Ben Ure Island is a hidden treasure in Washington's most popular state park

August 12, 2013

Ben Ure Island in Deception Pass State Park is a short paddle from Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island.

DECEPTION PASS STATE PARK, Wash. ó I was told the paddle to the cabin would be short.

I didnít expect it would be shorter than the time it took to lift the kayak off the Subaru and into the water. That was more strenuous.

A few lazy strokes here, some pauses to snap pictures of the Deception Pass Bridge there, and what do you know? Welcome to Ben Ure Island. Paddling time: five minutes. No sweat. No heart-pulsing paddle on the famed rough waters of Deception Pass. That would come later.

We sometimes find the most wonderful escapes when we least expect them.

Thatís what Ben Ure Island was like for me. Itís located in Washingtonís busiest state park, which for me is code for screaming kids, barking dogs, crowded campgrounds and too many hikers flooding the trails, hardly my idea of a tranquil getaway.

I expected the worst.

Ben Ure Island is located east of the iconic Deception Pass Bridge, across from Cornet Bay on the north shore of Whidbey Island. It was late spring, shorts-and-sandal weather, when a buddy and I reached the rocky bank at low tide. I couldnít hear anything except birds rustling in the shade of madronas and Douglas firs. There were no other muddy footprints on the dirt trail but ours.

In a park that draws about half a million visitors in July alone, I had stumbled on what may be its least trammeled patch of land.

I didnít just pay $100 for a night at a cabin. I got my own island for the night, with views of Mount Baker and the blue water of Deception Pass.

This I could get used to. This I loved.

We unloaded our gear, popped open a bottle of Prosecco and plopped on the cabin deck under the eye-wincing sky. A rufous hummingbird was sucking on a red flower two feet from me. I was in no hurry to leave this oasis.

Ben Ure wasnít always this quiet. In the late 1800s, the rowdiness from all the drunk loggers at a dance hall and saloon would echo across this forested island. Trader Ben Ure used the island to smuggle in illegal Chinese immigrants for manual labor around the region.

In the last two decades, the state park has bought 8 out of the 10 acres on Ben Ure Island, including the cabin on the southwest corner thatís now available for rent.

To give the four private homes on the island privacy, the state park allows public access to just cabin renters (maximum two people per stay) with only kayaks or other nonmotorized boats allowed to and from the island.

We rented our two-seat kayak in Seattle, and we didnít haul it all this way for just a five-minute paddle.

The legendary roar of the tides can be a thing of beauty to watch from the parkís North Beach but hell to be in. The powerful current gets up to 8 knots through the narrow channel. Boats have been capsized, lives lost.

We intended to paddle during slack tide, only we had lollygagged around the deck too long before we got to paddling. We got more than we bargained for.

We paddled across to Strawberry Island, the water sparkling like pop bottles on the roadside. The water was deceptively calm.

Ahead, the silhouettes of lingcod fishermen under the arching bridge made for surreal scenery. We wanted a closer look.

The bull kelp tangled in my paddle as we headed west. Once under the bridge and the hum of the cars, we let the kayak coast. We relaxed, chatted up some hard-luck anglers and laughed. We lost track of time. We let our guard down, just as the park ranger had warned against.

We hadnít noticed the tide was pulling us out farther toward Deception Island, in Rosario Strait. Beyond that: the wide open ó and often wild ó Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Uh-oh, my buddy said.

We paddled back but didnít get far ó as if Mother Nature had hooked her finger on the back of our vessel as we tried to paddle forward.

"Paddle, paddle," my buddy said.

I wanted to paddle, but I didnít expect a workout. I could feel blisters developing in my right hand. Luckily we escaped before the current picked up speed. It took us 15 minutes to paddle out, but 45 minutes to paddle back. I could hear the rangerís admonishing voice in my head: Stick to the calm water around Cornet Bay. Check the tide chart.

We had worked up an appetite, for sure. Back to the cabin. Time to settle in.

On the island, thereís only a quarter-mile trail thatís accessible to the public, and the cabin, 12 feet by 24 feet, is smaller than your average fifth-floor walkup. The futon, when converted into a queen-size bed, takes up the living-room space.

I mostly hung by the spacious deck. The aroma of garlic and fennel seed from the porchetta I had in the oven filled the cabin. It was too much for my growling tummy to bear. I sipped on Tií Punch while enjoying the last light of the evening.

As it got darker, we warmed up with shots of Tennessee whiskey and snacked on some salty smoked salmon from Seaboltís Smokehouse, which we passed in Oak Harbor on the drive up.

We laughed, drank and got loud, just like those drunk loggers and traders in the saloon more than a century ago, back when smuggler "Pirate Kelley" roamed these islands.

Being secluded there, Ranger Jack Hartt said, "almost brings you back to the days of the pioneers. You truly feel like itís your island for that time."

For one night, it really felt like it was mine.

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IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Ben Ure Island is just east of the Deception Pass Bridge and north of Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island. Renters must check in at the Deception Pass State Park office on Highway 20 to pick up the cabin key and a map to the parking lot/boat launch.

Access to Ben Ure Island is by nonmotorized vessels only.

CABIN RENTAL: For information on renting the cabin on Ben Ure Island, see parks.wa.gov/yurtsandcabins/deceptionpass. Nightly rental fee is $91 plus tax, year-round. You may book up to nine months in advance.

The modern cabin features a large deck overlooking the water, as well as a picnic table, fully furnished electric kitchen, queen-size futon, electric heat, lights, bathroom and outdoor shower. Visitors must bring their own drinking water to the site. The cabin is completely booked for August, but check back for cancellations. Openings are available in September and October.

KAYAK RENTAL: No boat rentals are available at the park, and due to liability issues many kayak-rental outfits wonít allow customers to take vessels far from their base. We found one Seattle outfitter that allowed us to transport a kayak on top of our car for use at Deception Pass: Moss Bay on South Lake Union, for $80 for the first day for a two-seat kayak, $60 for a one-seat kayak; subsequent days cost less. 206-682-2031 or mossbay.net

MORE INFORMATION: See parks.wa.gov, or call the Washington State Parks information center, 360-902-8844, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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