Ports of Call: Vashon Island
Towards the southern end of Puget Sound and stretching most of the distance between Tacoma and Seattle lies Vashon Island, an oasis of small town living and private farms amongst the urban development that characterizes the shores surrounding it. Accessible only by boat or ferry, the lack of bridges to the mainland have turned Vashon into a sort of time capsule, with century-old buildings still occupied and lovingly maintained, deer wandering down gravel roads, and an orchard or winery around every corner.
Residents of the island have done everything in their power to keep it that way, resisting multiple attempts to build bridges to the mainland over the past several decades.
Vashon Island, alternatively known as Vashon-Maury, was named by Captain George Vancouver for his friend James Vashon, while Maury Island was named by Lt. Charles Wilkes for a crew member named Maury. At one point, Vashon and Maury were two separate islands, until an isthmus was built between the two in 1916. Before Vancouver’s expedition in 1792 and Wilkes’ in 1841, Vashon was a favored hunting and fishing ground for coastal Native Americans.
Logging on Vashon began in the 1850s with settlers from Seattle arriving in the 1860s. It would be another 20 years before the populace grew to the point that a semi-regular ferry service would be established. Most inhabitants made their living as farmers at this point, with strawberries growing especially well.
Life on the island was largely rural and peaceful, the only hiccup being the ferry service. The ferries to Vashon at this point were mostly private and part of the infamous Mosquito Fleet, the majority owned by the Puget Sound Navigation Service. After some steep price increases and freezes in service, the incensed islanders created their own ferry service, and ran it until Vashon was added to the state ferry system. While Vashon has always been dependent on boats for access to the mainland, residents have always preferred ferries to bridges.
This insistence on keeping Vashon a true island has maintained its rural character. Locals have shut down bridge proposals in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘90s, with no plans to change their minds anytime soon. These were fortuitous decisions, as much of the island’s appeal is the character previous generations of inhabitants sought to maintain.
Today’s downtown Vashon looks much the same as it did in pictures from 70 years ago. A healthy respect for the community’s past seems to be a common trait among locals. Events like the annual strawberry festival keep traditions alive; first held in 1909, the festival pays homage every July to the crop that used to cover the island’s farmland.
The island today is a haven for small farms and artists’ workshops, with many day-trippers coming across to take advantage of the mountain biking trails and kayaking opportunities. Many just wander the downtown, window shopping at galleries, bookstores, and gift shops. Whatever draws visitors to the island, they’re sure to enjoy the slower pace and the family-owned businesses that make every trip feel like a step back in time.
Puget Sound is home to great salmon fishing, and what could
“An underwater shelf known as Allen Bank – between the southeastern side of Blake Island south to the channel marker off Point Vashon at the northern entrance of Colvos Passage – is another ideal fishing spot,” said Mark Yuasa, Director of the NW Salmon Derby Series. Spot shrimp are another good catch in the area; they are best caught in steep inclines in depths between 225’ and 325’, although some will have success in depths that are both deeper and shallower. Conditions around Vashon fit these criteria nicely, as do areas just a stone’s throw from Vashon.
For an island that measures 37 square miles, Vashon is host to an abundance of wineries, many of whom offer tastings to visitors. While
Palouse Winery is located on the north part of the island and produces 1,400 cases of handcrafted wine a year. They offer tastings on weekends all year round, with some special holiday events. Nashi Orchards to the south grows Asian and European pears and heirloom apples to produce perry (fermented pear alcohol) and hard cider. They offer tastings on weekends. These are just a handful of the wineries on Vashon; do a little research and visit one or all of them.
Day at the Beach
Vashon Island is home to countless small beaches along its shores, but one of the more unique is KVI beach, also known as Point Heyer. Owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, but open to the public, KVI beach serves as the location of a radio tower and is home to a small estuary and salt marsh. Voted the “Best Place to Build a Sand Castle” by denizens of Vashon, the beach is a favorite of dog walkers and bird watches.
The salt marsh is an ideal habitat for birds and makes this area a hot spot for sightings of sandpipers, bald eagles, osprey, semipalmated plovers, and the occasional sighting of peregrine falcons.
In the waters just off the beach, steelhead and Chinook salmon eat the sand lances that forage there. A slow-moving, meandering stream runs through the park, home to tiny fish and small speckled crabs. The beach is sandy and great for sunbathing, exploring trails, or playing fetch with any four-legged crew members.
Point Robinson Lighthouse
Off the eastern tip of Maury Island sits the Point Robinson Lighthouse, which has kept watch over the East Passage since 1885. In the 1870s, the Lighthouse Board decided mariners would benefit from a lighthouse
Today, the area is a 10-acre park and protected marine area, with sandy, driftwood-scattered beaches and trails. Benches and picnic table are placed near the water for visitors to enjoy, and walking trails through the woodland on the grounds offer plenty of places to explore.
Visitors to the spot can take a tour of the lighthouse, with tours available most Sundays, May through September. The original lighthouse keeper’s quarters have been restored and are available for rent. For navigators, the characteristic is FI(2) W 12s (white light, 3 seconds on, 1 second off, 3 seconds on, 5 seconds off).
An abundance of art galleries, museums, and artists’ studios can be found in downtown Vashon and all over the island. The Vashon Center for the Arts has existed in one form or another since 1949 and was created to show off the art of friends and neighbors.
Today, collections can be seen in their Koch Gallery and Fong-Wheeler Atrium, where they display the work of artist from all over the Northwest. Private galleries like Valise show off the work of local Vashon artists, which can range from paintings to photography.
Raven’s Nest is a gallery that is co-owned by one of the finest Tlingit artists and carvers. Consequently, Raven’s Nest offers an excellent array of art showcasing the traditional style of Northwest Coast Native Americans. The Hinge Gallery is a combination frame shop, art gallery, and art studio that offer Vashon Island themed prints and gifts.
The Starving Artist Works in downtown is an art gallery that includes more practical works of art like custom pillows, bags, and furniture that can be put to good use as well as admired.