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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