Discovering nature on the half-shell

We experienced a surreal moment as our family sailed into the Hood Canal, where snow-capped peaks beckon in the distance and temperate rain forests slope to a coastline fringed with sand beaches, gravel bars, and muddy tidelands. A wake rolled across the water’s surface, but there wasn’t a boat or a sound. The source of the mystery wake was Bangor Naval Submarine Base on the eastern shore, home to a fleet of Trident submarines. The undulating water came from an underwater torpedo test. Spooky as the vision was, we had received advance notice and were safely away from harm.

Despite its name, Hood Canal is actually a glacial fjord (one of only two in the lower 48 states) that extends 65 miles into Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Rivers carry snowmelt from alpine lakes in Olympic National Park and Forest, creating perfect brackish conditions for the region’s renowned seafood. Every caf and restaurant in the coastal villages serves oysters, clams, shrimp, salmon, and Dungeness crab. We prefer to collect our own shellfish and cook them on a beach over an open fire. To complement our feast we stop at Hoodsport Winery, a short walk from the public docks in Hoodsport, to purchase chocolate truffles filled with their raspberry wine.

Union, where the canal turns sharply northeast, marks the end of the hardscrabble coastal villages and the beginning of Washington’s Riviera. Locals recount how, as a kid, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose family has vacationed here for three generations, picked oysters from the beach or walked to the Union Country Store to buy cans of SpaghettiOs for lunch. Recent additions to the family compound include a helipad and a secret access tunnel.

In this well-to-do neighborhood, Alderbrook Resort is the primary sailing destination. Its 1,200 feet of new docks are equipped with state-of-the-art hook-ups. At the waterview restaurant, Chef Christopher Schwarz prepares outstanding Northwest cuisine and fresh seafood enhanced by locally grown ingredients from the Skokomish Valley.

Despite the presence of billionaires, the Hood Canal remains a place where sailors can still make discoveries. Locals call it “nature on the half-shell.”

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