Courtesy of Argosy Cruises
Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Argosy Cruises.
This summer, a lot of families are excited about getting out and having adventures again, but also still a little uncomfortable with the big crowds that come with summer traditions such as street fairs and music festivals. Add record-breaking heat into the mix, and island day trips, always a good idea anyway, start to look like the perfect family outing. We’ve got plenty of islands to choose from around Puget Sound, but if you haven’t been to Blake Island lately, you might want to take a look at what’s new.
Although it is one of several rumored birthplaces of Chief Seattle, Blake Island has probably never been anything as mundane as the site of daily life. It was a communal gathering place for indigenous tribes in the region until timber companies clear-cut the island. Bootleggers used it during Prohibition, and for a while, the Trimble family owned the island and kept an estate there. Blake Island has been preserved as a marine state park since 1959, and about 70 percent of its 1,100 protected acres are under water.
“Basically, it’s a state park that also offers cocktails,” says Dan Albani, general manager of Blake Island. Today the Tillicum Longhouse (built for the World’s Fair in 1962), with its café, gift shop and theater operated by Argosy Cruises, still looks over the ferry dock. The rest of the island, now a second-growth forest, is crisscrossed with hiking trails, and ringed with rocky beaches and campsites.
Argosy Cruises has big plans for Blake Island in 2022, but for now, the on-island activities are custom-made for folks easing their way outside of their pandemic bubbles while still maintaining high levels of caution. This summer, they offer two family-friendly programs at the Tillicum Longhouse: a Coast Salish cultural presentation and a guided nature walk.
The 2-hour, 1.5-mile guided nature walk is an obvious choice for folks who are still leery of spending time indoors with strangers. The trails are easy to navigate, and though you can see the Space Needle on a clear day, the island boasts a surprising amount of wildlife. (When our ferry arrived on the low tide, a young raccoon, looking quite a bit more athletic than the rotund trash pandas that terrorize my neighborhood, was patrolling the beach; on the other side of the dock, a heron picked its way through the rocks.)
The current attendance limit is about 25 for the hour-long cultural program, which takes place in the Tillicum Theater located inside of the longhouse. It will probably get busier later in the summer, but on a recent Thursday, my family got a private performance by Blake Island’s cultural supervisor, Frank Mather. The current presentation is quite different from what used to be offered. Some of the changes are related to COVID-19 protocols, but under Mather’s guidance, the once-static performance is continually evolving to represent a broader range of Native traditions and to showcase more individual expression from performers.
“The idea for us is to move away from the pomp and circumstance of a big ‘show’ and really get into the educational component of it, with more involvement with the tribes,” says Albani. With more authentic tribal engagement and an emphasis on living traditions rather than history, guests can expect to learn something new every time they visit. Next year, teams of storytellers and dancers will return to the stage, but this summer, expect a single storyteller. Against a backdrop of recorded dances, the performer uses props to explain cultural traditions such as potlatch; shares traditional stories about Raven, Wolf and the Terrible Beast; demonstrates a traditional dance; and teaches guests Coast Salish greetings.
Go your own way
Of course, organized activities are entirely optional. You can easily occupy yourself all day long beachcombing and hiking — without interacting with another soul. Stand-up paddleboards and tandem kayaks are available for hourly rental from Vashon Adventures near the Tillicum Longhouse. You can even stay overnight; some campsites are reservable through the state park system and others are first-come, first-served.
During the pandemic, Blake Island’s traditional salmon feast has been replaced by the less formal Longhouse Café, where you order at the counter and food is brought to your table.
Although the rotating menu is limited, the signature salmon (made by an indigenous cooking method using cedar stakes that hold the fish next to an alder wood fire instead of on top of it) is still available. If your kids are old enough to wander unattended, you can enjoy happy hour with tasting flights from local wineries and breweries on weekends.
Most of the seating is outdoors, including new fire tables that are perfect for chilly days or for making s’mores. Even though the ice cream case offered more weather-appropriate choices on the day we visited, my family chose one of the fire tables and ordered a s’mores kit from the café.
The island can get crowded on weekends, especially near the dock and when the cruise ships come in (possibly beginning in late July). But for now, on most days there are only a few dozen people on the 475-acre island at any time.
Our ferry, with a capacity of well over 300, had fewer than 20 passengers. It wasn’t the ferry we originally booked, a new fast ferry that takes just under 30 minutes to reach the island. That one was out for repairs — an indirect consequence of the pandemic.
“Boats are like cars, you can’t let them sit for too long. Waking up the fleet after eight months, mechanical issues just happen,” explains Albani.
So, we rode a bigger, slower boat that takes people to the island in 45 minutes. (You can bypass the ferry entirely if you have your own boat or are an experienced kayaker; it’s a 5-mile paddle from Alki to the Cascadia Marine Trail campsite on the West side of Blake Island.)
As with everything right now, Argosy’s plans are subject to change depending on state and Coast Guard guidelines. Currently, masks are required while on the boat and indoors on the island, except while eating. Because boats can break down and protocols can change, Argosy offers trip protection. But since the crowds are small this summer, you can simply book your excursion at the last minute — even weekends rarely fill up more than a couple of days in advance.
If you go …
Where: Argosy Cruises, Pier 55
When: Sailing times vary throughout the season; check the schedule.
Tickets: $29 round-trip; children under 3 free
Parking: The Pike Place Market Garage offers $12 all-day, early-bird parking before 9:30 a.m. Otherwise, it’s best to take the bus.