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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 8 - Chapter XVII. Puget Sound


WASHINGTON TERRITORY, recently admitted [November 11, 1889; Muir's description probably was written toward the end of the same year. Editor.] into the Union as a State, lies between latitude 46° and 49° and longitude 117° and 125°, forming the northwest shoulder of the United States. The majestic range of the Cascade Mountains naturally divides the State into two distinct parts, called Eastern and Western Washington, differing greatly from each other in almost every way, the western section being less than half as large as the eastern, and, with its copious rains and deep fertile soil, being clothed with forests of evergreens, while the eastern section is dry and mostly treeless, though fertile in many parts, and producing immense quantities of wheat and hay. Few States are more fertile and productive in one way or another than Washington, or more strikingly varied in natural features or resources.

Within her borders every kind of soil and climate may be found -the densest woods and dryest plains, the smoothest levels and roughest mountains. She is rich in square miles (some seventy thousand of them), in coal, timber, and iron, and in sheltered inland waters that render these resources advantageously accessible. She also is already rich in busy workers, who work hard, though not always wisely, hacking, burning, blasting their way deeper into the wilderness, beneath the sky, and beneath the ground. The wedges of development are being driven hard, and none of the obstacles or defenses of nature can long withstand the onset of this immeasurable industry.

Puget Sound, so justly famous the world over for the surpassing size and excellence and abundance of its timber, is a long, many- fingered arm of the sea reaching southward from the head of the Strait of Juan de Fuca into the heart of the grand forests of the western portion of Washington, between the Cascade Range and the mountains of the coast. It is less than a hundred miles in length, but so numerous are the branches into which it divides, and so many its bays, harbors, and islands, that its entire shore-line is said to measure more than eighteen hundred miles. Throughout its whole vast extent ships move in safety, and find shelter from every wind that blows, the entire mountain-girt sea forming one grand unrivaled harbor and center for commerce.

The forest trees press forward to the water around all the windings of the shores in most imposing array, as if they were courting their fate, coming down from the mountains far and near to offer themselves to the axe, thus making the place a perfect paradise for the lumberman. To the lover of nature the scene is enchanting. Water and sky, mountain and forest, clad in sunshine and clouds, are composed in landscapes sublime in magnitude, yet exquisitely fine and fresh, and full of glad, rejoicing life. The shining waters stretch away into the leafy wilderness, now like the reaches of some majestic river and again expanding into broad roomy spaces like mountain lakes, their farther edges fading gradually and blending with the pale blue of the sky. The wooded shores with an outer fringe of flowering bushes sweep onward in beautiful curves around bays, and capes, and jutting promontories innumerable; while the islands, with soft, waving outlines, lavishly adorned with spruces and cedars, thicken and enrich the beauty of the waters; and the white spirit mountains looking down from the sky keep watch and ward over all, faithful and changeless as the stars.

All the way from the Strait. of Juan de Fuca up to Olympia, a hopeful town situated at the head of one of the farthest-reaching of the fingers of the Sound, we are so completely inland and surrounded by mountains that it is hard to realize that we are sailing on a branch of the salt sea. We are constantly reminded of Lake Tahoe. There is the same clearness of the water in calm weather without any trace of the ocean swell, the same picturesque winding and sculpture of the shore-line and flowery, leafy luxuriance; only here the trees are taller and stand much closer together, and the backgrounds are higher and far more extensive. Here, too, we find greater variety amid the marvelous wealth of islands and inlets, and also in the changing views dependent on the weather. As we double cape after cape and round the uncounted islands, new combinations come to view in endless variety, sufficient to fill and satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.

Oftentimes in the stillest weather, when all the winds sleep and no sign of storms is felt or seen, silky clouds form and settle over all the land, leaving in sight only a circle of water with indefinite bounds like views in mid-ocean; then, the clouds lifting, some islet will be presented standing alone, with the tops of its trees dipping out of sight in pearly gray fringes; or, lifting higher, and perhaps letting in a ray of sunshine through some rift overhead, the whole island will be set free and brought forward in vivid relief amid the gloom, a girdle of silver light of dazzling brightness on the water about its shores, then darkening again and vanishing back into the general gloom. Thus island after island may be seen, singly or in groups, coming and going from darkness to light like a scene of enchantment, until at length the entire cloud ceiling is rolled away, and the colossal cone of Mount Rainier is seen in spotless white looking down over the forests from a distance of sixty miles, but so lofty and so massive and clearly outlined as to impress itself upon us as being just back of a strip of woods only a mile or two in breadth.

