I stand on the rocky shore of Jensen Point near a beached snag, the cold salt water of Quartermaster Harbor lapping at my ankles. The point, which divides inner and outer Qurtermaster Harbor, is the site of a Vashon Island park. People launch kayaks, rowing shells, canoes, motorboats here. Swimmers start the Heart of the Sound Triathlon here, too. Swimming out into the deeper water of the channel, virtually all of us wear wetsuits. I once ran into a young woman wearing a Heart of the Sound Triathlon T-shirt and made a casual comment about the race. I'm never doing that again, she said. That water is so cold!
Be that as it may, people have been coming to Jensen Point for centuries. In 1996, archaeologist Julie Stein, now director of the University of Washington's Burke Museum, led a dig here into a shell midden that has been carbon dated at up to 1,000 years old. Across the harbor, to the south, you can see sailboat masts at another park and marina; it's all very bucolic, but a century ago you might have seen masts clustered there around a big floating dry dock, Puget Sound's first, which opened in 1892. There was already a shipway on the site when the dock arrived, and a big mill nearby. People built and repaired boats along that curve of shore into the 1920s. Right after World War I, the Martinolich yard launched a vessel 250 feet long. In 1929, the yard launched the fishing vessel Janet G., from which a local family seined Alaska salmon for generations. That's all gone now, although you still see old pilings in the water, and the place is still called “Dockton.”
I got an even more expansive — and eerier — sense of time a few months ago, when I stood on a gray stone slab at Mistaken Point. The cold sea broke on the rocks below. Black guillemots flew offshore. The windswept point is named in the vein of such Northwestern reminders of shattered illusion as Cape Disappointment, Deception Pass, Point No Point, Disappointment Cleaver. But it's not Northwest. It's Northeast, about as far Northeast as you can go on this continent, at the southern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. The sea battering the rocks is the North Atlantic. A couple hours' drive up the coast lies Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. Just beyond that stands the city of St. John's, so far out in the Atlantic that Marconi chose it as the place to receive the first trans-Atlantic radio signal from England in 1901. Eleven years later, when the Titanic hit an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland, the wireless station at Cape Race, a few kilometers down the coast from Mistaken Point, was the first and perhaps only recipient of its SOS.
Newfoundland's proximity to Europe ensured its place in history. The Bonavista Peninsula, northwest of St. John's, may be the spot at which in 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian sailing for England, became the first European to land on North America — the first, that is, since the Vikings abandoned a short-lived settlement on a different Newfoundland cape, a site now known as l'Anse aux Meadows, some 500 years before.
Being in the far Northwest hasn't had the same kind of historical significance — except, of course, that this region's distance from Europe and the East Coast enabled some of the original forest and some of the iconic critters to survive, that Puget Sound's proximity to Alaska made it the logical staging place for the Klondike gold rush, and that Alaska's proximity to Asia probably made it the place at which human beings first entered this hemisphere.
After Cabot — and possibly before Cabot — Europeans sailed across the Atlantic into Newfoundland's offshore waters to catch cod along the nearby Grand Banks. Cod became the island's economic mainstay, and remained virtually its only resource from the 16th century to the late 20th century. Colonial New England depended on the cod fishery, too — a carved wooden cod has famously hung in the Massachusetts statehouse since 1784 — but New England developed other options. Newfoundland did not.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!