Olivine Hill Coastline


Every day Never Closes


On the far southeast corner of Cypress Island a separate symmetrically formed knob stands at nearly 600 ft of elevation above sea level. Its name, Olivine Hill, reflects both its geologic identity and man’s primary interest in it. Situated around its flanks and particularly along its shoreline are a number of interesting natural and historical features that can be seen from the water.

Only a short distance north of South Beach (see article this website) the buff and orange colored rock reveals the site of a former olivine mine. Olivine is of economic interest for a number of uses including the fabrication of high temperature refractory furnaces and as an ingredient in the processing of phosphorous rich fertilizer. While olivine was mined from this hill as early as the 1920s the workings and remaining dock pilings that you see were from an operation that lasted until the late 1950s. The dock allowed raw olivine ore to be moved a short distance out to a barge during high tides and then shipped to processing locations on the mainland. The sea and weather exposure on this corner location of the island led to the rapid destruction of the structures once they were abandoned.

Give this area a wide berth as you circle around it. Submerged rocks and pilings can be quite close to the surface during all tidal levels. Another reason to swing widely as you pass to the north concerns marine mammals. The shoreline immediately adjacent to and north of the mine site is deeply pocketed with shallow caves. Like guardians, standing shoulder to shoulder, a wealth of rocks and boulders both above and below the water surface reach some distance from shore. Within this naturally formed fortress is a favorite pull-out for marine mammals and particularly those wanting a safe place to leave their young while foraging in the rich current swept kelp beds nearby. Adult seals and sea lions as well as their pups need their daily doses of dry time to be healthy so don’t approach too closely and disturb them. If not for their sake, consider that the best viewing is of undisturbed animals lazing on their little beaches rather than a quick frightened flash as they dive into the water. Where narrow grassy ledges come down to the shore you have an opportunity to see otters. Hunting for shellfish delicacies among the rocks they also enjoy some land scampering and sliding as long as they don’t feel threatened or approached.

Further along the coast; look for a sharp angled concrete structure located below a small forested cliff right on the shoreline. This is the remains of a freshwater spring. Unusual among the San Juan Islands, the water sources of Cypress have been abundant and highly valued. Along with a few other springs, the quality of the water was considered so exceptional that from the early 1900s through the 1930s it was transported to Anacortes and other Fidalgo Island customers. Its many uses included: drinking water, salmon cannery processing, ice cream, refrigerator ice and even as a bottled mineral water proclaiming health benefits and sporting a "Cypress Island" label. Today the spring box is uncovered and has become a mossy green jungle for small freshwater loving plants and animals. Landing on this shoreline is difficult if not dangerous and the uplands are off limits due to wildlife reserves and private property so it’s best to keep your viewing down by the shore where there’s much more to see anyway.

As you round the coast a bit further don’t forget to look up into the tall trees. Easier to see if you aren’t too close to shore, some of these are favorite eagle perches. The adults with their brilliant white heads are easy to spot against the dark colors of the forest behind them. With the tidal rips and kelp beds forcing deeper swimming salmon up to the surface they appreciate these higher vantage points. Spotting a surfacing salmon they can launch down with only a quick short glide hoping to hook a tasty meal from the sea. In past years a very visible eagle nest could be seen, possibly they’ll build another someday.

As the coast turns to the west begin to keep a sharp lookout for an old concrete platform which is so low in the water that it may be completely covered during the higher tides. Above this, and easier to see in the fall and winter when the leaves are gone, is an old iron chute. This is an example of an old chromate mine, a valuable element often associated with olivine. This is the location of the short-lived mine often described with Deepwater Bay. The story goes that the first bucket load of ore was being lowered on cables to an anchored barge when it broke free and plummeted through the deck and hull of the barge sinking it on the spot. The chute is evidence that a better or at least safer method might have followed but the mine closed soon after anyway. Somewhere not far from shore, the submerged ruins of the barge were said to be visible during exceptionally low tides but time and nature are surely reclaiming whatever might remain.

Beyond here the coastline curves deeply into Secret Harbor while directly north the waters of Deepwater Bay lead to Cypress Head. Depending on currents, winds, and tides you may want to reverse your trip and go north to south. Whichever way you choose, there’s a lot of nature, ruins, and history to see from only a mile and a half boat trip around the southeast corner of Cypress Island.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 7/28/2010


Begin your cruise at South Beach (see article this website) on the far southeast corner of Cypress Island. Follow the coastline from South Beach north and eventually west. Be careful while boating in this area. Submerged rocks and pilings are common and currents can be strong especially during large tidal changes. Also be aware of reverse flowing eddy currents and rips that may form.


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