Quadrangle of Fire, Admiralty Inlet, WA 24–26 Aug 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Aug 29, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Sorry for the misleading title. There’s actually no such thing as the Quadrangle of Fire. That’s just a little joke I made up. In reality, Washington State only has a Triangle of Fire. I added an extra angle just for this kayak trip!

    Washington’s Triangle of Fire is a series of coastal defense forts built in the 1890s and 1900s. The three forts—Fort Casey, Fort Worden, and Fort Flagler—are positioned along both sides of Admiralty Inlet, the body of water that connects Puget Sound to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    Admiralty Inlet is itself a misnomer. An inlet is a landform consisting of a long, narrow indentation in a coastline, which Admiralty Inlet is not. Properly speaking, it should be called Admiralty Strait or perhaps Admiralty Sound.

    Despite its awkward name, Admiralty Inlet was strategically important at the end of the 19th century. Boundary disputes with Great Britain (the world’s strongest naval power) and conflicts over influence in Latin America with Spain (the world’s fourth strongest naval power) led the Untied States to fear a naval attack. Under the leadership of Secretary of War William Endicott, the country embarked on an ambitious program of fort building along key parts of the coast. Here in Washington, the chief Endicott Period forts were the Triangle of Fire, all of which were completed by 1902.

    After the United States entered World War II in 1941, a fourth fort was added along Admiralty Inlet, Fort Ebey. Fort Ebey was only manned from 1944 to 1946 and was neither an Endicott Period fort nor a member of the Triangle of Fire.

    Today, all four Admiralty Inlet forts (the Triangle forts plus Ebey) are state parks. When I was growing up, my family took many trips out to Fort Casey, and I have happy memories of chasing my brother and other kids around the fort’s tangled maze of causeways, passages, and landings. I also have my more recent and very enjoyable kayak trip to Goat Island to visit Fort Whitman, which served as an Endicott Period backup to the Triangle of Fire, preventing enemy fleets from sneaking in the back door through Deception Pass. A visit to a fort is never wasted, and today, each of the four Admiralty Inlet forts has a campground, so I thought it would be a fun trip to kayak out to each one, camping overnight as needed.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Route map: three-day, two-night clockwise tour starting from Fort Worden.

    I’d been waiting months to do this Quadrangle of Fire tour. Admiralty Inlet is known for fast currents and strong winds. It can be dangerous to kayakers. For safety’s sake, I needed to wait for late summer, when surface cyclones are rare and daylight lasts long enough to accommodate waiting for tides to change.

    What with the need to make not one but two crossings of Admiralty Inlet and with a budget of several hours for each fort, I decided a three-day, two-night itinerary would work best for the Quadrangle of Fire. To get an early start and catch the favorable ebb, I car camped at Fort Worden outside Port Townsend, adding a third night.

    Car camping featured its usual hellish orchestra of chugging diesels, slamming doors, buzzing air conditioners on RVs, and raucous, drunken laughter. Washington State has been choked with wildfire smoke lately, but the terrible air quality did not stop one particularly maniacal group of car campers from igniting a blazing bonfire that left my eyes watering inside my tent. The only consolation was a duet of barred owls that spent an hour calling back and forth from opposite sides of the campground.

    In the morning, I stashed my car in the beachfront parking lot (Discover Pass required) and launched into the tail end of the ebb, bound for Fort Ebey. Within five minutes, I spotted the Big Four alcids: marbled murrelet, common murre, rhinoceros auklet, and pigeon guillemot. Seeing the Big Four is always the sign of a good trip, and to see them so early made me hopeful that the Quadrangle of Fire tour was going to be good.

    01 Heermann's Gulls at launch.JPG
    01 Heermann's gulls at launch beach. August is the best month in our region for seeing this very handsome gull.

    02 Army logistics support vessel.JPG
    02 Army logistics support vessel in Admiralty Inlet. The extreme haze is due to wildfires, limiting visibility to around seven miles (11 km).

    03 Point Wilson lighthouse.JPG
    03 Point Wilson lighthouse. Point Wilson is famous for extensive tide rips, but they weren't too bad on this fading ebb and close to shore.

