Thanksgiving in the South Sound


For the past couple of years, we've spent Thanksgiving in the South Puget Sound (the area between Olympia and Tacoma Narrows) rather than our traditional Thanksgiving trip to the San Juan Islands. Even in the summer surprisingly few boats are about in the South Sound, but winter there is especially quiet. We were planning a slow cruise, with a few places we wanted to visit, but no particular itinerary. We did hope to take advantage of the extreme high tide that week to explore the drying heads of several inlets.

We stopped for the first night at Tramp Harbor, on the east side of Vashon Island. It looks really out there, but actually is quite protected when the winds are from the west. The next day we travelled 12.8 miles to overnight at Quartermaster Harbor, but ended up only 1.2 miles away from the anchorage at Tramp Harbor.
On Sunday we anchored at Gig Harbor to watch the Seahawks game at Tides Tavern that afternoon. Nearly landlocked Gig Harbor is a great stop year-round, although it can get a little busy in the summer. The harbor still shows its commercial fishing heritage, but recreational boating has pretty much taken over the bay. While preparing the dinghy, we discovered the remains of some creature's meal on our swim platform.

Our next stop was Henderson Inlet. The most obvious feature there is a long railroad pier extending from a small peninsula along the west shore beside a mass of pilings. These are the ruins of a log transfer facility the Weyerhaeuser Company built in the early 1900s to transfer logs from southern Pierce County to their mill in Everett. The Department of Natural Resources now owns the property and has established the Woodard Bay Natural Resource Conservation Area.

We'd visited the conservation area a couple of years back. This year we wanted to explore the south end of Henderson Inlet. All kinds of wintering seabirds covered the water surface. Scoters were the most obvious, with their white skull patches. Henderson Inlet also is one of the most important Blue Heron rookeries in the state. We saw several take flight from the trees at once and swoop overhead. Normally we see only one or two at a time.

A few oyster companies farm here—we passed some pens—and one active facility was ashore. A dozen or so houses were beyond, but for the most part the head was surprisingly undeveloped.  The basin narrowed at Woodland Creek and became more developed where Johnson Point Road NE runs close by. The navigable part of the creek ended after a few bends, where the creek flowed under the road through a cement pipe, about 2 miles from where the drying part of the head begins. On a 13.5' tide (corrected for Henderson Inlet) we had a foot or two to spare, and probably could have made it on an 11' tide.

Overall it was an enjoyable trip. Here and there were old docks and rowboats tucked away on shore, or unusual hand-built structures. The little nooks shown on the chart were interesting to poke about in too. There we found little wooden benches and more small boats. The whole area felt rural and rather historic—as if people frequented in the past, but hadn't in a while.
After spending the next night on one of the buoys at Hope Island, we set off the following morning for Hammersley Inlet. The weather was clear and sunny, but Hammersley was completely fogged in. We could see the fog spilling out as we approached. Visibility in the channel was about 200 feet--we could hardly see the shores on either side. Conditions eventually improved as we rounded Skookum Point.
Shelton and the Oakland Bay Marina are at the elbow of Hammersley Inlet, where it bends into Oakland Bay. We like Shelton. Its a working-class town that is proud of its heritage. We continued past--into Oakland Bay. For a couple of years we'd wanted to explore Deer and Cranberry creeks, off the drying inner basin at the head of  Oakland Bay. But the tides had never been quite right. The 15.1-foot tide that afternoon should be enough to get in.
We were initially thinking of going all the way through to anchor in the inner basin at the 5.1-fathom section, but were a little concerned about the 0.4-fathom channel to reach it. So we instead opted to anchor just outside, near the 3.1-fathom sounding. Just getting there was exciting. The chart shows snags and pilings on both sides. But we got through safely and it turned out to be a wonderful anchorage. We'll be back.
Just before the inner basin we found a small stream, Johns Creek, that we were able to navigate a short distance before running out of water. Something smelled rotten and we began to notice large, dead fish ashore and in the water. We must have arrived not long after the salmon spawn.
We continue into the inner basin to Deer Creek on the south side. On a 14-foot tide we were able to work just over a half-mile up creek before a fallen tree blocked the way. We had a foot or two to spare, but not much. The creek was lovely, with grasslands and nature all around. The deep blue sky didn't hurt either. Near the entrance, bubbles were forming on the surface from air escaping below. We've seen this before, but aren't sure what causes it. Perhaps air is trapped in some kind of peat moss that releases when covered?
Cranberry Creek was also attractive, but fallen trees blocked the way not far from the mouth. We didn't see (or smell) any dead salmon in Deer Creek, but we did at Cranberry. We also saw a couple of salmon, barely alive, trying to make it upstream. One kept spinning upsidedown. It is the natural cycle, but was still kind of sad to see.
We moved to Jarrell Cove for our Thanksgiving dinner. Last year we had it all to ourselves for Thanksgiving, this year another boat was already at the dock when we arrived and another came later. The fog was so thick the next morning that we couldn't see the dock from our buoy. This picture was taken as we left, when the fog had started to lift a bit.
As we cruised to Eld Inlet, the fog lifted to another sunny day with bright blue skies. We were doing well with the weather on this trip. We anchored deep inside--as close to the drying head as we dared with a negative 3-foot tide coming. The temperature was 46F, but the sun was so warm with no wind that we could eat lunch on deck.
High tide that afternoon would be 15.9 feet--about as good as you can get. The drying head of Eld Inlet, called Mud Bay, turned out to be as complex and interesting to explore as it appeared on the chart. Our first discovery was a totem pole on a peninsula along the east shore. We later learned this was a major Squaxin Tribe archeological site called Qwu?gwes. Artifacts from the site are on display at their museum.
A lovely garden was between the bridges over Mud Bay Road and Highway 101. Several people were fishing by the Mud Bay Road bridge, and swallows and various waterfowl were everywhere.
In a field just beyond Highway 101 stood a giant metal cow. Its origin is apparently a bit of a mystery, and more are visible from the highway.
The water was too shallow to proceed much past the mouth of McLane Creek. But judging from the undercut sandy shore, the water level gets a lot higher during spring runoff. Nearby were several duck blinds with half-submerged orange "No Trespassing" signs.
We returned out to the mouth of Mud Bay and followed a westward spur towards Perry Creek, again passing under Highway 101, but couldn't get very far. That second bridge in the distance was so low we had to really tuck down to get under it. More people were fishing there and beyond was a rotting smell that we'd come to recognize as dead salmon even before we saw them floating in the water.
Back out of Mud Bay, this half-submerged ship was along the west shore of Eld Inlet. It appeared to have been modified several times over the years, most recently for living aboard. We couldn't see a name on it or find any information about it.
The moon was rising when we returned to the boat. Our Mustang suits keep us pretty warm, but we were ready to be inside with a cup of hot chocolate.
A fire burned on the beach before dawn the next morning. That seemed odd. Soon after sunrise, several large fishing vessels arrived and we could see smaller runabouts along the shore at various points with nets strung in the water, one where the bonfire had been. We concluded that this must be a tribal net fishery, using traditional methods, and the big boats were fish buyers. The fire likely was to keep the fishers warm before they started working.
We ended the trip almost where we started, across the channel from Tramp Harbor at Saltwater Marine State Park. This is the view looking across to Vashon Island as the moon set the following morning.
  To learn about more of these adventure, see our book Cruising the Secret Coast.


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Copyright 2012 Jennifer and James Hamilton