Thursday, November 14, 2002

Short Trips: Friendly little towns and natural wonders


In August 1961, after almost three years of construction, the 1.5-mile Hood Canal floating bridge opened for auto traffic.

Suddenly, cars no longer had to drive around the southern end and west side of the canal to get to Olympic Peninsula destinations. Towns along a 40-mile stretch of U.S. Route 101 felt the impact immediately.

Virtually overnight, because of the bridge bypass, communities along Route 101, from Potlatch on the south to Quilcene on the north, lost a huge chunk of their economic base -- tourism.

So dramatic was the change that to this day some residents and merchants say they live and work along the "lost" part of the canal. After more than 40 years they talk about the negative economic effect the bridge continues to have on their communities.

Despite the hard feelings, during my recent visit I found the mood on that stretch of the canal anything but depressed, even during the off-season. The villages up and down Route 101 felt more like one extended small town because everyone seemed to know everybody else. I could sense what I would call canal community.

The four anchor recreation destinations in the area -- from north to south, the Dosewallips, Duckabush and Hamma Hamma rivers and the Lake Cushman-Staircase recreation area -- still are immensely popular, especially during the summer, and draw thousands of visitors from all over the state.

Quilcene and Brinnon, the two most northerly towns on that portion of the canal, technically Dabob Bay, are famous worldwide for their oysters. The canal water is perfectly suited to growing a variety of shellfish. Quilcene likes to boast that it's the shellfish capital of the canal. The two communities recently teamed up and now call themselves the "Emerald Towns" to try to generate more tourist interest in the area.

Pleasant Harbor Marina in Brinnon looks like a fjord scene on a Norwegian postcard. Sheltered on three sides by heavily wooded hills, the deep-water harbor marina has 285 slips and can accommodate boats up to 150 feet long. Besides a small store and pizza place, the marina has a swimming pool and spas for its guests, plus all the accoutrements associated with a major marina.

For a delightful change-of-pace overnight stay, check out Jeff Nelson's Houseboats for Two -- four houseboats for hire, moored at the end of one of Pleasant Harbor Marina's piers. The houseboats look pretty ordinary from the outside, but once Nelson showed me around I was impressed. The interiors are nicer than a lot of hotel rooms I've stayed in. All come with queen-size bed, refrigerator, microwave, propane fireplace, large Jacuzzi tub and entertainment center.

Nelson said guests aren't allowed to motor around the harbor in the houseboat. It wouldn't be possible to steer the boat while soaking in the Jacuzzi, anyway. Besides, all the jostling around from wave action might spill a glass of good red wine.

The 270-acre wooded area overlooking Pleasant Harbor on the south -- called Black Point -- is being developed as a major destination golf resort. According to a spokesman for the project, Bob Calloway, some complicated zoning issues in Jefferson County need to be resolved before the project can proceed. He doesn't expect resolution of the issues any time soon.

Tiptoe through the oysters: Mark Iverson of Vancouver, Wash., treads carefully through the oyster beds at the Eagle Creek Recreational Tidelands north of Lilliwaup. Ask Helena James at the Hamma Hamma Company Store in Lilliwaup (pronounced LIL-a-wop) for a taste of the smoked scallops. Better yet, try the smoked salmon. It's out of this world.

Primarily a wholesaler, Hamma Hamma Company Store grows its own oysters and clams. The small but neat retail area features a wide variety of fresh seafood, including live oysters in saltwater holding tanks. They also smoke fish they buy from local suppliers. Plant manager Korry McGregor told me oyster-growing is a real science and showed me the large holding pens for the three sizes of oysters. He explained that it can take five to six years to grow a medium-size oyster for market. Tours are available if you call ahead.

As usual, I always seem to miss the elk when I visit the canal. McGregor said the local herd wandered around the property all morning the day before I got there. Regardless, there's always a chance to see the herd in person during a visit to that part of Hood Canal.

At the Lillwaup Store, a young man unfolded a check he had stuffed into his pocket, flattened it out on the counter and asked owner Dennis Craig if he would cash it for him. "It depends," Craig playfully shot back. "Who wrote you the check?" (Craig obligingly cashed the check because he knew the young man and his mom who wrote the check.)