    04 Crossing Admiralty Inlet toward Ft Ebey.JPG
    04 Crossing Admiralty Inlet toward Fort Ebey under calm conditions. Partridge Point, Whidbey Island is the destination, visible on the far left of the island.

    05 Looking south down inlet.JPG
    05 Looking south down Admiralty Inlet. The smoke created amazing lighting effects throughout the day.

    06 Rhinoceros auklet flock.jpg
    06 Rhinoceros auklet flock in Admiralty Inlet. Rhino auklets are the friendliest towards humans of the Big Four alcids.

    Big ships traverse Admiralty Inlet every half hour or so, on top of which you also have the constant cycle of the Port Townsend–Coupeville ferry, plus the swarms of powerboats and sailing yachts. With all this traffic, crossing the inlet in a kayak is a bit like playing Frogger! Luckily, such a strong ebb was working in my favor that I occasionally hit speeds of seven miles per hour (11 kph), a blistering pace for a folding kayak. The entire five-mike crossing to Fort Ebey took me only 45 minutes.

    07 View from Partridge Point.JPG
    07 View from Partridge Point. A lovely, mile-long trail along the bluff connects the Cascade Marine Trail campsite to Fort Ebey.

    08 Fort Ebey base end station .JPG
    08 Fort Ebey base end station. This is not a bunker used for defense; it's a base end station used to triangulate the position of approaching ships by comparing azimuths shot from this position with azimuths shot from other positions in the vicinity.

    09 Fort Ebey six-inch gun battery.JPG
    09 Fort Ebey six-inch gun battery. Fort Ebey is much smaller than the forts of the Triangle of Fire.

    10 Fort Ebey battery commanders station.JPG
    10 Fort Ebey battery commander's station. From this underground bunker, the battery commander assigned targets to his guns.

    After visiting the ruins of Fort Ebey, my original plan was to catch the flood tide down to Fort Casey and overnight there. But just as I was loading up to depart, it occurred to me I didn’t know where the Cascadia Marine Trail campsite was at Fort Casey. That there was a campground I knew, but marine trail campsites are specially reserved for kayakers and also tend to be nicer and more isolated than the sites for car campers.

    But when I checked WWTA’s website, I learned that alone of the four Admiralty Inlet forts, Casey only has a car campground, not a marine trail site. This being August, all the car campsites were booked. I’d have showed up at Casey and found nowhere to camp at the end of a long day! Luckily, Fort Ebey has a beautiful marine trail site, so I settled in for a long afternoon on the beach. Fort Casey would become a day stop on my way to Fort Flagler the next morning.

    Secretly, I didn’t mind. The rising tide had eventually generated surf conditions on the beach at Fort Ebey, far more than when I’d landed at low tide. Soon, two- and three-foot waves were dumping onshore. A dozen surfers even showed up and rode waves for a few hours, never a good sign when one is contemplating a kayak launch!

    11 Fort Ebey worst water fountain.JPG
    11 Fort Ebey is home to the world's least convenient water fountain.

    12 Beach at Fort Ebey.JPG
    12 Beach at Fort Ebey State Park. Sandy beaches are rare in the inland waters, so camping on one is a real treat.

    13 Sunset at Fort Ebey.jpg
    13 Sunset at Fort Ebey State Park. The marine trail campsite is accessible by cars, but car drivers may not camp here; their campground is on the other side of the park.

    The change to my itinerary meant facing an adverse current on the way to Fort Casey. I crawled along at a snail’s pace, outraced even by couples strolling leisurely along the sandy beaches of Whidbey Island. Not til late morning did the current turn, and it created tide races when it did. I was already wearing my dry suit due to the surprisingly chill air, so the tide races did not disconcert me as they sometimes do.

    14 paddling south along Whidbey shore.JPG
    14 Paddling south along Whidbey Island shore toward Fort Casey. Kelp beds and tide races were frequent.

    15 Ten-inch gun Fort Casey.JPG
    15 Ten-inch gun at Fort Casey. Fort Casey is the only one of the forts to have guns installed today.

