Monday, October 8, 2007

Take a Ferry and Slip Away to Anderson Island

The best part of a visit to an island in Puget Sound is the trip there. Mainland worries disappear as the ferry glides through the water toward that floating land in the distance.

Anderson Island, a two and a half hour drive north from Portland on I-5, is ideal for a day trip or week-end get-a-way. If you love to roam back-roads looking for good locations to launch a kayak, take your bike out for a spin, or for ferries to ride, Anderson Island is your place.

To reach Anderson Island, take the short ferry ride from Steilacoom, the oldest incorporated town in Washington State, perched on a sloping hillside overlooking Puget Sound south of the Tacoma Narrows. The Christina Anderson, with capacity for about 65 cars and passengers, alternates service with a newer, slightly larger ferry. The ferry landing with ticket office and small waiting room for walk-on passengers is at the base of a hill, across the Portland to Seattle Amtrak tracks. Cars loading the ferry will often need to wait while a speeding passenger, or freight train, whizzes by.

Park your car then walk onto the ferry with your bike or kayak or drive on, relax and head for a slower pace of life as the ferry crosses to the rolling forested hills and former pioneer farm land of the island. During the 20 minute crossing, you will feel the mainland slipping away as you look back at stunning views of Mt. Rainer on a clear day, or ahead to the green hills floating in the Sound. The ferry captain has been known to slow down to point out whales surfacing within view from the deck, one time between the ferry landing and the island shore to the oohs and aahs of passengers.

Once the ferry docks, walk on passengers with kayaks can walk up the ramp and launch their boats into the water beside the island ferry dock. A stairway from the road level down to the rocky beach requires two people and a little work, but is well worth it. You can also drive onto the ferry with your kayaks or bikes, and park near the island ferry landing.

It is an ideal island for kayaking with relatively calm waters, a varied shoreline of beach and steep cliffs topped with Douglas fir and red barked Madrona trees. Harbor seals bob in the surf and curiously, but cautiously, follow paddlers. A slow, easy-going way to see the island for the moderately experienced paddler is by hugging the shoreline. We’ve often made the comfortable paddle around the 13 mile circumference in four hours and been rewarded with bald eagle and numerous other shore and sea bird sightings every trip. Paddle at a slower pace and stop to enjoy jelly fish floating just under the water surface with their gangly tentacles and pull out your binoculars to watch sea birds that ride the gentle waves. Amsterdam and Oro Bays deserve more time for explorations, depending upon the tide levels.

Island residents Chuck and Kelly Hines recently opened Anderson Island Kayaks from the garage behind their house with a sweeping view of the Nisqually River reach tidal flats. They rent kayaks and lead day tours with advanced arrangements. If you bring your own boat, bring along a tide book and chart of Southern Puget Sound. Respect private property; there is no landing except at public beaches or docks.

The island was nearly cut clear of timber to feed the Mosquito Fleet steamboat engines that served Puget Sound islands and shore communities between 1850s and 1930s. Some small groves of old growth survive dotting the green fields of bottom land farmlands and tree covered the hillsides. Houses line a few rocky beaches, and inland there is a partially developed subdivision with a marina dock, a golf course and a club house restaurant open to the public overlooking one of two island lakes. Most houses are tucked away in the woods; some sit on the edge of open meadows sloping down to a view of island bays. The 900 full time residents are served by a congenial community general store, a wood framed community center, and grade school. The ferry serves as school bus for high schoolers who commute in island fashion to the mainland.

A few B&Bs and a some private home rentals are available for visitors. The island has several parks, some signed private for residents and guests of the golf course subdivision. Several of the public parks have narrow forested trails, and one, my favorite Andy’s Marine Park, allows primitive camping on a beach that fluctuates in size with the tides, accessible by boat or a two-mile hike through the woods.

Paved two lane roads crisscross the island, with some steep hills for the determined bicyclist. Whether you drive or bike, stop by the general store and gas station up the hill straight from the ferry landing after you have passed the community center. There you can ask for directions to one of several public parks with walking trails, pick up a snack, ask about island events and chat with island residents.

The general store is the center of island community news with a reader board sign in front announcing island weddings, birthdays and other local events easily visible for anyone who drives past on their way to or from the ferry. A lively schedule of community events is often open to the public. The Anderson Island Historic Society hosts a barbecue each July 4th and annually the Tacoma Symphonic Band plays on the grassy meadow in front of the Historic Anderson House. The Island Arts Committee brings together residents and fortunate visitors for occasional music events at the Anderson Island Community Center.

On Sundays you may be fortunate to find a volunteer docent who will lead you on a tour of the pioneer farm at the Anderson House and the wooden barn chock full of turn of the century farm implements. On one of our visits the grandson of Christina Anderson, for whom the ferry is named, was checking out the abundant community garden spread in front of the farm’s chicken coops. Island life makes for tight community. As one island resident reflected, “Living on an island, you get to make friends with a wider group of people than you would ever know in a city.”

If you go tips:

Driving directions from Portland: North on I-5 to exit 119 towards Steilacoom. Drive west through North Fort Lewis for several miles till the road dead ends at the ferry landing. Follow signs and park behind the last car, obeying island protocol for ferry queuing. If you want to be a walk-on passenger, park in the fee parking lot adjacent to the loading line. Walk to the ferry ticket office and buy tickets before loading. Restrooms and coffee for a donation in the walk-on waiting lobby. Fares are $15.00 non peak season, $18.00 peak season for car and driver, passengers extra. Walk-ons encouraged with only passenger fares.

Bring your own bike as there are no bike rentals on Anderson Island or Steilacoom.

(253)798-2766 24 hour ferry schedule recording