Long before Johnny Cash popularized the song “Ring of Fire”, U.S. naval tacticians constructed a triangle of fire at the mouth of Washington state’s Admiralty Inlet, within sight of Victoria and the southern Lower Mainland. Over a century ago, three forts—Casey, Flagler, and Worden—were built there overlooking Puget Sound’s northern entrance, where the straits of Georgia, Juan de Fuca, and Haro converge. Woe betide an enemy vessel that strayed into the crossfire of artillery mounted at the forts.
Fact is, none ever did. About three decades after the forts were built, technological innovations, chiefly the advent of aviation, neutered their effectiveness. No longer was Seattle imperilled, at least by threat from sea. Still, it was two decades before the U.S. military abandoned the forts. When they did, in the 1950s, Washington state officials stepped in and, in a move akin to turning swords into plowshares, rendered the properties into parkland.
In a state where public waterfront is at a premium, that was a mighty coup indeed. Not only did the citizenry of the Evergreen State benefit, so did denizens north of the Peace Arch border crossing. All three forts lie within easy getaway distance from Vancouver. Before the onset of summer vacation, when the parks teem with campers, now is a good time to plan a visit, particularly over the upcoming Victoria Day long weekend.
At first blush, you may wonder what would compel you to brave a border crossing just to visit an old fort. Once you’ve seen the forts for yourself and experienced the natural beauty of the settings the three share, you’ll understand the triangle’s strategic importance. Although none sport battlements to rival the ramparts of Quebec City, the panoramic landscape in which they nestle—capped by mounts Baker and Rainier—offers more than ample reason for exploration. Although Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island lies within comfortable striking distance for day-trippers from Vancouver, Fort Flagler, on Marrowstone Island, and Fort Worden on the nearby Olympic Peninsula offer overnight options. These range from campgrounds at the two state parks to resorts and heritage bed-and-breakfasts in Port Townsend and nearby Port Ludlow, affordably priced even if the Canadian dollar has retracted from last year’s dizzying rally against its greenback counterpart.
A common characteristic of the shoreline shared by the landscapes surrounding forts Casey and Flagler, as well as many of the islands in northern Puget Sound, are smooth-faced cliffs similar to those at Point Grey. All three state parks feature kilometres of fine-gravelled beaches paired with endless views. On the Whidbey Island side, kids will delight in clambering around the old gun mounts and restored lighthouse at Fort Casey. The bluffs rising high above the beach are a fascinating backdrop to this wind-swept area. The Olympic Peninsula lies directly across the water to the west. On a clear day, the jagged, snowcapped peaks of Hurricane Ridge stand out sharply. As seen from the opposite side of Admiralty Inlet at forts Worden and Flagler, a long line of peaks extend from the north shore and Mount Baker’s smooth south face to Mount Rainier’s distinctively shaped volcanic snowcone near Seattle.
The best place to take this all in is from a bike seat or a boat. Although Whidbey Island features an extensive network of pedal paths around Fort Casey, rip tides incited by the convergence of currents deter boaters on Whidbey Island’s shoreline. The paddle option is only recommended on the Olympic Peninsula side of the inlet, particularly the clear, shallow waters surrounding Fort Flagler’s Marrowstone Point, named by Captain George Vancouver for the soft clay cliffs that define the shoreline. Whether you paddle from one of the park’s launch ramps or walk the perimeter of the point, the ever-changing views are a constant source of wonder.
Consider renting a kayak either at Port Townsend’s tourist-thronged waterfront or at the far quieter Port Ludlow nearby. Launch at Port Ludlow’s marina and enjoy an hour or two paddling around Ludlow Bay. This region has long been known as the wooden-boat capital of the Pacific Northwest. There’s plenty to ogle from a water-level vantage point. In Port Ludlow, the sight of a majestic schooner—the W.N. Ragland—dwarfs all else. Once owned by Neil Young, who named it for his grandfather, its twin masts, with riggings strung like spider webs, tower 32 metres above a broad, sloping deck. Because the sheltered bay lies on the lee side of the Olympic Mountains, barely a breeze ruffles the Ragland’s reflection on the bay’s surface. Only passing river otters dare disturb the scene. Launched in 1913 as the Lilli—her “born” name—she originally saw service as a rock hauler in the Baltic Sea. Since the late 1970s, she’s been a rock hauler of a different sort, one that inspired Young to write, “As long as we can sail away, there’ll be wind in the canyon, moon on the rise, as long as we can sail away.”
Access: Fort Casey lies 190 kilometres south of Vancouver via I-5 and Highway 20. Take Exit 230 in Mount Vernon–Burlington. Washington State Ferries links to Port Townsend–Fort Worden from Keystone on Whidbey Island, a 30-minute crossing. Reservations are strongly advised. Regional tourism information is available from Washington State Tourism. Fort Flagler lies 30 kilometres south of Port Townsend near Port Ludlow. For information on the W.N. Ragland, visit www.wnragland.com/. Visit www.portludlowresort.com/ for kayak- and bike-rental rates.