Fort Ebey State Park and Whidbey Island
Viv and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather over last weekend, the first full weekend in June, to camp out at Fort Ebey State park. It’s south by about one-third of Whidbey Island from the bridge at spectacular Deception Pass. You can reach Whidbey from Seattle either by road or by ferry. If you choose to stay off the big boats, the route takes you north to Mount Vernon. There, turn west and drive through the Skagit Valley before heading south again through Oak Harbor.
Mount Vernon happened to be holding a farmers’ market by the banks of the river that flows through town. Viv needed a latte, so we took a pit stop. We’d planned to buy bread on the road, and bought an overpriced loaf at the market. It was good bread, mind you, but we paid too much for it.
We got on the road again, following a familiar route that takes us by a fast-food shack that I constantly forget to take a picture of: “The Net, since 1956.” Apparently the Skagit has a good lead on the rest of us in high-speed networking and so forth. I’m always puzzled, though, by the relatively small size of the building and the refreshing lack of Californiesque bragmobiles parked about the facility. Oh well, it’s probably some sort of distributed-office, miniaturization deal.
Once out of the Skagit, you’re in Military Land. Several active military bases are nearby. While rainbow stickers may be seen with frequency, yellow ribbons, American flags, and hand-painted signs in support of the military were everywhere, some a bit the worse for wear after months of hard service.
The drive into Whidbey passes over the twin spans of the Deception Pass bridge. The parkland abutting the bridge is generally reckoned the most beautiful in the Washington State Parks system. The better known parks, like Rainier and Olympic, are National Parks – the state sorta got the leavings, but geez, what leavings!
We were headed to yet another of the land scraps that are ever-more-shakily administered by a perennially underfunded state parks department. Fort Ebey was used as a coastal defense gun battery emplacement during the end of World War II and opened to the public as a state park in 1967. The gun-emplacement mounts and accompanying bunker system is still in place, overlooking Admiralty Inlet and the waters directly north of Port Townsend. Just a few miles down the island is another state park, also a former military post, Fort Casey State Park. It also offers a campground, but it’s not reservable in advance.
I’d picked out our campsite online, believing, based on a map, that it would be just steps from the water’s edge. Neglecting to consider the strategic elements involved in locating an artillery battery, I hadn’t considered that we might be atop a 300-foot cliff, as indeed we were.
Despite this, the views – and weather, topping 90 degrees – were stunning. We strolled along the flat trail at the bluff’s edge, still hoping to find a route to the beach in our flip-flops. Gnarled, ancient pines, obviously Ents deep in woody slumber, provided shady respite as we followed the cliff, helplessly stopping to ooh and aaah at the view.
Finally, consulting the map with growing consternation, we grew puzzled. “Beach,” it said, an arrow pointing off the map. We kept on, finally finding the trail indicated but noting that is was not a well-maintained trail. In flip-flops and shorts, we were not really prepared for a woodsy lumberjack hike.
At last we reached a point where the trail looped by a breach in a sandwall. A family group mugged for their camera, and we asked if they knew of a beach trail. They were quite puzzled, and began to describe local landmarks and things that had washed away years ago, and finally decided that the cut in the cliff they were occupying was the supposed trail.
I went to the notch and looked at a steep series of eroded sand gullies, a slippery decsent of “only” about 200 feet. A subset of the locals encouraged us to go down. “Oh, it’s easy,” they urged. A voice of reason among them also noted the easy-speakers had just returned from the Andes, and thus nearly any trail might appear easy to them. Viv and I turned back, disappointed.
We had passed a closed trail; the main path we were on showed signs of neglect; and throughout the park were signs of other budgetary limitations. The check-in booth was only manned a total of three hours that day, forcing us to take a special trip to get a park map. Information posted along trails appeared to be outdated or inaccurate from time to time. There were limited numbers of trash receptacles and restrooms.
When we got back to the trail to our campsite, we decided to continue down the bluff trail in the opposite direction we’d taken earlier, toward the gun emplacement site. We walked a few yards down the path and saw a magnificent plateau covered with long, waving grasses. On the plateau was a concrete bunker, and above was the gun emplacement. We went into the cool, pitch-black interior of the man-made cave, and exited the other side.
Back at camp, we made dinner and then returned to the plateau’s long grasses to investigate a trench and to watch the sun set into the water. That night I read Vivian book six of the Illiad by the fire.
The next day, we finally found the beach access, to the north of the gun battery, and walked along the beach, noting the myriad dead crabs, presumably cooked in the heat of the day before when their kelp strands had grounded on the beach. On a snag above us, a bald eagle sat a while before taking wing.
The weather was absolutely perfect again, and it was pleasant to be in the cool ocean air as the sun beat down.
We decided to poke around the nearby small town of Coupeville before leaving, which sits on the shore of Penn Cove, home of Washington’s most-eaten mussels, and the shoreside districts of which are a national historical reserve. Founded in the 1850’s, the small, old-fashioned downtown includes an 1853 blockhouse – one of four nearby, all dating to the 1800’s – and a commercial wharf which was in use in the 1880’s.
The tidal flats under the wharf are covered – absolutely covered – with mussels. The gulls walk along the banks of shellfish, pecking and gulping with less than the usual squawking and squalling. In the wharf-building itself there’s a mounted skeleton of a juvenile grey whale, found dead on Whidbey in 1998, and a tourist gewgaw shoppe.
The shops in the historic area near the wharf tend to the antiquey and baubley, as ever in America’s tiny tourist hamlets. We even poked into a store that featured everything for the dog owner that’s got everything, including hats for your dog and tiny dog-angel ornaments to comfort those seeking the solace of knowledge that the afterlife includes beloved pets.
After learning that the plastic bags of water stapled above the open shop door “keep flies out,” I chuckled, noting the buzzing winged creatures just inside the door. Perhaps they were the beloved pet-sprits; plainly they couldn’t be flies. We moved on.
Toby’s was the only beer-serving establishment open that Sunday afternoon, and so we stopped in for a plate of their repeatedly prize-winning fish and chips, which I must endorse as among the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten. The front window of the place featured unit stickers of countless military outfits, and there were a couple of well-shorn young men impressing some ladies with tales of derring-do in booths nearby as we ate. In fact, as we ate, the place filled up, and competition for booth space became as cutthroat as in your favorite hipster cafe.
One of the truly striking things about Coupeville, in fact, was the relative lack of crowds. To an extent, this was true at Fort Ebey as well, although the campground was full to capacity. Whidbey is just remote enough, and just working-stiff enough, thanks to the military bases, that it’s in the third rank of attractions among driving distance to Seattle, after the big mountain parks and the San Juans themselves.
Third place in Puget Sound, especially in the summer, is still pretty damn good. The thinner crowds on Whidbey are without a doubt a perfectly good reason to return; anyone who’s ever been stuck in the perpetual, summer-long traffic jam high atop Mount Rainier at the unhappily named Paradise parking lot will have good reason to appreciate an unhurried, crowd-free weekend on Whidbey Island.