Fort Whitman, Goat Island, n. Puget Sound, WA 14–15 Apr 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Apr 16, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    When I wrote my review of all sea kayaking guidebooks in the Pacific Northwest, I said that Rob Casey and Washington Water Trails Association cover all public campsites in Washington State. And that's true, they do, but there’s more to good camping than just campsites. Washington State has many public lands that have no designated campsite, no official status, no parking lot, no roads or trails, and no “welcome aboard” website, yet primitive camping is nonetheless allowed. Those intrepid enough to forgo the comforts of picnic tables and outhouses can find some beautiful and unusual places to camp in this state.

    For this weekend's adventure, I headed out to Goat Island in Skagit Bay, not far from Deception Pass. In fact, I camped at Quarry Pond in Deception Pass State Park to get an early start. Deception Pass is one of the most beautiful parts of the state, so I made sure to stop and walk across and under the bridge.

    01: Rushing ebb at Deception Pass.

    Goat Island is a geographically prominent but often-looked landmark in Skagit Bay, just north of the Skagit River delta. The island’s main claim to fame is the ruins of Fort Whitman, an Endicott Period fort built in 1911 to help defend Puget Sound from hostile fleets. In its heyday, the fort mounted four six-inch guns on disappearing carriages, backed up by a network of electrically fired underwater mines.

    Today, all that’s left are the silent, abandoned concrete emplacements, covered in moss and ferns and slowing losing their identify to the encroaching forest. The island belongs to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who seem content to let the old fort moulder. I set up camp in a grassy meadow atop the westernmost point of the island and spent the weekend exploring.

    00: Note the enormous mud flats surrounding Goat Island and nearby Ika Island. Avoid at low tide, or keep to the dredged channel in blue!

    I launched at the beautiful boat ramp in La Conner. The ebb tide carried me swiftly but gently past the old warehouses and new retirement homes that line Swinomish Channel.

    02: The bridge at La Conner on a typical gray Washington day.

    03: Double-crested cormorant in breeding plumage. These birds have moved from their winter freshwater roosting sites out to the coast.

    04: Male and female buffleheads, beginning to pair off for the breeding season.

    Goat Island was only a couple miles down the channel. The fort was not hard to find once on the island, thanks to social trails hacked out by visitors. From the water, though, the fort was invisible. The whole point of a disappearing-gun fort is that nothing sticks up for the enemy to shoot at, so I paddled right past the north-side landing beach without seeing any sign of the fort. I didn’t even notice the trail up the steep embankment.

    In retrospect, I think my navigational error was fortuitous. My campsite on the western point offered far easier access than I would have had climbing the north beach trail.

    There is room at the far end of the north beach for a single tent on a flat patch of gravel, but the western point is nicer for the view, the fresh air, the easy climb, and the near-certainty that no visitors to the fort will pass this way. I sat out on my “lawn,” reading and watching the snow geese, cackling geese, and terns passing by.

    05: The western tip of Goat Island is by far the nicest spot for camping. The beach disappears at high tide.

    06: One of the four gun emplacements, ruins of an ancient and warlike civilization.

    07: The rooms inside the fort were surprisingly clean and dry for not having been maintained for seventy years.

    How important Fort Whitman must have seemed to the soldiers manning it, and how irrelevant it has since become. A century ago, protecting the industrial shipyards in the south sound was a matter of national survival; an enemy fleet could have appeared and started shooting almost without notice; and this fort represented the most cutting-edge ship-fighting technology in the world. Today, the shipyards have been eclipsed in importance by Amazon and Microsoft; there is no enemy fleet to speak of; and the fort is so hopelessly obsolete that it’s not even worth the government’s time to scrape the moss off it.

    What would the old garrison say if they knew how things turned out? Would they be relieved that the world has changed so much that blasting enemy ships in Skagit Bay is outside the range of possibilities for which we must prepare? Would they be resentful of the years they spent huddling over guns whose purpose we have so thoroughly outgrown? Battling the onrushing enemy fleet seems a more ennobling way of life than programming computers for Amazon—would the garrison miss the old days if they saw us now?

    08: Slowly but relentlessly, nature is reasserting its sovereignty over Goat Island.

    09: Climbing to the roof of the fort, I was delighted to find a hummingbird nesting in a Douglas-fir that was growing right out of the concrete.

    10: It would certainly be possible to sleep inside the fort, but I'd worry about the ghost of some long-gone first sergeant haunting his old battery. Safer to sleep out on the point.

    It drizzled off and on throughout the weekend, at one point catching me down on the north beach with no coat. I hunkered down on the dry, flat gravel patch beneath a Douglas-fir, watching raindrops hit the gray, foggy bay. In front of the beach was a log boom tied off to the crusty old pilings left over from the fort’s former wharf. Mew gulls and oystercatchers called in the distance. I was alone with the driftwood and moss. This is how to live in the Pacific Northwest.

    Goat Island is connected to the mainland by a mile-long rock jetty. I’d heard there was a hole in the wall to allow fish and boats to slip through without having to go the long way around Goat Island. Luckily, a pair of fishermen told me exactly where to look for the hole, because it’s not easy to spot from the water. On my way back to the car, I stuck my nose in to the hole, only to encounter a solid wall of driftwood. That’s what you get when you try to channel a big volume of water through a narrow hole in a country where the trees grow two feet a year! Kayakers hoping to transit the jetty will have to wait for someone with heavy equipment to come clear the way.

    11: The current flows fast through Swinomish Channel. I waited till the afternoon flood to depart.

    Goat Island offered a perfect balance of modern human activity, natural beauty, wildlife, and history. Unlike most Endicott Period forts, which are state parks, Goat Island is Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land. As such, camping is permitted for up to twenty-one days unless there is a sign saying otherwise. WAC 220-500-100 (camping allowed); WAC 220-500-030(3) (unless posted). There was no sign on Goat Island.

    Washington State is full of little hidden treasures like this one. I sometimes use the Washington State public lands inventory map to find secret little spots to call my own for a few days, and this was one of the best.

    Last edited: Apr 17, 2018
    Grian likes this.
  2. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    What an interesting trip! :)
  3. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005

    Good one! I've paddled past Goat Island at least a half dozen times and knew that it had been a fort but never saw anything that welcomed a landing. I had no idea that there was a "lawn" on top. I've passed through Hole in the Wall a couple of times. It was always wide open but I should be surprised that it was.

    Thanks for taking the time to explore and report on this gem.