Walking with the PNW Ferries

 

Sometimes there is just too much magic in this world. How do people build the things they do? How do people think up what should be in any given place, and how do they convince other people to buy into their idea of magic?

That has always been my reaction to the ferries that people in the Pacific Northwest take as ordinary parts of daily living. I have known about these contraptions for a very, very long time. Maybe I even took one as a young child on a family vacation. But the fact that some people use this system of hollowed-out ships to go back and forth to work makes my mind go blank. Is this a good idea – strapping yourself and your vehicle onto a boat and floating out across unsteady water every morning and then turning around to do it all again before dinner in the late afternoon?

It makes me wonder about how we all arrange our everyday lives and how differently we adapt to our surroundings. The ferries in and around Seattle and the beautiful island groups of the Puget Sound area are an adventurous example of people adapting to the place they live. Today, my walk will be around the corridors of a boat designed for this special region.

We are taking our first ferry together, my husband and I, during the summer months, when tourists – like us – invade the PNW ferries to experience the beauty and the style of this unique place. We line up with a group of vehicles at 7 am for the 8 am ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. We are early because of our fear of missing the ferry, or of getting lost on the way from Port Angeles, or of getting bumped off our reservation by a multitude of other tourists who are earlier and more anxious to get on the ferry than we are. The online site for the ferry system has extremely severe warnings about getting to the ferry early – at leat 30 minutes ahead of time – and always reserving your spot.

Our drive from Port Angeles is beautiful – gracious views into the sound, faint sightings of Victoria, BC in the distance, and rich forests with generous grasslands. We are entertained by the sights and reach Port Townsend with plenty of time. We wonder how to do this ferry-thing. An hour of lag-time doesn’t seem like too much to figure things out. But there are road signs that we follow, and it all becomes a simple process. We spend a small moment wondering why we had made ourselves get up at the crack of dawn to get here. Still, we aren’t the first people in line.

More and more cars and vans and recreational vehicles arrive. An enormous 16-wheeler pulls in, then another. A fellow in a toll booth guides each driver to one or another of the eight – or is it nine?-  lanes. There must be an ordering or a logic to the system, but I am glad I don’t have to know it myself. We park where we are told to park, then wait with everyone else. People get out of their vehicles and chat, or sit in their cars, getting that bit of sleep that the earliness of the ferry had denied them. It is all very orderly and confident and seemingly time-worn. This may be my first adventure on this ferry, but other frequent ferry-goers give it all a feeling of calm and regularity.

A couple traveling on their motorcycles from Bremerton, WA tell us what to expect on our way to Friday Harbor today. We had begun to wonder if we hadn’t planned too much for this day, if we would really be able to go all that distance, getting off this ferry in Coupeville and driving all the distance of Whidbey Island, then through Fidalgo Island to the town of Anacortes where the San Juan Islands ferry departs, getting into another line like the one we were already in, and finally cruising all the way to the last stop on the ferry line. Would it all play out as we planned? The couple assured us that people do it all the time, even by bicycle. In fact, there are several people who walk onto the ferry by foot, obviously with a plan as to what to do when they disembark. It is all so new to us, and it is nice to have some of the Bremerton couple’s calm ease our nervousness.

It all goes according to plan. The sun shines the entire way. We have views of mountains and views over waters, and views to towns along the way. Our usual sense of travel confidence returns as the day goes on. By the time we reach the Anacortes Ferry and take our place in line, we feel like we know what to expect and expect it will all go smoothly. It does, and we spend a calm and pleasant night in Friday Harbor, before returning on the ferry the next day, like pros who know much more today than yesterday.

Mostly, we now understand the logic behind this magical system of delivery. It would make no sense in most places in the world, but somebody with an incredible sense of planning and insight figured out the perfect way to get from one place to another in this area of spectacular sights and unique inventions.

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Walking a rainforest trail in Olympic National Park

 

A rain forest in the Pacific Northwest of the USA? Washington State is far from the tropics, and I have always associated rain forests with equators, hot weather and steam. I plan a visit – laced with a good deal of skeptism – after our romp around Hurricane Ridge.

Twenty minutes down the mountain we drive from the snow-crusted high-altitude of Hurricane Ridge. The Olympic National Park guide promises a rain forest walk close by. What do they mean, I wonder? Are they just tickling my fancy? Why am I wearing a jacket to a rain forest? There is still a layer of snow on the underside of my tennies. I think a public affairs person has gotten a bit over-enthusiastic with the details of this brochure. Rain forest? We’ll see.

I have to settle for the small rain forest walk near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center just outside Port Angeles, because the roads to the park’s Hoh Rainforest are still closed because of snow. Snow. I am still suspicious that winter weather and ferns can co-exist. We’ll just see.

We park at the visitor’s center lot and follow a racing group of twenty-somethings who are chattering with excitement. Where are they going in such a hurry? Why the rush? They are pursuing the call of warmth and hanging vines with greater confidence – and enthusiasm – than I. They must be rain forest believers, and I decide I want to believe, too. They scoot up and over fallen logs and along a creek in their race to touch this natural dream. Perhaps they are hurrying to follow another hiker’s spotting of a drip off a fern in a gully of steam. There might be one, just one, in this lip of a forest off a road to ever-lasting snow.

The young people scurry on, taking a fork in the pathway toward a work camp. I decide they already know much about this area, and take on their confidence for myself. If they have found a rain forest here, then I might also. I stay on the path that promises ferns and mist and hanging moss.

Up and down into the ravine, the old growth begins to show itself. Slips of sun bring warmth and shy rays of brightness. The green of the plantlife and the cozy red-brown of the mulched ground lay around me with the comfort of cool mists and soft light. It isn’t a hot rain forest, but here it is, with its light-hearted coolness splattered about with fresh but humid air. I seem to walk through one after another – first cool mist, then sun-warmed air. No wonder growing things do their very best work here. It’s soothing and quiet and just exactly right in its temperate comfort.

I am happy enough to slow down and take in what nature is providing right up close: ferns, lichen, moss hanging from trees, cooling steam rising from a downed lodgepole pine as the sun warms the bark. Proof of rain forest.

I am convinced. Maybe it’s not exactly the biome I used to teach my third-grade students. But it is magical and it is here, unbelievably close to snow in the early summer of the Pacific Northwest.

 

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