5 Discoveries Retracing Puget’s Historic 1792 Route

Lessons learned sea kayaking Lt. Peter Puget's historic route around his northwest namesake sound

IMG_0394

What Peter Saw

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We leave on the same date, Lt. Puget and me, and start our separate small boat journeys from almost the same place. Our routes are identical, or mostly so, and while our paths cross at many points along the way, we never actually see one another. Bad timing, I guess; it appears I am 223 years too late.

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver sailed into a sound on his multi-year voyage of global exploration by way of Australia, the South Seas and Hawaii. He dropped anchor not far from present-day Seattle, where he selected Peter Puget, one of the junior officers on his crew, to plumb the southern reaches of this new inland waterway. The instructions Vancouver gave his 26-year-old lieutenant were straightforward: “You are at 4 o’clock tomorrow Morning to proceed with the Launch accompanied by Mr. Whidbey in the Cutter & … proceed up the said Inlet keeping the Starboard or Continental shore on board.”

“Keep the land on your right,” was the essence of Vancouver’s directive, which is what Puget did, more or less, over the course of the next seven days. His route took him past native villages and green forests of impossibly tall and straight timber that ran to the water’s edge. He encountered adverse weather and currents that forced him to change his plans on more than one occasion. By the time the week-long exploration of the sound’s southern reaches was completed, Puget had seen the region that would later bear his name in a way that no one else ever would.

In the intervening years, from the late 18th century until now, Puget Sound has undergone some major changes. Armed with Puget’s journal and itinerary, I set out to sea kayak his route, to see exactly what those differences might be. And maybe, while I was at it, to find out what still remains relatively untouched, the places that Puget might recognize, just as they were more than 200 years ago.

It was time travel, in a way, a little over 80 nautical miles of seeing these waters through Puget’s eyes. I imagine we would make some of the same observations:

IMG_0406

1. The tide is boss.
When it comes to the matter of tide and currents in Puget Sound, good timing is essential. Current speeds can exceed 5 knots in some places in the south Sound, more than either Puget or myself could work against for long. Puget was forced to deviate from his original route by stronger-than-expected adverse currents in Pitt Passage; harsh, sudden storms forced him off the water early on several occasions. Likewise, strong winds threw off my paddling plan on a couple days as well, slowing my progress to the point of missing the tide in some important places (which led to some interesting campsites.)

IMG_0448

2. There are more cooking fires now.
At several different points in his journal, Puget mentions the glow of cooking fires as night falls over the surrounding countryside. In 1792, there were roughly 26,000 Native Americans in the entire watershed, and the cooking fires were few and somewhat far between. Flash-forward to the present day, and more than 5 million call the region home and thousands of others are joining them every year. The environmental costs of the population boom are steep and serious. Whether it’s pollution related to stormwater runoff or dead zones in the water caused by excess fertilizer and other nutrients, the impacts that people have had on these waters are not hard to find. That’s just how it is.

IMG_0478

3. Good campsites still available.
On his first night, Puget and his men camped near Green Point, on a point of land that now has several homes built on it. Nice homes. His second night was spent on a sandspit in Pitt Passage, which is clearly marked as private property these days. There’s no denying that the opportunities for wild waterfront quarters have declined since the Puget tour, but the news is not all bad. The Cascadia Marine Trail has set up a system of shoreline campsites solely intended for the use of those traveling by human-powered craft and the network of sites has grown steadily over the last 20 years. Through the Sound and up into the San Juans, the 66 designated camping locations are spaced to allow for reasonable paddling days and there is (almost) always room for one more tent.

IMG_0479

4. You are not alone.
On Ketron Island during one of Puget’s lunch stops, his young midshipman Thomas Manby came across a large brown bear, tried to shoot him and had his hunting rifle damaged during the encounter. That type of exchange doesn’t happen in the region these days; the nearest grizz is most likely somewhere in Canada. Still, the area’s wildlife continues to be a big part of what makes the Sound such a special place. On my short kayaking journey I paddled with small pods of harbor porpoise and the odd seal here and there, while bald eagles cackled at me from the tall snags. Deer and foxes eyed me warily from the intertidal zone as I drifted past them, and the furtive rustling of raccoons and mice visited at different points through the night.

IMG_0485

5. It’s a fine tract of land.
“The Land in the Southern Inlets of these strates is most gratefull to the Eye… as fine a tract of Land as I ever saw.” So goes Puget’s assessment of these waters, and I have to think that, if he were to have been there paddling with me, he would have said the same thing. There is still wilderness here, or at least a strong sense of the wild. Older rhythms of tide and season still tell the time, the salmon still return to their natal streams and there is magic in the interplay of green overhang and dark water. People are part of the scenery now, far beyond anything that Puget saw, but they are not everywhere. There is still the opportunity for solitude, if that is what you seek, and there is a timelessness to Puget Sound that always hints at adventure and discovery.
I think that’s probably how Puget saw it.

— Read Ken Campbell’s previous ‘5 Discoveries’ installment on surveying the wilds of south-central Alaska’s Augustine Island.