One hundred seventy square miles must be quite enough space to encourage regional division. I usually think of smallish islands as single entities, and only parcel out big places like California into compass-based sections. But clearly I have been mistaken. Businesses on Whidbey Island, Washington proudly label themselves as belonging to North, South, or Central. South Whidbey Self Storage, Central Whidbey Lions Club, North Whidbey RV Park.
Maybe it’s the quick-change climates that encourage this semi-official split. Driving the 50 or so miles from one end to the other, it’s a struggle to keep your eyes on the road, since all around the scenery is shifting from one form of beauty to another. South Whidbey is lushly forested. Central lies in the middle of the rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains. North begins dramatically where Highway 20 plunges into a tall, dark, and handsome rainforest.
And that last boundary coincides, more or less, with Deception Pass State Park – a road trip destination full of rewards for the explorer.
On my first visit, the main objective was to cross the Deception Pass Bridge on foot. Right away, I found out it’s sectioned, too, for Deception has a twin pass: the equally intense but much more innocuously-named Canoe. (Tricky, right from the start.) Both sections are famously high and famously narrow, with famously excellent views.
The name comes from British Captain George Vancouver’s mistaken belief, when he and his crew were mapping the area in the late 18th century, that Whidbey Island was in fact connected to the mainland. The Coast Salish people already living and sailing there had no such misperceptions, but he didn’t ask them. Instead he sent Joseph Whidbey out on a couple of different explorations in small boats, which first confused and then cleared the matter up. Whidbey then got to write his name on the map, while Captain Van took his revenge on the lying coastline in similar fashion.
(Jonathan Raban, in at least one of his brilliant essays – I forget which – advances the argument that Vancouver’s colorful naming of Northwest landmarks reflects a mood disorder, or at the very least a profound distrust of the Romantic enthusiasm for Nature that had begun to infect the European public in his time.)
From the air, there’s nothing particularly misleading about it. Deception Pass is a straightforwardly terrifying 180 feet of inexorable gravity. At the terminus: jade green water that swirls like melting glass – only frighteningly fast. My visits have been on calm days, but I think the waters here are never still or easy. Sea lions, cavorting in the turbulent flow, don’t seem to mind, but I am not keen to leave the safety of land. Still, standing on the slender span above, there’s that slight compulsion toward the drop, stomach-wrenching and exhilarating at once.
Any time after about 9am, lines of the brave and curious pass each other on the bridge’s 3-foot sidewalk. They’re striding or shuffling, according to their comfort level, and all of them are snapping pictures with their perilously balanced devices.
You have little choice, so pretend it’s your idea: lean away from them, hips on the guardrail and face to the ocean wind. Literally pushing the edge.
The close-pressed rainforest on either side of the bridge keeps its secrets well, but venture off the road. There’s more to Washington’s most-visited state park. Namely: old-growth forest, tiny moody bays, abundant birdlife, ridiculously scenic beaches. All of these are connected by quiet hiking trails, with views just as memorable as that from the famous bridge.
The time to visit the beach on the Whidbey side is early morning. Park in the very big lot (you’ll have your pick of spots, for now), and walk out where the shoreline shifts its face from north to east. Listen: on a calm day, the waves are bell-clear and tiny. They’re like a tame version of faeries, dancing in to chime a polite rhythm on this pebbly point of land. Enticing, climbing-sized rocks rise above them, close enough to dare, but don’t – the shore drops quickly toward the deep.
Or choose one of the twisting forest trails instead. They’re on both sides of the Park, sometimes clearly marked with a parking lot to match, sometimes vaguely signed and leaving from the highway shoulder. A key benefit to this choice is the abundance of one of my favorite plants: salal.
Salal fruits aren’t sugar-sweet like we expect from our cultivated berries. Their flavor is mild and pleasant, sweet in the modest way of a wild thing. They grow generously from beautiful evergreen shrubs that carpet the forest – so lovely and so hardy that their main economic value today lies in their leaves, popular in commercial floral arrangements. The berries are a bit hirsute, and eventually I always give up, sucking the juice and spitting the skins back at their parent plants. If it’s too early or too late for berries, take your joy in the small white flowers, or those distinctive glossy leaves, alternating on confident red stems.
The forest embraces, and offers a hundred gifts. But I’m too often landlocked, and here I can smell the salt. I seek the sea through the trees.
It’s not a difficult quest: cedar-fringed pocket coves appear around corners with a regularity that practically writes the word ‘paradise’ in the sand. Islands bloom from the fog, purple with distance across steel-colored straits; bull-kelp streams in the fast-flowing passes.
I expect to feel calm and focused in a wild place, but I often get distracted. Today I’m wondering if these massive seaweeds have some species memory of the otters that thrived here once. I picture these ocean-going weasels – it’s not an insult, the whole family is lovely – wrapping themselves in strands of kelp while they sleep. Sea otters today are a rare sight in Puget Sound, though a few have re-entered the area after heavy fur-trapping nearly wiped them out a century back.
Whales, on the other hand, are supposed to be common. I’ve never yet seen one here. The dominant large(ish) life-form on each of my visits has been the Great Blue Heron, avian mascot of my own home town.
I think of these stately, intense birds as solitary, but there are dozens here on any given day, fishing in the mudflat shallows of the bays. Against the wave-lapped quiet of the morning, one of them pushes off from her high perch with a labored sweep of wing and that echoing primeval “crrronnnk!” An arrested moment follows, in which my husband cannot shift his gaze or comment, though I can see he wants to share it with me. Finally, still watching her flight, he manages: “Dinosaurs are awesome.”
A camera – well, my camera – cannot quite capture this place. Spangles of water catch on drapes of usnea lichen, but there’s not enough light for the lens to translate their shine, and I cannot angle the shot to show the spaces between. I can see the heaviness of rain stored in the massive trees, but my machine cannot. Gray fog, drifting below gray cloud banks over the gray sea, is three colors and textures to my infinitely complex eye, but one great blur to my limited camera’s aperture.
The hardest thing to freeze is the slick green glide of tide on eddy through the narrows. It’s lethally beautiful, ready to drown the body even as it draws the spirit. Captain Vancouver felt misled, however briefly, but I am compelled. Here is my siren song, no murderous mermaids required. I’m staying firmly on land, but I am hooked.
Deception Pass State Park covers parts of Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, as well as tiny Pass Island between. There are numerous trails, some of them quite short and manageable as a quick break from driving. Most of the trails here should not be considered easy, though: tricky footing on roots and rocks is common, and some paths are very steep.
Access the park from State Highway 20, south of Anacortes, Washington, about a 30-minute drive west from Interstate 5. There is a fee to leave your car inside the boundaries, including either side of the Deception Pass Bridge. Buy a Discover Pass online (as of this writing, it’s $10/day or $30/year), or at the automated kiosk in the parking lot on the Whidbey side of the bridge. If you’re continuing south down the island, you’ll be able to use your pass at several other scenic State Parks.