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Whidbey Island, north Puget Sound, WA 1–4 July 2022


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Over the Independence Day weekend, I circumnavigated Whidbey Island, a route of some ninety-four miles (150 km).

To hit the east-setting flood in Deception Pass, I would need a pre-dawn start Saturday morning. I drove up to Bowman Bay on Friday evening to camp somewhere nearby. Finding all the campsites occupied in the mainland car-campgrounds, I launched my kayak at dusk and paddled toward Burrows Island some five miles north, intending to camp in Alice Bight.

Before I could reach Burrows, and just as full darkness was falling, I discovered a pocket beach north of Sares Head. I slept out on the beach and the next morning returned southward to begin my circumnavigation of Whidbey Island.

00 Route map Whidbey final.jpg

00 Route map. Parking in Burrows Bay was $10 per night.

In the days before the internet, when such claims took more effort to debunk, residents of Whidbey Island used to believe that theirs was the longest island in America. Even today, some residents still believe it. Like so much folk wisdom, however, such a bold claim is only true if it includes a long string of caveats—so many, in fact, that it is probably best simply to call it a false claim.

The first caveat is that we have to eliminate Alaska, which is teeming with very long islands, and Hawaii, which consists of nothing but very long islands. Now that we have narrowed the competition to the Lower 48, we can size up the competitors.

(We’ll set aside the surprisingly thorny question of what is meant by an island’s “length” and define it simplistically as crow’s-flight, tip-to-tip.)

The facts are not in dispute. Whidbey Island is thirty-five miles in length, as the crow flies, from its northernmost point to its southernmost. At the opposite end of the country is Long Island, New York—famously, a rather long island—which stretches some 118 miles from end to end.

However, Whidbey Island residents point to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Maine, 469 U.S. 504 (1985), commonly cited as the Rhode Island and New York Boundary Case. In the Boundary Case, the Court had to determine where lay the coastline of New York State for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. The Submerged Lands Act, in turn, follows the definitions from the United Nations Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone.

The Convention provides that waters lying inside a bay are “internal waters.” Waters lying inside an offshore archipelago are “territorial seas.” For purposes of state boundary delineation, internal waters necessarily count as part of the state, and thus the arms of the enclosing bay count as part of the state’s coastline, whereas territorial seas do not necessarily count as part of the state, and thus the arms of the enclosing archipelago do not necessarily count as part of the state’s coastline.

The Boundary Case Court was then faced with the question of whether Long Island, New York was an offshore island. If it was an island, then the “coastline” of New York State would run past Manhattan and the Bronx. If it was not an island but rather part of the mainland, then the “coastline” of New York would run along the outer shore of Long Island. The location of the coastline would determine, among other issues, which states had the right to regulate fishing, navigation, and seabed usage in various parts of the nearby waters.

The Court determined that Long Island is not an island for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. Instead, in the Court’s words, it “should be treated as an extension of the mainland.”

The Court reached its conclusion based on a “realistic approach,” in which it considered Long Island’s geographic proximity, transportation linkages, and social and political connections to the mainland, as well as the inutility to international shipping of Hell Gate, the narrow channel at Long Island’s west end.

Furthermore, there was the absurdity that would result if New York’s coastline lay anywhere other than the outer shores of Long Island. “There is no acceptable sense in which, for example, the East Side of Manhattan Island, or Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, could be said to be locations on the Atlantic Coast.”

Whidbey Island residents took the Court’s holding and ran with it: Long Island is not an island! It’s a peninsula! Whidbey Island is the longest island left standing! When the internet came along twenty years later, they updated Wikipedia with the judicially determined fact that Whidbey is the longest island in the contiguous United States.

Unfortunately, the ebullient islanders had run in the wrong direction. The Boundary Case Court was always clear that Long Island is, in fact, an island. No party argued, nor did the Court hold, that Long Island is anything other than a geographical island. The question was whether Long Island should be “treated” as an island for purposes of applying the Submerged Lands Act, not whether Long Island is a body of land surrounded by water.

Still, a Supreme Court holding is not nothing. In light of the asterisk next to Long Island’s name, could Whidbey Island claim a sort of victory by default?

