Alongside the bay


In 1792, two ships of the Vancouver expedition used Birch Bay as an anchorage for several days. The headland bay has been created by the reaction of incoming waves that run into headlands on either side of the bay. Between Birch Point and Point Whitehorn the waves bend as they enter the bay and lose energy in the process. What is left is a half-moon-shaped bay with a gentle sloping beach. The beach is mostly gravel and small stones that are separated from the finer sand and mud that remains below the water at high tide. Terrell Creek runs into the bay, but flows parallel to the shoreline for about three miles between a swampy area in what is not Birch Bay State Park and the outlet. Tidal water flows up the creek at high tide, carrying saltwater as far as the marsh.

Archibald Menzies, a member of the Vancouver Expedition, notes a number of species of birch growing very near the water along the bay and gave the name to the bay which has stuck for over 200 years.

We have house guests who are from the San Francisco Bay staying with us, so we are careful to use the name of the bay when talking about our point of access to the sea because to them “the bay” means San Francisco Bay, but when we are in a group of locals and say we were walking alongside the bay they know exactly what we mean.

Having lived most of my life more than a thousand miles from the seacoast, there is much for me to learn about this new place we call home. There are species of birds that are new to me, plants that I had not previously noticed, Furthermore, the waters of the Salish Sea are filled with life. People have harvested shellfish along the bay for millennia. I have not yet learned about how to dig for clams, harvest oysters, or fish for the many species that inhabit the bay. Nearly a decade ago, we took a boat ride on the Salish Sea and observed orcas and a minke whale. At the time the trip seemed pretty exotic to me. I didn’t realize that I would one day make this area my home and that there would be many opportunities to observe the creatures of the sea.

In the time since the Vancouver expedition first saw the land and observed the indigenous coastal people from afar, a lot of things have changed around the bay. Many of the trees that they observed have been cut, though one can still walk among verdant stands of birch trees in Birch Bay State Park.

Our explorations of the bay began in the late fall and we have only begun to learn about its winter personality. Spring is on the way and we are looking forward to learning more and more about the bay and the creatures that live here.

The west coast is sunset country. There is always a dramatic interplay of sky and sea that is visible from the shore. Some days the colors are all gray, other days we see shades of blue. The water can appear green. The islands outside of the bay can seem very close some days and very distant on other days. There are many days when we can’t even see the islands hidden in the clouds that reach down to the water. Sunset adds all kinds of different colors to the vista, with oranges and golds and pinks and purples.

Spring comes quickly up here. The days are lengthening. Sunset is already more than an hour later than it was back in December. Our daily walks more and more are taken when the sun is higher in the sky. It is still winter and there is a bit of snow on the ground from an overnight snowfall a couple of days ago. We bundle up with hats and gloves when we go for our daily walk. But we can sense the change in the seasons. Longer days are with us and are just a sign of how dramatic the shift from winter to summer is going to be. Folks are planning their gardens and talking as if summer is just around the corner. We have noticed that the Canadian Geese and the Snow Geese are more active and we see them flying more and more as they seek out additional food to prepare them for their annual trip north. We, being semi-retired, are willing to be patient and wait. We are in no rush for the seasons to pass. We know they will fly by as they have been doing for us.

Like the members of the Vancouver Expedition, our sojourn in this place is temporary. We do not know how many years we will live in this place. For now, however, it is a fascinating place to call home and we are learning more and more about the history, geology and culture of our area.

Birch Bay isn’t incorporated as a city, though there are thousands of people who live here. We have our own chamber of commerce, that refers to us as “Washington’s premier retirement community.” This is despite the fact that nearly a third of the households in the area are homes with children. Our neighborhood is mostly younger families and we are grateful that we don’t live in one of the gated spaces designated as senior communities. An ordinance allows golf carts to drive on county roads alongside the bay. The chamber has a map showing the golf cart areas and information on the safety and technical requirements of permitted golf carts. We won’t be shopping for a golf cart any time soon. We’re happy to walk. Our house is a 15-minute walk from the bay and there is more than a mile of walkway alongside the bay to explore. The state park offers a short interpretive hiking trail as well as additional waterfront walking.

Like the Vancouver Expedition, we are just exploring. We have much to learn as the seasons pass. For now, we feel fortunate to have landed in this place for a while. And, for now, I feel especially lucky to have a job so that I can speak of “those retired folks and their golf carts” from a bit of distance.

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