For almost 80 years, the Lilliwaup Store and Motel has been an anchor in Lilliwaup, a town of 700. Craig's wife, Marcy, runs the store while he holds down a commercial real estate broker job in Olympia four or five days a week.

Craig told me a week doesn't go by without a customer relating an experience that happened in the store 40 or more years ago. Because of its age, the store has a certain homespun atmosphere. It's worth a visit, even if it's just to say hi to the very cordial husband and wife. Ask Dennis Craig to show you his MGB automobile restoration project in the small garage next to the store. Besides that project, he is upgrading the six-unit motel adjacent to the store.

After a smoked salmon sample at the Hamma Hamma Company Store, why not try a sip of one of Hoodsport Winery's famous fruit wines at the small but practical tasting room near downtown Hoodsport. Next year, the popular winery and Hoodsport landmark celebrates its 25th year on the canal. The winery opened a tasting room in Tacoma a couple of years ago as well.

It's not exactly a spectator sport, but watching fishing for chum salmon in front of the Hoodsport Fish Hatchery in downtown Hoodsport this time of year is the kind of spectacle that may turn up on ESPN one day. On any given day, hundreds of anglers in boats and waders, in what Redmond angler Tony Cothrum described as "combat fishing . . . shoulder-to-shoulder," try to entice the salmon to bite their flashy green lures.

Thousands upon thousands of the salmon return to the hatchery every year to spawn. The hatchery itself is surrounded by a tall cyclone fence, but you can still watch workers spawn the salmon and get a good, up-close glimpse of how hatcheries function. The run of salmon usually lasts into December.

Cindy Sund and Margaret Nielsen, owners of the Rest-A-While RV Park, like to hand out pamphlets to their guests called "101 Things To Do at . . . Washington's Most Unique RV Park on Beautiful Hood Canal." At the very tidy park, marina and seafood center just north of Hoodsport, guests can pick oysters on the beach, scuba dive, crab, even grab a fish sandwich at the adjacent Honey-Bee Drive-In.

Honey-Bee owners Dick and Vi Honeysett are proud of their homemade chowder and a giant burger they call the Maxi Bee. To illustrate the burger's size, Dick Honeysett jokingly waved his right hand about 10 inches or so over his left, then mimicked piling on burger condiments.

As it turns out, the "lost" part of Hood Canal really isn't lost at all -- it's just underappreciated. The whole area is a remarkable blend of natural wonders and recreation, romantic getaways, great food and lodging -- in short, a blend of everything that makes the Pacific Northwest so special.

A note of warning: Because of structural aging, plans are under way to replace the eastern portion of the Hood Canal Bridge. Construction will start next year and is expected to take 3 1/2 years to complete. According to the state Department of Transportation, new bridge pontoons should be floated into place in 2006. The state plans to close the bridge for approximately eight weeks while the pontoons are installed.

Rest-A-While RV Park, Marina and Dive Center -- 2700 N. Highway 101, Hoodsport; 360-877-9474; 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. daily.

House Boats for Two -- 33 Lilac Lane, Brinnon; reservations, 800-966-5942; rates, $195-$235; .

Pleasant Harbor Marina -- 308913 Highway 101, Brinnon; 360-796-4611; marina store and fuel dock, daily 8 a.m.- 7 p.m.; Seabeck Pizza, daily, noon-7 p.m.; .

Hama Hama Company Store -- 301 N. Webb Road, Lilliwaup; 360-877-5811.

Hoodsport Winery -- N. 23501 Highway 101, Hoodsport; 360-877-9894;

Lilliwaup Store & Motel -- 28621 N. Highway 101, Lilliwaup; store, 360-877-0001, motel, 360-877-0002; fireplace rooms $45, with kitchenettes $55.

Honey-Bee Drive-In -- Adjacent to the Rest-A-While RV Park; 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday and Saturday only, during fall and winter.

P-I photographer Jeff Larsen can be reached at 206-448-8150. For personal e-mail contact: For general releases:

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