Unfortunately, not. Even if Long Island were eliminated, Whidbey Island is still outmatched by Padre Island, Texas (an offshore barrier island some 113 miles long); Hatteras Island, North Carolina (another offshore barrier island some 42 miles long); and Isle Royale in Michigan’s Lake Superior (45 miles long).

“But, but, but,” sputter the increasingly desperate partisans of Whidbey. “Barrier islands are merely transient landforms! And Isle Royale is an island in a lake, hardly worthy of stepping into the ring with us saltwater heavyweights.”

Thus, more caveats. Having arbitrarily excluded all the islands in Alaska and Hawaii, and having disqualified Long Island on a technicality, it is now necessary to narrow the scope of the competition even further to include only non-depositional islands surrounded by saltwater. With those half-dozen caveats in place, Whidbey Island is, indeed, America’s longest.

Having kayaked around it, I can confirm that Whidbey Island is a very long island. The rest I leave to the philosophers.

01 Kayaking Bowman Bay at dusk.JPG

01 Kayaking Bowman Bay at dusk. Even after sunset, there were still a dozen day-tripping kayakers on the water.

The night before the circumnavigation was the worst part of the trip. The cliffs north of Bowman Bay and Sares Head are the farthest inland points to receive ocean swells. Two-foot waves were dumping surf onto the steep gravel of my pocket beach. I landed without difficulty, but the surf chased me up the beach all night. Midnight found me huddled against the cliff face, wrapped in the rainfly of my tent to ward off the spray as the waves broke just feet away.

To catch the tail end of the flood through Deception Pass, I had to launch at three o’clock the next morning, well before dawn. The surf had increased in height and frequency, making for a difficult launch in the darkness. The dumping waves threw me back onto the beach twice before I finally cleared the surf line.

I did not notice until morning twilight broke that the surf had torn the binoculars from beneath the bungees on the deck. By then I was already in the mouth of Deception Pass, too late to go back and search.

02 Sunrise behind Mount Baker.JPG

02 Sunrise over Mount Baker. Baker is the second-highest of Washington’s five active volcanoes.

03 Approaching Ala Spit at dawn.JPG

03 Approaching Ala Spit at dawn. This used to be a Cascadia Marine Trail campsite, but nowadays it is day-use only.

04 Alex at Ala Spit.JPG

04 Alex at Ala Spit. I stopped to remove my drysuit, which was no longer necessary in the protected waters of Skagit Bay.

There are no campsites on the east side of Whidbey Island. The only nearby campsites are at Camano Island State Park, but that is a car-accessible campground, certain to be full over Independence Day weekend. To find reliable, isolated camping, I would have to paddle all the way to Possession Point at the southern tip of Whidbey. There, as I knew from past trips, I would find a small, kayakers-only campsite in a lovely setting.

The east side of Whidbey is the island’s less attractive face. Residential development lines the island’s shores as well as the more distant shores of the mainland and Camano. There are lovely kayaking destinations even on the east side—Hope, Skagit, and Goat Islands, for example, and Possession Sound during the gray whale season—but overall, kayaking here is mainly a matter of logging miles.

Logging miles was not easy once the ebb current began. I had wrongly estimated that the waters would ebb southward, flowing out through Saratoga Passage. Instead, they seemed to ebb northward, back out through Deception Pass. The ebbing currents were also much stronger than I had expected—two knots or more in many parts of Skagit Bay. In the end, the fastest way forward was to pull ashore and wait for the afternoon flood.

05 Kayaking down Saratoga Passage.JPG

05 Kayaking down Saratoga Passage. Owing to Whidbey Island’s irregular shape, the most efficient circumnavigation does not always hew very close to the island.

06 Kayaking under Clinton ferry dock.JPG

06 Kayaking under the Clinton ferry dock. South of Sandy Point, currents run slower than they do farther north.

07 On the beach at Possession Point.JPG

07 On the beach at Possession Point. The cliffs behind this beach are some of Washington’s best sources of ochre.

08 Whidbey Island stairway to nowhere.JPG

08 “Come to Whidbey Island, where there’s no limit to how high you can climb.” Erosion of Whidbey Island’s bluffs will eventually turn every property into a waterfront property.

