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Simple Pleasures on the Hood Canal

September 10, 1989|CLAUDIA MORAIN | Morain is a free-lance writer/photographer living in Palo Alto, Calif

SEATTLE, Wash. — Spend time with transplanted Pacific Northwesterners and, sooner or later, one of them will start to rhapsodize about Washington state. You know--the rhododendrons are lush, the houses are cheap, the people are real, the quality of life is. . . ."

Apparently beyond description, because the phrase usually ends in a wistful sigh.

But don't dismiss Washington worship as an utter exaggeration until you've visited Hood Canal. Spend a few days there at the foot of the Olympic Mountains, eating oysters on the beach to the barking of the harbor seals, and you'll know why so many Californians seem ready to trade perpetual sunshine for frequent drizzle.

The canal, named for an 18th-Century British admiral, is not a man-made canal but a narrow, fiord-like arm of Puget Sound, the enormous body of water that shears the Olympic Peninsula from the rest of Washington state.

Hood Canal, 60 miles long and an average of about two miles wide, stretches from Port Ludlow on the north to Potlatch on the south, then takes a short northeasterly hook toward Belfair.

By California standards the canal is uninhabited, even in summer. Sail or motor over the smooth expanse of protected blue water, the glacier-covered peaks of the Olympics towering above you, and yours is likely to be the only boat in view.

Choose a chunk of waterfront from among dozens of oyster-strewn beaches; you'll be the only one there.

For hikers, Olympic National Park is just minutes away by car. Mt. Olympus rises 7,965 feet in the center of the park, surrounded by more than a dozen slightly lesser peaks. Hundreds of miles of trails meander through remote rain forests and along mountain streams: the Quinault, the Dosewallips, the Elwha and others.

People with wet suits brave the 45- to 55-degree temperatures and water ski in the canal. Because of its isolation from ocean currents, the water is rarely choppy. On the warmest days in the summer, children swim--without wet suits--in some of the shallow, sheltered coves.

Others journey to Hood Canal for skin diving. Some of the largest octopuses in the world, weighing as much as 90 pounds and with arm spans of up to 18 feet, have been collected in the waters of Puget Sound. Watching a giant Pacific octopus emerge from a two-inch crack in a rock is said to be one of the more memorable scuba-diving experiences.

But for me, the main reason to visit Hood Canal is to eat. The place is a paradise for seafood lovers.

Oysters Piled Three Deep

The last time we were there, in late June, we took a 12-foot motorboat up the canal, about a mile and a half from our resort, and pulled up at a beach where the oysters were piled two and three deep.

Turquoise water lapped at the shore. As it receded at low tide we saw obese purple and orange sea stars, milky white sea anemones and clumps of bearded black mussels. Clams spat at us through holes in the mud.

Our children spent the morning gathering miniature green, red and brown hermit crabs. There are said to be 27 species of hermit crabs in the Puget Sound area, and the kids must have found all of them.

The four adults present--my parents, my husband and I--gathered our legal limit of oysters (18 per person) within minutes. We shucked them on the spot (it's illegal to remove oyster shells from the beaches), motored back to the resort with our oyster catch in plastic bags and pulled up the three crab nets we had put down earlier in the day.

Three large orange dungeness crabs and five smaller, red-and-brown rock crabs were making a meal of the quartered chickens we'd tied inside the rings as bait.

That night we sauteed oysters and boiled crab in the kitchen of our cottage for dinner. We made another oyster run the next morning, this time staying long enough to dig for clams, too. The crab nets were full again on our return.

Day 2's menu was oyster stew for lunch and steamed clams and pasta with clam sauce for dinner. My brother made crab omelets for everyone the following morning.

We had cracked crab, fresh from the crab pots, again for dinner on Day 3.

Though others golf, we ate our way around Hood Canal. There are courses at the Alderbrook Inn & Resort in Union, where we stayed, and at the Resort at Port Ludlow in Port Ludlow.

Two-Hour Trip

Although Hood Canal is just 20 miles west of Seattle, getting there from the Seattle area takes a couple of hours. The Bremerton peninsula and widest part of the sound separate the two.

Your choices are to take Interstate 5 south from Seattle, a circuitous and not particularly scenic route that winds around the southern end of Puget Sound through Tacoma and Olympia--about a two-hour drive. Or you can drive onto a ferry in Seattle and get off in Bremerton. From Bremerton it's a short drive to most destinations on the canal.

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