San Juan County
Every day Never Closes
"Smuggler’s Cove: a small nondescript bay on the northwest shore of Cypress Island."
That, if anything, is what most people ever learn about this location while visiting the San Juan Islands. Yet packed into this small cove is a microcosm reflecting nearly every facet of natural history, cultural reference, and personal drama that can be found in the archipelago.
Either approaching from the sea or standing on the beach after hiking down on the Smuggler’s Cove Trail (see article this website) the dominating feature is the dramatic rock face of Eagle Cliff. This stone buttress of bedrock was severely sculpted by the great continental glaciers that swept over this area during the recent ice ages. Mile high rivers of ice plowed into these low rocky peaks. Boulders trapped between the unstoppable ice and immoveable mountains gouged and wore deep grooves and scratches across the bedrock. Even now, you can find examples of these glacial scars on the very tread of the trail that winds its way up the other side of the mountain (see Eagle Cliff Trail, this website, for seasonal closure information). While that side of the mountain is more gradual and shows signs of being scraped and compressed, this side has an entirely different look. The abrupt cliff, cracked and faulted, has a large fan of giant talus blocks that reach down to and far beneath the current sea level. While seismic disturbances and rock faults may account for much of this condition, you could almost imagine a great waterfall of ice thrusting up and over the top of the peak and clawing apart this side of the mountain as it fell over a thousand feet to the seafloor below.
The unusual topography has resulted in a combination of habitats that are critical for a number of native species including delicate plants and nesting raptors. The importance of preserving these remnant natural populations is the reason that all of the uplands beyond the small cove except for the connecting trail are closed to entry. Besides the fragility of the thin soils on these steep slopes, the extreme danger from rock-fall even in the forest below the cliffs are another good reason to stay on the beach and trail.
An interesting example of misconceptions brought about from cultural perspectives and problems in language translation concerns the location of She-ung-tlh the legendary Home of the Thunderbird. To the local Native Peoples, the location was on the "highpoint" of what the European explorers named Cypress Island. Somehow the cultural concepts of highpoint led to the conclusion that this legendary home was on the highest point of land, a forested green hump somewhere in the middle of the island. Instead, the location was actually here at what is now named Eagle Cliff, the visually highest point of bare rock visible on Cypress and by far the most dramatic geologic feature to be seen by anyone approaching or passing the Island. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the great booming sound of thunder reverberating off of these bare rock cliffs during one of the infrequent thunderstorms that occur in the islands.
The beaches near Smuggler’s cove were long used as sites for pleasant seasonal villages by the peaceful Coast Salish tribes. Bountiful harvest from the sea was augmented by upland gathering and hunting in preparation of foods for the long winters spent on the mainland. How these villages came to be abandoned is one of the tragedies of the 1800s. The arrival of European traders upset what was apparently a delicate balance, unleashing waves of plundering raids by fierce warlike northern tribes. These never before seen raiding parties descended on the peaceful island villages. The only warning that the villagers had was during daylight when the huge war canoes were forced into view as they rounded Point Lawrence, the easternmost projection of Orcas Island directly north of the cove. With no time to spare, the villagers quickly abandoned their summer homes, scattering inland and hiding in tiny crevices and cavities in the rocky cliffs. After several days of carnage, the survivors were left with little to sustain them. Within a short time the ancient seasonal cycle of island villages was abandoned. Today the arrival of great canoes in local waters is no longer a cause for fear but rather a welcomed sight, often part of the annual Great Canoe Journey celebrating the cultural solidarity of all indigenous Peoples.
In more recent times, mystery and drama have not avoided this little cove. The name Smuggler’s Cove may conjure visions of swashbuckling pirates or rum runners of the early 1900s but the name has no known historical significance and was fancifully tagged to this cove during the last attempt at commercial development. Its previous name was Mrs. Hardy’s Cove and referred to its most famous resident. A daughter of a local family that owned a large part of Cypress Island, she married a successful banker and mine owner and lived in a number of cities in Alaska and Eastern Washington. During a marriage separation she returned to Cypress, purchasing the land around this cove and establishing a farm of chickens, hogs and vegetables. Financially independent, she preferred her seclusion and was well known to outwit and repel trespassers. Except for a hired couple providing farm labor she seemed content with her isolated life. In June of 1940, one year, almost to the day after her divorce became final it was discovered that she had mysteriously disappeared launching an extensive search of Cypress and nearby islands. No sign or indication of what became of her was ever found. At first, due to her wealth, foul play was suspected or it was surmised that despondent over her divorce and former husband’s recent second marriage she may have committed suicide. However, later it was learned that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer; and those who knew this fascinating and strong willed person suspected she had finished her life the same way she had lived it, independent and by her own hand.
Whatever the true story of her disappearance may be, visitors to this cove can see relics of Mrs. Hardy’s stay on the island and possibly imagine what it may have been like to live here at that time. Next to the trailhead for the Smuggler’s Cove Trail, just above the beach, find a flat area that is obviously artificial. This is the location of her cabin. A large window would have faced north and been filled with an expansive view of Eagle Cliff. If you walk around and peek through the overhanging trees that now grow there, you might be able to imagine how dramatic this view would have been for her. On the seaward side of this flat area, a lone pipe sticks up from the ground, a drain from the kitchen sink. Her unobstructed view out of this window would have reached across Rosario Strait to the shores and mountains of Orcas Island.
Back on the beach and north of a small stream flowing from Duck Lake, a short path leads to a small cabin only a few feet above the beach. Inside this rustic structure, unexpected striped wall paper can be seen and the pipes and platform for a wood stove are still visible in a corner. The window glass is gone but when this cabin was occupied there wouldn’t have been any tree branches obscuring the views of the water. Probably used by caretakers, and subsequently by loggers and hunters, it is still a poignant reminder of a woman’s independent life on the island. Use care if approaching this cabin, the floor and walls are beginning to fail.
The narrow strip of rock studded beach grows and shrinks with the changing tides but usually provides a welcomed stop for kayakers and other self-propelled boaters before or after crossing the big waters of Rosario Strait. Those visiting in larger boats will want to be mindful of the many blocks of talus that reach out from the shoreline. Among these blocks; passageways, tunnels and mini-seacaves have formed making them an ideal place for otters to hunt, sleep, play and even raise a family. Eagles launch off of tall trees fringing the high cliff, easily spotting salmon cruising the nearby waters. Peregrine falcons that use the cliffs for their nesting are also frequently sighted especially in the spring and summer when feeding their young.
A visit to Smuggler’s Cove whether by boat or foot promises a lot but what you ultimately experience may be much more than only what you see.
The cove is located on the far northwest corner of Cypress Island, only about one mile from its northernmost tip.
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San Juan Islands