The west side of Whidbey Island is an altogether different story. Here, currents run through Admiralty Inlet at speeds up to seven knots. Tideraces and whirlpools appear off every point and within every channel. Ocean swells and the long fetch of Juan de Fuca Strait create choppy conditions. Seabirds and marine mammals abound.

The views open up north of Bush Point. On clear days, the San Juans, Gulf Islands, and Olympic Mountains create an immense basin of rocks and trees within which to paddle.

09 Rhinoceros auklet Admiralty Inlet.JPG

09 Rhinoceros auklet, Admiralty Inlet. One of the primary breeding grounds in Washington for this species is Protection Island, just a few miles from Admiralty Inlet.

10 Common murre Admiralty Inlet.JPG

10 Common murre, Admiralty Inlet. This individual’s plumage is looking a little worn, although the first week of July would be rather early for it to be molting.

11 Kayaking off Ebeys Landing.JPG

11 Kayaking off Ebey’s Landing. This lovely stretch is part of America’s first national historical reserve.

With the powerful flood in Admiralty Inlet working in my favor, I could easily have made it back to Bowman Bay on the second day. But I wanted to return to the pocket beach to look for my binoculars, and for that, I needed a low tide. I set up camp at Joseph Whidbey State Park, some seven miles (11 km) short of Bowman Bay.

As at Possession Point, the campsite at Joseph Whidbey is for kayakers only. Most of the vehicle-bound day-users of the park didn’t even notice my tent tucked away in the woods. One of the few that did exclaimed, “Oh! I’ve never seen that here before!” Even the ranger, when he came by to check my permit, remarked that hardly anybody camps at Joseph Whidbey.

The forest at Joseph Whidbey is gorgeous. It’s recovering second-growth, like almost all forests in the Puget Sound basin. What it lacks in age, it makes up in diversity. Broadleaves and conifers mix in roughly equal proportions, interspersed with wide, grassy fields and thickets of shrubs. It all adds up to some of the best habitat for birds. Even late in the day, the park was heaving with thrushes, warblers, flycatchers, and four species of swallow.

12 Red elderberry Joseph Whidbey.JPG

12 Red elderberry, Joseph Whidbey. This species is edible but not palatable.

13 Oceanspray Joseph Whidbey.JPG

13 Oceanspray, Jospeh Whidbey. This species is one of the principal components of Washington’s low-elevation underbrush.

Joseph Whidbey was one of twenty-nine state parks targeted for training by Naval Special Warfare. Under the Navy’s scheme, SEALs and other big-biceps types would sneak into the parks from the sea and spend a few hours snooping and pooping, supposedly without attracting the public’s notice or causing any environmental impact.

The public were not keen to play the role of unpaid extras in the Navy’s training scenarios. They did not relish the idea of being spied upon as they went about their personal and family business in the parks.

Nevertheless, the Parks and Recreation Commission approved the Navy’s scheme, only to be reversed by Judge Dixon, who determined that the legislature had commissioned the commission to operate parks, not military training facilities.

Not only did Judge Dixon find the commission had exceeded its statutory authority, he also determined the commission’s environmental review of the Navy’s training scheme had failed to account for what he called the “creep factor.”

“Over the past few days this court has spent some time trying to articulate another definition or phrase that might adequately describe the emotional impact of people who utilize our state parks, something other than ‘creep factor,’ because it’s a long way from a legal term. But I can’t find one. It is creepy. And the argument that, ‘Look judge, look court, no harm, no foul,’ in this court’s analysis falls on deaf ears. The fact is that the public has been advised that the military will be using state park lands to conduct military training. That fact and that fact alone creates a significant environmental impact.”

Creeps in the park are not the Navy’s only presence on Whidbey Island. There is also Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, home to the majority of America’s carrier-based electronic attack aircraft, as well as several squadrons of maritime patrol planes. Paddling past the air station on the tail end of the morning flood, I was able to gawk at some of the facilities.

