Washington's Hood Canal

An unsung getaway just got better

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A breath of fresh air
Late last century, the Alderbrook started to show its age. As locals wondered what would become of it, mysterious fish kills started occurring in the canal itself. What was going on? "In a nutshell," said one woman who grew up on the canal's south shore, "we finally got the bill for deferred maintenance. That goes for the canal itself, and for the things we've built here."

In 2001, the hotel group North Forty Lodging bought out the Alderbrook Inn and transformed it into the Alderbrook Resort & Spa, a national park-style lodge. The resort upgraded or replaced everything from rooms to restaurant menus. In the process, the owners restored an on-site salmon stream, and infused the community with the sense that things were starting to turn around.

On the environmental front, the grassroots Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group (HCSEG) teamed up with scientists to find out why the fish were dying. The verdict: The water's dissolved oxygen levels were too low. Hood Canal is hundreds of feet deep in places, but a shallow sill near its north end restricts seawater exchange. As a result, the canal's water is flushed far less frequently than are other parts of Puget Sound. When nutrients flow in (from septic-system leaks, for example), algae grows rampantly, then dies. As it decays, it ties up dissolved oxygen, eventually causing creatures like shrimp, fish, crabs, and octopuses to suffocate.

"It hits home," says Pat McCullough, an environmental engineer who helped reroute the state highway around the Alderbrook Resort, "because the canal is our front yard." Pat and his wife, Bonnie, own the Selah Inn on the north shore, and over the past 10 years, they've become experts on how the canal works. Pat is even one of the citizen scientists who help monitor the canal's water quality for HCSEG. Part of the group's vision is to develop a salmon research facility along Hood Canal that Pat describes as "Woods Hole West." Ambitious? Yes. Doable? "We already have most of the property."

The site of that research and education facility, to be called Pacific Northwest Salmon Center, will be in Belfair. It's a great place to see a pristine bit of the canal: Take the 3-mile Theler Wetlands Trail down to the wide-open, often-windy toe of the canal. Salmon and cutthroat trout still spawn and grow here, but Pat would like to see more of them.

"The canal's problems are serious," he says, "but probably overstated. We're cleaning up leaky septic systems, teaching people about fertilizer runoff problems, and monitoring water quality. It's progress."

Hannah Machacek emphatically agrees. "This is not a dead sea." She and her husband, Mark, should know: They lead waterborne nature tours of the Skokomish River Delta and offer kayak rentals at both their shop, Kayak Hood Canal in Union, and at Alderbrook Resort.

"You can't believe the amount of life here. This winter we've been watching orcas pick off seals; it's like seeing a PBS nature show live."

 

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