For the tourist sailing to Puget Sound from San Francisco there is but little that is at all striking in the scenery within reach by the way until the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca is reached. The voyage is about four days in length and the steamers keep within sight of the coast, but the hills fronting the sea up to Oregon are mostly bare and uninviting, the magnificent redwood forests stretching along this portion of the California coast seeming to keep well back, away from the heavy winds, so that very little is seen of them; while there are no deep inlets or lofty mountains visible to break the regular monotony. Along the coast of Oregon the woods of spruce and fir come down to the shore, kept fresh and vigorous by copious rains, and become denser and taller to the northward until, rounding Cape Flattery, we enter the Strait of Fuca, where, sheltered from the ocean gales, the forests begin to hint the grandeur they attain in Puget Sound. Here the scenery in general becomes exceedingly interesting; for now we have arrived at the grand mountain-walled channel that forms the entrance to that marvelous network of inland waters that extends along the margin of the continent to the northward for a thousand miles.

This magnificent inlet was named for Juan de Fuca, who discovered it in 1592 while seeking a mythical strait, supposed to exist somewhere in the north, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. It is about seventy miles long, ten or twelve miles wide, and extends to the eastward in a nearly straight line between the south end of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Range of mountains on the mainland.

Cape Flattery, the western termination of the Olympic Range, is terribly rugged and jagged, and in stormy weather is utterly inaccessible from the sea. Then the ponderous rollers of the deep Pacific thunder amid its caverns and cliffs with the foam and uproar of a thousand Yosemite waterfalls. The bones of many a noble ship lie there, and many a sailor. It would seem unlikely that any living thing should seek rest in such a place, or find it. Nevertheless, frail and delicate flowers bloom there, flowers of both the land and the sea; heavy, ungainly seals disport in the swell- ing waves, and find grateful retreats back in the inmost bores of its storm-lashed caverns; while in many a chink and hollow of the highest crags, not visible from beneath, a great variety of water-fowl make homes and rear their young.

But not always are the inhabitants safe, even in such wave-defended castles as these, for the Indians of the neighboring shores venture forth in the calmest summer weather in their frail canoes to spear the seals in the narrow gorges amid the grinding, gurgling din of the restless waters. At such times also the hunters make out to scale many of the apparently inaccessible cliffs for the eggs and young of the gulls and other water-birds, occasionally losing their lives in these perilous adventures, which give rise to many an exciting story told around the camp-fires at night when the storms roar loudest.

Passing through the strait, we have the Olympic Mountains close at hand on the right, Vancouver Island on the left, and the snowy peak of Mount Baker straight ahead in the distance. During calm weather, or when the clouds are lifting and rolling off the mountains after a storm, all these views are truly magnificent. Mount Baker is one of that wonderful series of old volcanoes that once flamed along the summits of the Sierras and Cascades from Lassen to Mount. St. Elias. Its fires are sleeping now, and it is loaded with glaciers, streams of ice having taken the place of streams of glowing lava. Vancouver Island presents a charming variety of hill and dale, open sunny spaces and sweeps of dark forest rising in swell beyond swell to the high land in the distance.

But the Olympic Mountains most of all command attention, seen tellingly near and clear in all their glory, rising from the water's edge into the sky to a height of six or eight thousand feet. They bound the strait on the south side throughout its whole extent, forming a massive sustained wall, flowery and bushy at the base, a zigzag of snowy peaks along the top, which have ragged-edged fields of ice and snow beneath them, enclosed in wide amphitheaters opening to the waters of the strait through spacious forest-filled valleys enlivened with fine, dashing streams. These Valleys mark the courses of the Olympic glaciers at the period of their greatest extension, when they poured their tribute into that portion of the great northern ice-sheet that over- swept the south end of Vancouver Island and filled the strait with flowing ice as it is now filled with ocean water.

The steamers of the Sound usually stop at Esquimalt on their way up, thus affording tourists an opportunity to visit the interesting town of Victoria, the capital of British Colum- bia. The Victoria harbor is too narrow and difficult of access for the larger class of ships; therefore a landing has to be made at Esquimalt. The distance, however, is only about three miles, and the way is delightful, winding on through a charming forest of Douglas spruce, with here and there groves of oak and madrone, and a rich undergrowth of hazel, dogwood, willow, alder, spiraa, rubus, huckleberry, and wild rose. Pretty cottages occur at intervals along the road, covered with honeysuckle, and many an upswelling rock, freshly glaciated and furred with yellow mosses and lichen, telling interesting stories of the icy past.