14 Kayaking north up Admiralty Inlet.JPG

14 Kayaking north up Admiralty Inlet. From left to right: Lopez Island, Decatur Island, James Island, Blakely Island, Rosario Strait, Cypress Island, Allen Island, Burrows Island, Fidalgo Island.

15 Hangar at NAS Whidbey Island.JPG

15 Hangar at NAS Whidbey Island. The Navy has stationed so many Growlers on the island that Chief Magistrate Judge Creatura ruled in 2021 the service has to go back and re-evaluate the planes’ noise impacts on the threatened marbled murrelet.

16 Transmitters at NAS Whidbey Island.JPG

16 Transmitters at NAS Whidbey Island. One of the US military’s underappreciated advantages in combat is its excellence in tactical communications.

I managed to avoid getting run over by the hordes of powerboaters and tour boats in Deception Pass and proceeded north to my staging grounds at the pocket beach. Though I searched the high- and low-tidelines and even paddled up and down in the shallows, my binoculars had vanished.

How could such a heavy object simply disappear? It is a mystery. Perhaps the same waves that erode the mighty bluffs carried off the binoculars as well.

In consolation, I explored some of the wonders of Sares Head. There is a series of small sea caves here, full of mysterious organisms and echoing noises. The caves were so narrow I had to back in and out rather than turn around inside. Some were so narrow I had to propel my boat by pushing along the walls with my hands rather than using my paddle.

17 Approaching Deception Pass from south.JPG

17 Approaching Deception Pass from the south. Somewhere north of Partridge Point, the current reverses such that flood runs north and ebb runs south.

18 Lions mane jellyfish Sares Head.JPG

18 Lion’s mane jellyfish, Sares Head. This individual seems to be glowing, as if from an ember burning deep within.

19 Inside sea cave Sares Head.JPG

19 Largest sea cave at Sares Head. Usually, sea caves are easiest to enter at high tide, but some of the caves at Sares Head are so low they can only be entered at low tide.

Whidbey Island delivered some of the things I love most about Puget Sound kayaking: fast currents, long vistas, plenty of wildlife, and a beautiful forest.

And of course, there is the pride that can only come from having circumnavigated America’s longest island.


[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
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Your tale (and photos) about the length being a tall tale was satisfying, informative, and provoking of discussion and our own paddles of exploration. Exactly what we have come to expect. Thank-you. Sorry about the binos tho'.

PS - thank-you Judge Dixon.
great story, I should have explored the area more when I lived in the area (years ago).

surf & bungy stored items - not a good mix.
I've used 'olive cleats' with bungy to successfully secure paddles on the deck - with much surf testing.
Alex, I'm sorry to hear about your binoculars. I was told once not to have anything on the deck when surf launching/landing. I "learned" that twice. Once I was exiting a cave in the Channel Islands. It was a guided event and there were guides stationed inside and outside the "cave", allowing only two other people in at a time. As I started out, a big wave came in and broke over the boat (Seda Swift). I didn't go over but my pump, float bag, and water bottle (all under heavy bungee) were swimming alone.

The other time, also with the Swift, I was practicing surfing at Laguna Beach. The Seda's aft compartment had a neoprene cover with a solid plastic cover over the neoprene - held in place by tight bungees. But not tight enough. At the end of the day, That $45 cover (1996 dollars) was gone. And those weren't big breaking waves; just little baby ones.

I still have some years left so I'll probably learn that lesson again. But these days, if something is under deck bungee, it is also clipped on.

Congratulations on your longest Island feat. I appreciate your adding those "asterisks" to the claim in print. And I know they will be there in spirit when you relive the event verbally.

Whidbey has a movie claim-to-fame. In WarGames (1983) a kid accidentally starts a nuclear war simulation. But the military wasn't sure the computer knew it was just a simulation. The boy looked for the original programmer and found him on Whidbey Island. He asked the programmer why he decided to live there - in a location that was surely one of the "ground zero" targets for a nuclear attack. The programmer says something to the effect of, "You think I want to be around when it's all over? I want to be one of the first to go."
Kind of sobering. Not like it stuck with me or anything. It was only 39 years ago.