipper from Seattle. We chose a dfferent route that arrived in Victoria from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula.

The ferry route from Port Angeles to downtown Victoria is still privately operated by Blackball Transport rather than Washington State. The route crosses the Strait of Juan de Fuca connecting the Olympic Peninsula to Vancouver Island. The grandeur of Olympic National Park is brought together with elegant Victoria. Afterwards, we would return on another ferry to the Seattle area through the San Juan Islands. On a brilliant morning, we sailed to Canada on still waters with Mount Olympus rising from the mist above an American flag fluttering in the breeze. Excitement at one window drew our attention as a group pointed out what they believed were dolphins. The creatures were surfacing beyond the ferry and seemed to be following us, but I could not readily identify them. Pacific dolphins have been seen in the area, but dall porpoises are more abundant. Regardless of their species, their presence certainly contributed to the beauty of our crossing.

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