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The Ultimate Backwater

Half the fun of Hammersley Inlet is navigating, just to prove you can.

October 4, 2007

One of the supreme ironies about cruising Puget Sound is that the most remote areas are south, not north. In the backwaters of South Sound, channels intertwine like twisted fingers among overgrown islands. Inlets notched by tiny coves terminate in mud flats or brackish lagoons. On the way to nowhere, even by road, the ultimate backwater of them all is Hammersley Inlet.

Mention a cruise up Hammersley Inlet, and other boaters blink in disbelief. Shelton, the lone timber town at its hairpin turn, is hardly oriented toward the rare visiting boater-no fuel dock, no waterfront restaurants, no festive boardwalk for tourists. The harbor is jammed with log booms and pilings. Smoke, steam and the smell of pulp rise perpetually from the Simpson mill. Fact is, the going is the main attraction, for Hammersley Inlet is beautiful and challenging. You have to really know how to navigate, not by GPS and autopilot and an occasional glance at a computer screen. You need to take soundings, read the water’s surface and create navigational ranges from the many streams and points to verify your course and position along the inlet’s seven miles of charted but barely marked length. Yes, a log tug regularly makes the run at high tide, and it’s true many Shelton boaters navigate with the course printed on their yacht club place mats. But the first time or two is an adventure, and every time thereafter deserves your attention.

The Coast Pilot’s grim warnings are accurate: current velocities of 5 knots, numerous shoals and bars, “dangerous for strangers.” Rather than be paranoid, be prepared. Use NOAA chart 18457, which divides the inlet in two and shows soundings in feet. Choose a rising tide with a moderate current. Some locals prefer the time just after low, when dry spots are still visible. Don’t attempt the inlet in darkness.

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Your senses tuned a bit more finely than in deeper, “safer” channels, you’ll find yourself noting the beauty of Hammersley Inlet. Some portions are so undisturbed, you’ll feel as though you are the first person ever there. Other portions are tamed, with tidy homes amid trimmed lawns and flower beds circled with stones, now and then a large, carefully designed house with landscaped grounds. Hammersley rolls on indifferently, a lovely green river.

When you finally arrive, the marina north of the mill will be a bit of a surprise: a fair number of boathouses and slips, a few unexpectedly large sailboats. The guest float (about 80 feet long, with a dogleg) is clearly signed. Moorage is 25 cents a foot, plus $2 per day for electricity (30 amps). Shelton gets few visitors by water, so don’t be surprised if you’re personally welcomed. The yacht club at the head of the dock is especially friendly; its burgee sports an evergreen, fitting for a town that considers itself the Christmas tree capital of the world.

If the guest float is full, a good anchorage lies just north of the marina. Another alternative is across Oakland Bay, between Munson and Miller points.

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Supplies aren’t particularly convenient, but within a mile of the marina are well-stocked hardware, auto and truck supply stores, convenience stores and a supermarket. A free Chamber of Commerce map and guide is available at the visitor center on Railroad Avenue.

Shelton was platted and developed for the mill in the middle 1880s, and in many ways the history of Shelton is the logging history of South Sound. You can see a little of the past at the visitor center-a caboose attached to the original Shay locomotive that once ran between the mill and the timber lands-and more at the museum on Fifth and Railroad. There’s a Heritage fair in May, the Mason County Forest Festival after Memorial Day and the West Coast Oyster Shucking Championship and Seafood Festival in October. There are a few reminders around town of Shelton’s heydays, and a few antiques stores and junk shops, but in general you won’t find the tourist shops everywhere else in Puget Sound. Just a working town going about its business, getting by.

When you’re ready to leave, the best part awaits: testing your navigation skills in reverse, with the quiet knowledge that you’ve cruised as upstream as you can go in Puget Sound, against the current, away from the crowds.

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Navigating the Inlet

The buildings of Arcadia on the south shore of the entrance are easy to spot, but at this writing, the mark charted there no longer exists. Nor does green “1,” charted at 300 yards south of Hungerford Point. This and the red “2” inside, west of Cape Horn, snagged so many log rafts the Coast Guard removed them.

To enter, stay close to Hungerford Point, following the steep north shore to Cape Horn. Expect to feel like you’re entering a dead-end bay. Once past Cape Horn, the channel becomes more obvious but no less deceptive, especially now that red “2” no longer exists. Avoid the shoal that red “2” used to mark by favoring the south shore to Cannery Point, then go mid-channel for about three-quarters of a mile. Use the landforms and your depth sounder to determine when you should head for the south shore, which you should favor past Libby Point (marked) and Skookum Point (unmarked).

A shoal spreads westward of Skookum Point. Avoid this by favoring the north shore until you have passed Church Point. From here on, a mid-channel course will keep you in deepest water. A privately maintained light is on the south shore between Church Point and Miller Point, on a shingled pyramid at the foot of a flagpole. This mark is more prominent and useful when you are eastbound, though in both directions it’s a good reminder of the extensive shoal across from it on the north shore. You probably won’t relax until you’re past Munson and Eagle points.

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