It's a breezy day on Puget Sound as I hurry aboard the MV Quinault for the ride from Keystone to Port Townsend, Washington. Northwesterners know that the ferry on this route can really rock and roll as it shoots across narrow Admiralty Inlet, so I expect a thrilling ride.
"Sometimes 15-foot seas will spray water into the upper deck and the pilothouse―32 feet above the waterline," says captain David Alger, looking jaunty in his crisp uniform. "I've seen winds so strong," he adds, "that passengers on the outer deck can't pull open the doors to get back inside!"
You could call this region North America's ferry capital―three of the world's largest ferry systems are here, in Washington State, Alaska, and British Columbia. And these routes aren't just scenic tourist runs―they carry millions of commuters each year.
In tracking down the best ferry trips in the Northwest, I've found journeys that showcase wildlife, some that take you past rugged, fjordlike scenery, and others that are right out of the Northwest's storied past. But the route I'm on today is said to be one of the wildest: Roughest in winter, with swirling currents and roaring winds that can postpone crossings, the water can rock and roll even on an August day.
As we glide over the Sound, the blue, snowcapped ridges of the Olympic Mountains rise to the west; against the wind-scrubbed sky, the formations are distinct and sharp-edged, as if cut by scissors. The crossing ― which takes about 25 minutes ― is smooth but not without drama. The billowing sails of the brig Lady Washington race across the near horizon. Hanging onto the Quinault's railing with one hand, I hold binoculars in the other, scanning the waves for orcas and gray whales, common here. I see rhinoceros auklets and cormorants diving; murrelets, old-squaw, and pelicans riding the swells.
Just as we ease into Port Townsend, I spot a bald eagle winging south over timbered ridges. And I sense that, even without the rock-and-roll weather, I've had a classic Northwesterner's day on the water.