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A Wilderness Gem Close to Civilization

Kayak and canoe campers might think they have to drive 25 miles or more outside of civilization to escape the jarring sounds of car horns, noisy sirens, or blaring radios to find a quiet place away from all the noise, hustle, and bustle of the city to pitch a tent and sit back and listen to the symphony of birds and the rustle of leaves as the wind blows through the trees. But they would be wrong, at least for those who live near the south Puget Sound.

Over Memorial weekend 2018, I decided to drive three and a half hours north to the tiny community of Arcadia, Washington, to meet up with a friend, launch from the Arcadia Point boat ramp, and paddle 0.6 miles over to Hope Island. I had heard from other paddling friends about the beauty of the island and sought to see for myself if the hype was justified.

The first Hope Island inhabitant we spotted was a young raccoon walking along the beach.

Hope Island is a marine park situated a quarter of a mile across Pickering Passage from Carlyon Beach, Washington. However, once you leave the island’s beach and head into the woods, you’d think that you’re in some remote wilderness. Sounds from homes at Carlyon Beach don’t seem to penetrate the woods. Black-tailed deer feed on the grasses around the caretaker’s cabin and adjoining apple orchard.

There are eight campsites open to anyone and a Cascade Marine Trail open only to visitors who come by either paddle craft or sailboat. Some of the sites can support several tents, others only one or two. There are vault toilets but no running water, so in some ways campers have to rough it. Neither campfires nor pets are allowed on the island.

Since I was visiting over Memorial weekend—usually a busy camping time because it starts the summer camping season—I was somewhat worried about finding an available campsite. To my utter amazement, I was shocked to discover only one occupied campsite. My friend and I had the island practically to ourselves.

After setting up camp, we paddled around Hope Island to see what there was to see. We passed beautiful cabin cruisers moored near the island. The tide was going out, so there were several exposed beaches that under high tide practically vanish. Oyster and rock crab shells litter the beaches. As tides approach their lowest levels, sandy beaches give way to barnacle-covered rocky beaches.

Having circumnavigated the island by kayak, we decided upon our return to camp to hike the trail that completes a circuit around the interior of the island, beginning at the caretaker’s cabin. The trail passes through a wooded glade before coming to young forest filled with maples, alders, young western red cedars, Douglas firs, and various ferns. The young forest eventually gave way to old growth forests with towering western red cedars whose trunks were as big around as 60 inches. There was a slight breeze blowing that caused many of the trees to sway to and fro, and as they did, we could hear them groan and creak.

I could hear a woodpecker and barred owl in the distance. I gave out a barred owl call hoping he would reply and divulge his location so I could photograph him.

Various side trails take hikers out to the beach where they might spot a raccoon or two or at least see their footprints. The beaches also provide the perfect picnic spot to sit while watching kayaks, sailboats, and yachts pass by.

We worked up an appetite after paddling and hiking around the island. Dinner for me consisted of Asian noodles, pea pods, and shrimp marinated in ginger sesame sauce. No feasting on freeze-dried foods for me; it’s tasty meals or nothing.

The next morning after a hearty meal of breakfast burritos with diced ham, southern-fried potatoes, and scrambled eggs, it was time to embark on our longest paddle trip of the weekend—12 miles around Squaxin Island. The island belongs to the Squaxin Indian tribe, and paddlers are prohibited from landing on the island.

Paddling south to the southern end of Squaxin gave us a view of Boston Harbor four miles in the distance. We stopped at the southern tip of the island to watch clams squirt water from their siphons in what looked like miniature water fountains.

Paddling up Peale Passage on the eastern flank of Squaxin Island, we observed beautiful homes on Harstine Island. On the Squaxin side, oyster and geoduck clam farming was taking place. Pigeon guillemots and cormorants floated near the farms, and harbor seals were always close by keeping an eye on us. Harbor seals were the only marine mammals we spotted during our time in south Puget Sound, but people have occasionally spotted orcas in the area transiting down Dana Passage and through Hammersley Inlet to Oakland Bay.

Peale Passage narrows at the northern tip of Squaxin Island before meeting up with Pickering Passage. Emerging from Peale Passage into Pickering Passage, we headed back south toward Hope Island. Once we reached the northern end of Hope Island, it was time to give our legs a stretch, and our backs, and have a snack. Raccoon tracks on the beach let us know we weren’t the only visitors to this beach since low tide. We were glad to unzip our dry suits and remove our PFDs and spray skirts so we could cool off as we stood there on the beach enjoying our snacks and watching paddlers glide past.

After lunch, we paddled along the western side of Hope Island and headed for Steamboat Island hoping to circumnavigate that little island. Unfortunately, passage under the narrow bridge that links Steamboat Island to Carlyon Beach isn’t possible at low tide. Instead, we traveled around the northern tip of the island, passing through some squirrelly water caused by currents, and paddled down the western shore. The tiny island is crowded with homes; it’s amazing how many homes builders could squeeze onto that miniscule strip of land.

Leaving Steamboat Island, we paddled back across to Hope Island. Lunch after a long paddle was sure welcomed.

Paddlers are a friendly group in general, and I struck up a conversation with a family from Olympia who had padded their canoe from Arcadia Point to the island. The water was for the most part smooth, allowing all types of paddle craft to navigate to and around the island. There were times, however, that large yachts would generate large enough wakes that my sea kayak took water over the bow as I plied through the waves. I could only wonder how paddlers in small kayaks with no spray skirts to keep out water faired.

Too tired to do anymore paddling for the day, I decided to hike around the island again before finally settling into my camp chair for the evening. There’s just something so relaxing and soothing sitting under a canopy of fir trees watching them sway in the breeze. It’s almost hypnotic. All I heard was the trees and birds and occasionally new arrivals setting up camp. Unlike the previous night, the campground this night was full.

After a night’s rest, it was time to break camp and paddle back over to Arcadia Point. My paddling companion chose to do one final paddle, so I set out on my own. Passing along the western shore, I came upon another raccoon walking along the beach before disappearing into the woods as I approached. In the distance, I could clearly make out Mt. Olympus and several of the other mountain peaks that form the Olympic Range.

Back at the Arcadia Point boat ramp, I loaded my boat into its cradles, packed the gear into my vehicle, and glanced one final time over at Hope Island with the determination that I would make Hope Island an annual Memorial weekend trip. It turns out that, yes, the hype was for real.

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