As you bank over Washington's Hood Canal in a floatplane, you realize just how far 37 air miles have brought you. Seattle is still within sight to the northeast, and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains rise just above the wing to the west. Below is a 60-mile-long fishhook-shaped fjord whose deep, peaceful spirit takes it light-years out of the mainstream.
When your plane makes its soft water landing and taxis up to the dock at the Alderbrook Resort & Spa, life slows down. "Traffic" out here means kayaks and yachts. The bark of seals drowns out the din of the city you left behind, and at night the canal's placid silence is just what you need to decompress.
Clark Gable came here in the 1930s (you can rent his room at Willcox House near Seabeck), and over time cabins filled in along the shore near Belfair. Development on the Alderbrook Resort property started in 1913, and by the 1960s it had become the canal's premier resort. Now, thanks to a $13 million transformation brought about by a visionary hotel group, the Alderbrook has once again become a coveted destination ― and so has Hood Canal itself.
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."
Bounty above and below
As you take the 115-mile loop drive around the canal, it's still possible to spot the occasional orca pod and plenty of seals and birds. Below the surface, scuba divers haunt Sund Rock Marine Preserve and Octopus Hole, where the world's biggest octopuses share the water with fairy shrimp, shellfish, and Dungeness crab.
Farther north, stop at the Hama Hama Oyster Company's unpretentious sales shack; this month, local shrimp and geoducks supplement the steamer clams, crabs, and fresh or smoked oysters and fish that are year-round staples.
If you'd rather dig your own shellfish, try the flats on the north side of the Dosewallips River in Brinnon. The delta's geoducks, which can weigh several pounds each, are legendary.
Like most Olympic Peninsula rivers, the Dosewallips is fed by snows melting off 7,000-foot peaks just a few miles west. The steep watershed has produced some spectacular waterfalls. Just 3 miles west of Brinnon via Dosewallips River Road, Rocky Brook Falls is a local favorite. Brinnon's other big draw is Whitney Gardens & Nursery, where show gardens are at peak bloom this month.
Brinnon was one of many logging towns on the canal. One of the best preserved is Port Gamble, a company town, full of century-old, perfectly maintained buildings. Start a foot tour at the general store, then wander down the sidewalk in search of truffles, tea, and antiques, all sold in restored houses.
From a knoll on the north side of town, tree-shaded Buena Vista Cemetery commands a sweeping view north to the mouth of Hood Canal. From here, it doesn't seem much changed from the way it must have been on that May morning in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver first laid eyes on the point where you stand.
There is an important difference, however. Vancouver came to explore, map, and ultimately to claim territory for England. Two centuries later, the canal's ownership seems less important than its stewardship: It's beautiful, all right, but more fragile than anybody knew.
But if the new resort and environmental research projects are any indication, Hood Canal's fans―and fish―can start breathing easy, literally. As can those of us who have yet to discover its pleasures.