Victoria is a quiet, handsome, breezy town, beautifully located on finely modulated ground at the mouth of the Canal de Haro, with charming views in front, of islands and mountains and far-reaching waters, ever changing in the shifting lights and shades of the clouds and sunshine. In the background there are a mile or two of field and forest and sunny oak openings; then comes the forest primeval, dense and shaggy and well-nigh impenetrable.

Notwithstanding the importance claimed for Victoria as a commercial center and the capital of British Columbia, it has a rather young, loose-jointed appearance. The government buildings and some of the business blocks on the main streets are well built and imposing in bulk and architecture. These are far less interesting and characteristic, however, than the mansions set in the midst of spacious pleasure-grounds and the lovely home cottages embowered in honeysuckle and climbing roses. One soon discovers that this is no Yankee town. The English faces and the way that English is spoken alone would tell that; while in business quarters there is a staid dignity and moderation that is very noticeable, and a want of American push and hurrah. Love of land and of privacy in homes is made manifest in the residences, many of which are built in the middle of fields and orchards or large city blocks, and in the loving care with which these home-grounds are planted. They are very beautiful. The fineness of the climate, with its copious measure of warm moisture distilling in dew and fog, and gentle, bathing, laying rain, give them a freshness and floweriness that is worth going far to see.

Victoria is noted for its fine drives, and every one who can should either walk or drive around the outskirts of the town, not only for the fine views out over the water but to see the cascades of bloom pouring over the gables of the cottages, and the fresh wild woods with their flowery, fragrant underbrush. Wild roses abound almost everywhere. One species, blooming freely along the woodland paths, is from two to three inches in diameter, and more fragrant than any other wild rose I ever saw excepting the sweetbriar. This rose and three species of spiraea fairly fill the air with fragrance after a shower. And how brightly then do the red berries of the dogwood shine out from the warm yellow-green of leaves and mosses!

But still more interesting and significant are the glacial phenomena displayed hereabouts. All this exuberant tree, bush, and herbaceous vegetation, cultivated or wild, is growing upon moraine beds outspread by waters that issued from the ancient glaciers at the time of their recession, and scarcely at all moved or in any way modified by postglacial agencies. The town streets and the roads are graded in moraine material, among scratched and grooved rock-bosses that are as unweathered and telling as any to be found in the glacier-channels of Alaska. The harbor also is clearly of glacial origin. The rock islets that rise here and there, forming so marked a feature of the harbor, are unchanged roches moutonnées, and the shores are grooved, scratched, and rounded, and in every way as glacial in all their characteristics as those of a newborn glacial lake.

Most visitors to Victoria go to the stores of the Hudson's Bay Company, presumably on account of the romantic associations, or to purchase a bit of fur or some other wild-Indianish trinket as a memento. At certain seasons of the year, when the hairy harvests are gathered in, immense bales of skins may be seen in these unsavory warehouses, the spoils of many thousand hunts over mountain and plain, by lonely river and shore. The skins of bears, wolves, beavers, otters, fishers, martens, lynxes, panthers, wolverine, reindeer, moose, elk, wild goats, sheep, foxes, squirrels, and many others of our "poor earth-born companions and fellow-mortals" may here be found.

Vancouver is the southmost and the largest of the countless islands forming the great archipelago that stretches a thousand miles to the northward. Its shores have been known a long time, but little is known of the lofty mountainous interior on account of the difficulties in the way of explorations - lake, bogs, and shaggy tangled forests. It is mostly a pure, savage wilderness, without roads or clearings, and silent so far as man is concerned. Even the Indians keep close to the shore, getting a living by fishing, dwelling together in villages, and traveling almost wholly by canoes. White settlements are few and far between. Good agricultural lands occur here and there on the edge of the wilderness, but they are hard to clear, and have received but little attention thus far. Gold, the grand attraction that lights the way into all kinds of wildernesses and makes rough places smooth, has been found, but only in small quantities, too small to make much motion. Almost all the industry of the island is employed upon lumber and coal, in which, so far as known, its chief wealth lies.

Leaving Victoria for Port Townsend, after we are fairly out on the free open water, Mount Baker is seen rising solitary over a dark breadth of forest, making a glorious show in its pure white raiment. It is said to be about eleven thousand feet high, is loaded with glaciers, some of which come well down into the woods, and never, so far as I have heard, has been climbed, though in all probability it is not inaccessible. The task of reaching its base through the dense woods will be likely to prove of greater difficulty than the climb to the summit.

