A couple of days after our Portland trip I found myself heading in the opposite direction. This time it was north up to Mukilteo to catch the ferry for my first ever trip to Whidbey Island. I was kindly taken by car, but there was a group who came from downtown Seattle by bus – so even without transport it is fantastically accessible. And, an even bigger bonus, once on the island all bus travel is free. We were there to hike, a trip organised by two volunteer hike leaders from The Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers is a Seattle based outdoor group which offers a lot more than just climbing mountains. Their activity programme ranges from sea kayaking to alpine scrambling, sailing to back packing, snow-shoeing to conservation – there is even a theatre group who occasionally perform at the 3 lodges run by the Mountaineers. I am most often searching on their day hikes list, walks are offered at all levels. I have been around the Issaquah foothills and out to several islands so far. I’m looking forward to the higher mountains opening up in the next month or so, as the tales of the beautiful walks to be had there are tantalising. Because of the amazing commitment of volunteers once you pay your annual membership activities are free, unless they are training courses. A big hurrah for volunteers, we appreciate you.
Whidbey Island is long and very thin, 55 miles long making it the fourth longest island in the USA yet at its narrowest only 1.5 miles wide spreading to only 12 miles at its broadest. Mutiny Bay on the west coast is pretty spectacular, curving around facing the snow topped Olympic Mountain range. Travelling from the Clinton ferry port on the island to Mutiny Bay, our trailhead, we saw three deer running across the road. Little did I realise at that point that it was the first of very many wonderful animal encounters of the day.
We were having a mini heat wave, there could have been few more perfect places to be as temperatures hit 90F in Seattle – walking to Double Bluff at the end of the curve and just touching around the corner where it becomes Useless Bay. The names all sound very pirate tales like to me! Here is a map.
As those in cars waited for the arrival of the bus travellers we were fortunate to have two kestrels perform in front of us, dipping down to catch fish to take back to their nest. It took couple of attempts to catch anything but they managed to, great fun to watch.
As we set off around the cove the next animal delight was a Blue Heron, standing on the water edge and very happy to be photographed. You do see this these in the city as well, there is even a large nesting site within trees in the University of Washington’s busy campus.
Continuing we came to a pier, where a bald eagle had taken up residence. I don’t blame him – the view was really excellent. On our return some of the walkers had the eagle swoop down and paddle in the water just in front of them unbothered by their presence.
There was still more to come. I was on my own for a few minutes and saw an animal scurrying up the sandbank. It wasn’t until I was showing the bloke the photographs back at home (he was hard at work throughout all of this excitement) that I found out it was a chipmunk, my first viewing of this very common animal. They are really cute, a bit like a tiny squirrel but with a very different tail and markings.
By this point we were reaching the far end of the bay at Double Bluff. Turning the corner brought a very unexpected sight, well for me at least. Far reaching views with Mount Rainier and the skyscraper skyline of downtown Seattle in the distance. Some of the group wished for a clearer day, with less pollution, to see the mountain better. I think sometimes local forget just how amazing this place is, it was a delight to see it at all!
After lunch here we headed back. I was expecting to enjoy the views from the other direction but thought we had experienced much of what the bay had to offer. However one walker started to tell me that she had spotted a seal on the way over – which many of us had walked past unaware of. When we reached it again you could see how we missed it. Tucked at the back of the beach it was almost the same colour as the sand. She had seen it move out the corner of her eye, and therefore become aware of it. It seemed very relaxed about us becoming a crowd a little way from it.
A few locals came and told us more – it had visited the beach each spring for the last five years and they thought it was an northern elephant seal. Apparently the flicking of sand over its body was to help it cool down. In time it will shed a skin, it can take a few weeks for this to happen but being hauled out allows the skin to heat up and speeds the process. They told us it made its way to the water and back each day. It was tempting to watch it for hours – but on we pressed.
So back past the bald eagle, back past the blue heron which had got peckish and was ready to fish – successfully. The beach was really quiet, despite the perfection of weather and views – such an advantage being able to walk mid-week although apparently it is always fairly quiet (except the 4th July when fireworks are the centerplace of family beach parties). Some parts of the beach are private – unfortunately Washington wasn’t as smart as Oregon where beaches have been kept in public ownership. Despite this ownership however it is apparently fine for anyone to walk along (although we had a local property owner in our group as it happened), it is only if you stop in a private area and set out your beach accessories that you may be asked to move to a public area. I didn’t note any signage, so when going again I would just speak in my best English accent and claim ignorance…always charms the locals!
Walking along this sun drenched beach I thought we were probably having the most enviable experience I could think of, until a sea kayaker floated on to the scene. She paddled around the bay a bit before taking a rest to read a book as the water gently lapped below and the mountains looked on. Okay – she wins! But second place was still pretty amazing.
After about an 8 mile walk we returned to our start point, where the very generous couple in the group who own a holiday home on the bay not only let us troop through to use their bathrooms but surpassed all expectations with a spread of goodies to make ice-cream sundaes – which we ate around their patio tables.
You get to know the characters of the wonderful Mountaineers leaders – one is likely to take you steeply upwards on a mid length hike, another is great at finding views for lunch time stops, another loves to include elements of local history. With the guides leading the Whidbey Island hike you are always in for a fun food time. They have been leading walks with an island theme. The first I did was on Bainbridge Island in January- lunch was eaten on the large porch of a beautiful 1910s house looking over the water, with the addition of home-made cookies. The second walk with them ended up in the International District of Seattle with a dim-sum lunch. On the next one, which included Steward Park and Pritchard Island, we found this remarkable Mexican food bus which sold great tacos. At the end of the month we are going to Foster and Marsh Islands, which are on Union Bay in central Seattle – on to the Arboretum and then…lunch at a French restaurant. Well, walking does build up an appetite!
Get those walking boots on and join us – you will have fun out with The Mountaineers.