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The Hood Canal Bridge: A Link Across Time and Water

The bow of a sail boat sits atop the serene waters of Hood Canal, low mountains in the distance.

On a recent sailing trip, we untied from the docks of Bellingham Bay at sunrise on a Sunday morning. Normally we cruise the waters heading north to the San Juan Islands or Gulf Islands in Canada, but not this time. This journey set us on a course heading South for Hood Canal and the Alderbrook Resort on the bay of Union, Washington.

Our journey southward required us to pass through the middle opening of Hood Canal Bridge, a floating bridge linking time and water. Check out this video about our trip, then read on to learn all about the fascinating history of Hood Canal!

Sailing Hood Canal

Growing up in The Evergreen State, I knew about Hood Canal, but only in vague terms. As far as I was concerned, it dwelt between the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, allowing me to cross from one to the other on occasion. What surprised me, and delighted me, is how stunningly beautiful this canal can be. Majestic is a word that pops to mind. In fact, our sail through this fjord found it to be rather unchartered, meaning less traveled, with a tinge of remoteness. My time on the waters of Hood Canal piqued my curiosity for a deeper dive into its story and, specifically, the fascinating history of Hood Canal Bridge.

Spanning the emerald waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound, South of Port Townsend and Admiralty Inlet is the Hood Canal Bridge. This colossal structure connects two peninsulas, Kitsap and Olympic, serving as a vital artery for transporting both commuters and commerce. However, the Hood Canal Bridge is more than a utilitarian crossing; it’s a symbol of the rich history and natural beauty that defines this region.

During his exploration of this area in 1792, Captain George Vancouver is said to have charted the inlet, naming it Hood’s Channel in honor of Admiral Lord Samuel Hood of the Royal Navy.  According to the story, he later wrote Hoods Canal on his charts, and the name stuck.

 The Olympic Mountains flank Hood Canal. Photo credit: merakitravels.org

The Hood Canal: A Natural Wonder

Nestling itself between the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas, the Hood Canal is a picturesque natural fjord stretching roughly 68 miles, or 59 nautical miles to its fishhook-shaped tip. Its unique characteristics, like its span of one to two miles and the depth of its waters, were molded by geological forces such as ice sheets approximately 13,000 years ago, making it a region of both ecological significance and breathtaking beauty. 

The landscape seemed to only grow in its beauty wherever I looked, to the point where I could not stop taking photos.

The day we sailed down Hood Canal, everything around us was still. The air lacked a breeze, creating a placid stillness in the water and there wasn’t a sound to be heard.. Even the Humpback Whale who breached alongside our boat (about 100 feet off the starboard side) barely made a sound gliding through the glass-like water. Visitors and travelers to the region are treated to a rare feeling of remoteness because, despite the march of human progress, the area remains largely underdeveloped. 

Geological Formation

The Hood Canal is not a typical saltwater inlet. It is a fjord, as mentioned earlier, formed by the scouring action of glaciers during the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated, they left behind a deep, narrow channel filled with pristine saltwater. This geological history has endowed the canal with stunning depths, plunging to over 500 feet in some places. For reference, a 50-story skyscraper could fit comfortably in its deepest waters.

If you find yourself on these waters, look to the west. You’ll see the Olympic Mountain range towering over the canal, creating a rather regal backdrop for your journey.

Hood Canal Photo credit: MerakiTravels.org

Biodiversity

Aside from its aesthetic beauty, the Hood Canal’s cold, oxygen-rich waters support a diverse array of marine life. From colorful sea stars to elusive octopuses, to salmon (whole salmon runs, amounting to hundreds of thousands of adult salmon, making their annual migration) and humpback whales like the one that passed by us. 

For the wildlife enthusiasts reading this article, Hood Canal is a thriving ecosystem, absolutely teeming with life. Be sure to bring your camera. 

Recreation

Humans enjoy these waters, too. While we hardly saw another soul(except for our friend, the humpback), we did notice a few individuals out kayaking, enjoying the glorious PNW Autumn day. The canal’s stunning shoreline, framed by lush forests and the Olympic Mountains, lends itself as a favorite spot for hiking, camping, and beachcombing.

The Birth of the Hood Canal Bridge

The Hood Canal Bridge is the world’s largest floating bridge over salt water. Washington State, with its many waterways, boasts the top three largest floating bridges in the world. But the first two, (BRIDGE 1 & BRIDGE 2), are over fresh water, leaving Hood Canal bridge with the salt water title.

Spanning 1.25 miles in length, Hood Canal Bridge has a drawbridge opening in the middle for tall boats like ours (53-feet at the mast) and for naval submarines to pass through. There are also fixed openings on either end of the bridge that allow most marine traffic to travel under. The East end stands with a 50-foot clearance, and the West end, 31-feet, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation and Waggoner’s guide of 2023.

You can see the bridge opening in this video taken from the bow of our Sloop Selkie.

Before reaching the bridge, we called in to the Department of Transportation and scheduled an opening. Feeling special, I watched as traffic stopped in both directions along State Route 104, not something I had ever been responsible for before. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I knew someone stuck in the preceding traffic. My sister!

Planning, Design, and Construction Of The Bridge

In the late 1940s, it became evident that a connecting road between Kitsap and the Olympic peninsula was needed to handle the growing urban traffic. While the Hood Canal’s natural beauty is captivating, its fjord-like character posed a significant challenge to transportation between these two land masses, leading to the inception and eventual construction of the Hood Canal Bridge.

Before its construction, various ferry services operated across the canal. These ferries, while essential, were often time-consuming and weather-dependent, making the commute difficult and unreliable.

 After extensive surveys of water depths and sustainability, a design was chosen. The proposed bridge was a floating structure with a draw span in the middle to allow for marine traffic, making it the first of its kind in the United States.

Building a bridge across the Hood Canal was no small feat. The unpredictable weather of the Pacific Northwest and the depths of the canal presented unique challenges. Nevertheless, construction began in January of 1958, with the bridge officially opening on August 12, 1961. 

A major windstorm in February 1979 caused a few of the concrete pontoons to break loose resulting in a portion of the bridge sinking. This storm came through right after my 11th birthday, as a matter of fact. Up until then, I really had never given Hood Canal much thought. I mean, I was 11, but it became a major news story that week and took three years to rebuild, not reopening until 1982!

The Hood Canal Bridge Today

Today, the Hood Canal Bridge stands as a gateway from the mainland to the Olympic Peninsula and the cities of Port Townsend, Sequim, and Port Angeles. It also provides access to the Olympic National Park, a popular tourist area, with its many camping, hiking, and recreational sites.

We navigated these waters and crossed through the bridge twice on our journey. The bridge, stretching gracefully across Hood Canal’s pristine waters, is a testament to the intersection of human achievement and the natural world. The Hood Canal Bridge is more than a crossing; it’s a link across time and water, a connection to the ingenuity of our past, and a promise for the sustainability of our future in relationship to these waters.

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