In a direction a little to the left of Mount Baker and much nearer, may be seen the island of San Juan, famous in the young history of the country for the quarrels concerning its rightful ownership between the Hudson's Bay Company and Washington Territory, quarrels which nearly brought on war with Great Britain. Neither party showed any lack of either pluck or gunpowder. General Scott was sent out by President Buchanan to negotiate, which resulted in a joint occupancy of the island. Small quarrels, however, continued to arise until the year 1874, when the peppery question was submitted to the Emperor of Germany for arbitration. Then the whole island was given to the United States.

San Juan is one of a thickset cluster of islands that fills the waters between Vancouver and the mainland, a little to the north of Victoria. In some of the intricate channels between these islands the tides run at times like impetuous rushing rivers, rendering navigation rather uncertain and dangerous for the small sailing-vessels that ply between Victoria and the settlements on the coast of British Columbia and the larger islands. The water is generally deep enough everywhere, too deep in most places for anchorage, and, the winds shifting hither and thither or dying away altogether, the ships, getting no direction from their helms, are carried back and forth or are caught in some eddy where two currents meet and whirled round and round to the dismay of the sailors, like a chip in a river whirlpool.

All the way over to Port Townsend the Olympic Mountains well maintain their massive, imposing grandeur, and present their elaborately carved summits in clear relief, many of which are out of sight in coming up the strait on account of our being too near the base of the range. Turn to them as often as we may, our admiration only grows the warmer the longer we dwell upon them. The highest peaks are Mount Constance and Mount Olympus, said to be about eight thousand feet high.

In two or three hours after leaving Victoria, we arrive at the handsome little town of Port Townsend, situated at the mouth of Puget Sound, on the west side. The residential portion of the town is set on the level top of the bluff that bounds Port Townsend Bay, while another nearly level space of moderate extent, reaching from the base of the bluff to the shore-line, is occupied by the business portion, thus making a town of two separate and distinct stories, which are connected by long, ladder-like flights of stairs. In the streets of the lower story, while there is no lack of animation, there is but little business noise as compared with the amount of business transacted. This in great part is due to the scarcity of horses and wagons. Farms and roads back in the woods are few and far between. Nearly all the tributary settlements are on the coast, and communication is almost wholly by boats, canoes, and schooners. Hence country stages and farmers' wagons and buggies, with the whir and din that belong to them, are wanting.

This being the port of entry, all vessels have to stop here, and they make a lively show about the wharves and in the bay. The winds stir the flags of every civilized nation, while the Indians in their long-beaked canoes glide about from ship to ship, satisfying their curiosity or trading with the crews. Keen traders these Indians are, and few indeed of the sailors or merchants from any country ever get the better of them in bargains. Curious groups of people may often be seen in the streets and stores, made up of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Scandinavians, Germans, Greeks, Moors, Japanese, and Chinese, of every rank and station and style of dress and behavior; settlers from many a nook and bay and island up and down the coast; hunters from the wilderness; tourists on their way home by the Sound and the Columbia River or to Alaska or California.

The upper story of Port Townsend is charmingly located, wide bright waters on one side, flowing evergreen woods on the other. The streets are well laid out and well tended, and the houses, with their luxuriant gardens about them, have an air of taste and refinement seldom found in towns set on the edge of a wild forest. The people seem to have come here to make true homes, attracted by the beauty and fresh breezy healthfulness of the place as well as by business advantages, trusting to natural growth and advancement instead of restless "booming" methods. They perhaps have caught some of the spirit of calm moderation and enjoyment from their English neighbors across the water. Of late, however, this sober tranquillity has begun to give way, some whiffs from the whirlwind of real-estate speculation up the Sound having at length touched the town and ruffled the surface of its calmness.

A few miles up the bay is Fort Townsend, which makes a pretty picture with the green woods rising back of it and the calm water in front. Across the mouth of the Sound lies the long, narrow Whidbey Island, named by Vancouver for one of his lieutenants. It is about thirty miles in length, and is remarkable in this region of crowded forests and mountains as being comparatively open and low. The soil is good and easily worked, and a considerable portion of the island has been under cultivation for many years. Fertile fields, open, parklike groves of oak, and thick masses of evergreens succeed one another in charming combinations to make this "the garden spot of the Territory."

