Harstine Island is a unique South Sound boating destination much beloved by locals and usually overlooked by everyone else. First things first, we’re settling the debate here and now; it’s spelled Harstine Island, not Harstene Island (like on some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association [NOAA] charts) or even Harstein Island, as originally penned by Commander Charles Wilkes in 1841 from the deck of the USS Vincennes. It’s 2017 and it’s Harstine Island according to the residents and street signs. It’s probably going to stay that way.
Harstine is the third largest island in the lower Puget Sound, but culturally very different than Bainbridge Island and Vashon Island, the top two. My explanation for this different feel is the lack of a commuter ferry, discontinued in 1969, which leaves Harstine only accessible via private boat or the Harstine Island Bridge (known by the locals as “New Bridge”) that connects it to the lower Olympic Peninsula. The residents like it that way, and in fact, many would probably like to do away with the meddlesome bridge altogether. Small-scale agriculture and lumber still play a role in the regional economy, marked by the signage for Island Belle Grapes (developed on Harstine Island) and patches of clear cuts. Large dogs lounging under “Private Property – No Trespassing” signs are commonplace. When I explored the interior of the island via car, I had to stop because a man was shepherding one of his wayward ganders across the road. “He has a mind of his own!” the goose herding man declared over his honking charge and our conversation was over before it began. Such is life on Harstine.
For boaters, the attractions are the natural beauty of the marine parks and surrounding islands, and they are stunners. There is no charming downtown drag here, and the closest thing to a grocery store is the seasonally open office/store of Jarrell’s Cove Marina. Like all boating in Puget Sound, tides matter big time, with narrow passes on all sides. Thanks to the geography of the area, the wind also can be especially strong as it is funneled over the narrow channels. You will definitely want to pick your weather wisely for an enjoyable cruise. A potential obstacle to navigation for larger yachts is the Harstine Island Bridge on the west side of the island. The mean higher high tide in Olympia is around 12 feet, and it’s with that calculation in mind that the charts say the clearance of the bridge is 31 feet. If one’s yacht cannot pass under the bridge or the risk isn’t worth the squeeze, the way to Jarrell Cove will have to be north along the open Case Inlet on the east side of the island. For those seeking a more rugged, overnight South Sound cruising experience, Harstine Island is a must-do.