story made getting to Goat Island sound so easy.
There was nothing in there about losing expensive electronic
equipment under the waves of Skagit Bay, climbing an unstable
cliff, frantic uphill sprints, nearly getting lost in darkening
woods and cranky locals in their underwear. It also mentions
nothing about having to admit failure, give up and do it all over
the next day.
For our summer issue of the West Sound Guide to the Outdoors, I
decided to write about kayaking to an uninhabited island where,
hidden somewhere on a forested hill, are the remnants of Fort
Whitman, a coastal artillery base built in 1909 to defend Puget
Sound from invading Spaniards (FYI, they never showed up).
Information on the fort and how to get there is sparse. Goat
island is owned by the state, and was once considered for state
park status. Instead, it’s been been managed in a very hands-off
way as a nature reserve. You can go there, but the state
discourages it. The lands manager in charge of the island has
visited it only once in nine years.
The paddle out was a joy. I found a nice spot to park and launch
in La Conner, a touristy town west of Mount Vernon in Skagit
County. The weather was perfect, with sunny skies and a only a hint
of wind. A high tide gave me enough space to keep a safe distance
from powerboaters sharing the narrow Swinomish Channel.
Maybe I was too enthralled by the wildlife (eagles, herons, all
kinds of shorebirds, and my first-ever sighting of a black
oystercatcher), but I paddled too far, stopping in at pretty but
off-course cove on the island’s south side.
As I pulled in, a little man in his underwear popped up from a
clump of shrubs on a nearby bluff. A moment later, his female
companion took a peek.
Black oystercatchers on Goat Island.
I gave them a wide berth before dragging my kayak onto the beach
a good distance from their anchored motorboat. I pulled out my
reporter gear, ready to find the grand remnants of a historic fort
just beyond the trees.
The guy came down dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and gave me a
When I asked him how to get to the fort, he advised me to paddle
back the way I came and look for yet another cove with a barely
visible trailhead. There once was a trail from this cove, he said,
but now it’s overgrown.
He told me he lives on a nearby island and has been coming here
for years. He assured me the fort’s amazing, likening it to “Mayan
An unofficial campground.
When I whipped out my notepad to get the quote, he looked
stricken. He begged me not to tell anyone about Goat Island or the
campsite he and his friend were enjoying. Nearby, in a grove of
madronas was a fire ring, driftwood benches and a makeshift kitchen
overlooking the bay. Camping’s not allowed on Goat Island, but
that’s not stopping “some locals in the know,” he said.
I agreed not to reveal the campsite’s location if he’d give me
his name so I could attribute the Mayan ruins quote (side note: I
lost the notepad so his identity – and the campsite – will remain a
While paddling back, I ended up dropping my GoPro video camera
into the bay.
The footage of it sinking to the bottom and an attack from a
Dungeness crab can be seen here:
I cursed the camera’s loss but paddled on because it was already
late in the day. I figured I had only a few hours of sunlight to
find and explore the fort, take a bunch of photos and paddle back
to La Conner.
I pulled into a wide flat beach on the north side and began a
another futile search for the trailhead. I started jogging to save
time. About where I nearly stepped on the head of a big dead
animal, my phone suddenly started blaring Soundgarden for
absolutely no reason. It was inside a waterpoof case, and was not
easy to turnoff, so I had a spooky Grunge rock soundtrack playing
while I ran around looking for the trail. It didn’t help.
I took my jog up a hill, but as the slope steepened, I had to
climb with my hands and feet. The rocky holds kept crumbling away,
making the climb increasingly treacherous. I slid back down to flat
land, took stock of my scraped hands and knees and realized that
this would end in either injury or me reaching the top just in time
I resolved to try again the next day. I paddled back, reaching
La Conner just past sunset. I drove over to Mount Vernon and stayed
the night in an old motel that could only accept cash and appeared
to draw most of its business not from out-of-towners but from the
The next day I paddled the Swinomish at a sprint, determined to
find the fort and get home before dinner. I slowed past the stretch
of Goat Island where I lost the GoPro. The low tide had exposed the
drop spot and – amazingly – there it was, gleaming in the muck. I
popped it out of its waterproof case and found it bone dry. The
thing chirped to life when I pressed the power button. The miracles
didn’t end there. Not 20 yards from the camera was the trailhead I
had been searching for. I likely would have spotted it the night
before if my camera had not jumped ship.
Five minutes on the trail got me to the ruins of Fort Whitman.
They weren’t quite Mayan on the awe-inspiring scale, but for the
Pacific Northwest, they were pretty monumental.
Take a photo tour of the fort below.
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