Leaving Port Townsend for Seattle and Tacoma, we enter the Sound and sail down into the heart of the green, aspiring forests, and find, look where we may, beauty ever changing, in lavish profusion. Puget Sound, "the Mediterranean of America" as it is sometimes called, is in many respects one of the most remarkable bodies of water in the world. Vancouver, who came here nearly a hundred years ago and made a careful survey of it, named the larger northern portion of it "Admiralty Inlet" and one of the long, narrow branches "Hood's Canal," applying the name "Puget Sound" only to the comparatively small southern portion. The latter name, however, is now applied generally to the entire inlet, and is commonly shortened by the people hereabouts to "The Sound." The natural wealth and commercial advantages of the Sound region were quickly recognized, and the cause of the activity prevailing here is not far to seek. Vancouver, long before civilization touched these shores, spoke of it in terms of unstinted praise. He was sent out by the British government with the principal object in view of "acquiring accurate knowledge as to the nature and extent of any water communication which may tend in any considerable degree to facilitate an intercourse for the purposes of commerce between the northwest coast and the country on the opposite side of the continent," vague traditions having long been current concerning a strait supposed to unite the two oceans. Vancouver reported that lie found the coast from San Francisco to Oregon and beyond to present a nearly straight solid barrier to the sea, without openings, and we may well guess the joy of the old navigator on the discovery of these waters after so long and barren a search to the southward.

His descriptions of the scenery - Mounts Baker, Rainier, St. Helen's, etc. -were as enthusiastic as those of the most eager landscape-lover of the present day, when scenery is in fashion. He says in one place: "To describe the beauties of this region will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task for the pen of a skillful panegyrist. The serenity of the climate, the immeasurable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages, and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined. The labor of the inhabitants would be amply rewarded in the bounties which nature seems ready to bestow on cultivation." "A picture so pleasing could not fail to call to our remembrance certain delightful and beloved situations in old England." So warm, indeed, were the praises he sung that his statements were received in England with a good deal of hesitation. But they were amply corroborated by Wilkes and others who followed many years later. "Nothing," says Wilkes, "can exceed the beauty of these waters and their safety. Not a shoal exists in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound or Hood's Canal, that can in any way interrupt their navigation by a 74-gun ship. I venture nothing in saying there is no country in the world that possesses waters like these." And again, quoting from the United States Coast Survey, "For depth of water, boldness of approaches, freedom from hidden dangers, and the immeasurable sea of gigantic timber coming down to the very shores, these waters are unsurpassed, unapproachable."

The Sound region has a fine, fresh, clean climate, well washed both winter and summer with copious rains and swept with winds and clouds that come from the mountains and the sea. Every hidden nook in the depths of the woods is searched and refreshed, leaving no stagnant air; beaver meadows and lake-basins and low and willowy bogs, all are kept wholesome and sweet the year round. Cloud and sunshine alternate in bracing, cheering succession, and health and abundance follow the storms. The outer sea-margin is sublimely dashed and drenched with ocean brine, the spicy scud sweeping at times far inland over the bending woods, the giant trees waving and chanting in hearty accord as if surely enjoying it all.

Heavy, long-continued rains occur in the winter months. Then every leaf, bathed and brightened, rejoices. Filtering drops and currents through all the shaggy undergrowth of the woods go with tribute to the small streams, and these again to the larger. The rivers swell, but there are no devastating floods; for the thick felt of roots and mosses holds the abounding waters in check, stored in a thousand thousand fountains. Neither are there any violent hurricanes here. At least, I never have heard of any, nor have I come upon their tracks. Most of the streams are clear and cool always, for their waters are filtered through deep beds of mosses, and flow beneath shadows all the way to the sea. Only the streams from the glaciers are turbid and muddy. On the slopes of the mountains where they rush from their crystal caves, they carry not only small particles of rock-mud, worn off the sides and bottoms of the channels of the glaciers, but grains of sand and pebbles and large boulders tons in weight, rolling them forward on their way rumbling and bumping to their appointed places at the foot of steep slopes, to be built into rough bars and beds, while the smaller material is carried farther and outspread in flats, perhaps for coming wheat-fields and gardens, the finest of it going out to sea, floating on the tides for weeks and months ere it finds rest on the bottom.

Snow seldom falls to any great depth on the lowlands, though it comes in glorious abundance on the mountains. And only on the mountains does the temperature fall much below the freezing-point. In the warmest summer weather a temperature of eighty-five degrees or even more occasionally is reached, but not for long at a time, as such heat is speedily followed by a breeze from the sea. The most charming days here are days of perfect calm, when all the winds are holding their breath and not a leaf stirs. Then the surface of the Sound shines like a silver mirror over all its vast extent, reflecting its lovely islands and shores; and long sheets of spangles flash and dance in the wake of every swimming seabird and boat. The sun, looking down on the tranquil landscape, seems conscious of the presence of every living thing on which he is pouring his blessings, while they in turn, with perhaps the exception of man, seem conscious of the presence of the sun as a benevolent father and stand hushed and waiting.


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