The Washington State Ferry system is one of the largest ferry systems in the world. Per Wikipedia, it is the fourth largest in the world, and the largest in the United States, running ten routes and serving 20 terminals throughout the Puget Sound and into the San Juan Islands.
The fleet includes 23 vessels, and carries roughly 25 million people per year. Having lived in Seattle for almost 16 years I take it for granted that these giant (and small) boats exist to ferry me and my car over water to go see places I like to visit. I’ve taken them to Lummi, to Guemes, to San Juan, to Whidbey, to Vashon, to Victoria and Nanaimo Canada, and to the Olympic Peninsula to drive on to other places. They are an experience you can get used to, but they are also unique to this region, which is why they are on the list of “things to do” when you come to Seattle and Western Washington.
And did we sure get on some ferries in the last week of October when my friends Jeremy and Dan came to visit. My only wish is that if they had a couple more days, or it wasn’t a pandemic, I could have let them experience the tiny ferry to Lummi or Guemes Island, as there is nothing like the feeling of being sandwiched into your tiny car, on a small but tough boat chugging across the water. In the small ferries you feel the movement, unlike the big ones, and it is disorientating and exhilarating all at the same time. But we did travel from Mukilteo to Clinton on Whidbey Island, from Coupeville to Port Townsend and back again, over Deception Pass Bridge (a bridge that makes Whidbey Island accessible by land) and to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and back again.
Each ferry ride, and the places it took us was unique in its own special way. And I was able to curate our eating at my favorite small town eateries from Langley to Anacortes. Our first stop was Langley, and Prima Bistro on Whidbey Island.
Langley was in a state of off-season pandemic sleepiness with nothing much to see but some decorative gourd art, bunny rabbits who looked barely wild, and our late lunch. Which was fine by us, as we weren’t trying to see crowds – we were happy we had reservations at Prima Bistro however, as the sign on the door read “Full for the Day” when we walked up at 1pm.
Prima Bistro is a lovely bistro in the small town of Langley that I was first introduced to thanks to my participation in the 2008 Burning Word Poetry Festival. They serve seasonal dishes, French staples, and shellfish with skill and agility. I have never failed to enjoy eating Penn Cove Mussels and Clams there (as its sits not less than 18 miles from the famous Penn Cove of bi-valve aquaculture). This day was no different, and we got sucked in by the special – raclette cheese, hot stretchy sexy cheese – we literally gorged ourselves at our lovely table surrounded by plexi-glass keeping us safe from our fellow diners.
Now more about the ferries. The original version of Washington Ferries comes from what was called the Mosquito Fleet. A set of privately run steam vessels that took people to and fro based on capitalistic venture, necessity and other reasons that have been lost in the annuls of time.
Somewhere around the beginning of the 1940’s the two major companies that came out on top and transitioned from steam to the motor vessels we know today, were the only ones left. As one shut down and the other threatened to, Washington State stepped in to buy the ferry system. What remains today is largely from the company known as the Black Ball Line (you can’t make these names up). Washington State thought they would just be running the ferries for a few years, because soon there would be bridges in the state highway system between all the islands.
That never happened (except for Deception Pass featured above built in 1935 by the WPA), as the funding for the bridges to the islands was never approved. So here we are, 80 years later with the world’s 4th largest ferry system. Some of the boats in operation were originally built in 1959 and rebuilt in the 1990s or later, and the youngest vessel in the fleet is from 2018. None of the original Mosquito Fleet boats are still in service, however, you can see a former Mosquito Fleet vessel at the maritime museum in Anacortes (photo below) that was repurposed (but since its COVID time you cannot tour it).
After Langley we drove up to Coupeville to explore what the little historical town had to offer – which is a wharf, a scarecrow contest and ice cream (which was probably not advisable after our lunch but we all partook anyway).
Coupeville, named by white settlers of the area, after ship captain Thomas Coupe is the seat of Island County, one of Washington’s oldest towns, and a superbly preserved fishing village that still sits on one of the world’s largest gold mines of bi-valve aquaculture.
The aboriginal peoples of this area settled the area way before Europeans discovered it for their own ends, and it was once the permanent home of three lower Skagit tribe villages. Today, it is a cute town, holding no natives to speak of (because they all died or were relocated to the Tulalip Reservation), a well resourced Island County Historical Museum, and sits on the edge of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Preserve and a Washington State Ferry Terminal.
We spent the night at The Captain Whidbey, a sleeper of a resort featuring cabins, well curated grounds, and the namesake of the island, Joseph Whidbey (1755-1833), master of the HMS Discovery, who British Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) named it after, because that is what British captains did (name things after themselves and friends that already had names before they got there).
In an area dedicated to nature tourism, in a sleeper small town, the Captain Whidbey is exactly what you would expect for lovely retreat center for those with means and privilege. Speaking of, I ended up purchasing a set of their Bergamot and Cedar Essential Oil soap and lotion for $40 that come in glass containers because it was just so, I don’t know, relaxing to smell the woods come out of my soap and hand lotion. I am still debating whether I use it, or gift it, because it is just so nice.
As we were still full from our lunch at Prima Bistro, dinner consisted of a caesar salad and a snack of scallop crudo at the Captain Whidbey’s seafood forward dining hall, that was staffed by one harried person doing all of the things because a co-worker called in sick.
The next morning, I purposefully sat upon the deck of our lodging, in the rocking chair, listening to the birds and read two poems from the Natalie Diaz book I packed with me. It seemed necessary to take in the silence and picturesque nature of the place before moving on so quickly. Then we packed up our stuff and drove to the Coupeville ferry terminal to sit and wait, biting our nails (as we didn’t have a reservation) wondering if we were going to get on to the Tuesday morning ferry to Port Townsend.
We got onto the ferry, but the boys learned an important lesson about ferry reservations. You always feel better if you have them. In this case, we (as in me) underestimated how many large 18 wheelers would be taking the ferry to Port Townsend at 10:15 am on a Tuesday in the off-season. Apparently 5 is almost enough to fill a boat. We were one of the last cars on.
And then there we were, pulling into Port Townsend.
The details of which I will share in the next blog post as this one is focused on ferries, which I have run out of interesting things to say about – so I will end with the sunset, full moon series we were able to take from the boat on the way to Friday Harbor from Anacortes the next day. On this sunset cruise out to San Juan, the sunset was beautiful of biblical proportions and on the other side of the ferry was the moon rising and then shining above us in the darkness. It was epic. And Jeremy and I literally went back and forth from stern to bow taking pictures in both directions until it was pitch dark. No one else on the ferry bothered to get out of the seats, or cars – which, I get it, pandemic, but the sunset! and that moon! It was worth the risk to get my fill of the sky.