    18 Main gunline Fort Casey.JPG
    16 Main gun line at Fort Casey. The disappearing carriages would drop the guns below the parapet after every shot to aid concealment and hasten reloading.

    16 Shell receiving area Fort Casey.JPG
    17 Shell receiving area at Fort Casey. The walkways and gantries and tunnels make for wonderful exploring.

    17 Playing on the shell transporter.JPG
    18 Playing on shell transportation system at Fort Casey. I was fortunate enough to catch a guided tour of the fort that took us through some of the magazines that are normally off-limits to visitors.

    19 Shell magazine hoist.JPG
    19 Shell hoist at Fort Casey. Each of these ten-inch shells weighs 620 pounds (280 kg)! The two furthest ones are mock-ups but the closest one is real.

  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Though I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the tour of Fort Casey, it did delay me several hours. When I launched again into Admiralty Inlet, the flood was running at the day’s maximum speed, nearly five knots. Tide races were everywhere near shore, so I suited up. Past the tide races, the flood current had a strong southward bent, which was good news for reaching Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, but it also had a pronounced eastward flow that risked pushing me past Marrowstone Island and into Puget Sound. I asked my GPS to create a ferry angle for me, and to my astonishment, it had me facing 110° away from my destination! In other words, to avoid being swept past the island, I’d have to paddle across Admiralty Inlet and fight at least a portion of the southward push!

    My ten-year-old, handheld GPS isn’t very sophisticated, so it didn’t know that the five-knot tide was only a temporary phenomenon. But I did know, so I set a more reasonable 90° ferry angle, enough to keep me from getting swept too rapidly into Puget Sound but not so much that I was pointlessly fighting a tide that soon would change. In the end, the four-and-a-half-mile crossing took me around an hour and a half. As soon as I was ashore, I wandered up to the ruins of Fort Flagler.

    32 Entrance to Ft Flagler marine trail campsite.JPG
    20 Entrance to the Cascadia Marine Trail campsite at Fort Flagler. This campsite was less scenic and had more foot traffic than the one at Fort Ebey, but it was still a great site.

    20 Fort Flagler base end station.jpg
    21 Fort Flagler base end station. Fort Flagler seems to have more surviving structures than the other forts.

    21 Fort Flagler six-inch gun battery.JPG
    22 Fort Flagler secondary six-inch gun battery. At this fort, you wander through the woods for miles, periodically encountering fortifications that loom unexpectedly out of the trees.

    22 Fort Flagler part of Battery Calwell.jpg
    23 A portion of Battery Calwell at Fort Flagler. The fort is very slowly decaying into the grass and trees.

    23 Fort Flagler excellent signage.JPG
    24 Fort Flager has the most helpful signage that explain the technical aspects of naval gunnery. Fort Casey has guided tours that explain how the guns themselves were loaded and operated. And Fort Worden has a terrific museum. Each fort has something to offer.

    24 Shell receiving area Fort Flagler.JPG
    25 Shell receiving area at Fort Flagler. Shells and power bags would come up the hoist and drop onto the tray seen here, thence to carted over to the guns.

    25 Fort Flagler view of the magazine level.JPG
    26 Sitting above the magazine level of the main gun line of Fort Flagler. There were barn swallows nesting inside the underground rooms; they would come whipping out past my head.

    26 Down in the magazine.JPG
    27 Down in the powder magazine of Fort Flagler. Without a flashlight, I had to toe my way forward in the darkness to avoid tripping over various concrete protrusions and trenches.

    27 Alex directs fire from Battery Paul Revere.JPG
    28 Alex directs the ten-inch gunfire of Battery Paul Revere. The fire control stations behind the gun line doubled as position-finding stations.

    28 Fort Flagler battery commanders station.JPG
    29 On top of the battery commander's position. To me the view of Admiralty Inlet is just lovely scenery. To the commander, it was a tactical necessity.

    29 On top of Fort Flagler.JPG
    30: The top-most level of Fort Flagler. Only a handful of structures protrude above ground level.

    As the sun was setting on the beach at Fort Flagler, a flock of shorebirds flew in. I naturally assumed from their size they were dunlin, but when I put my binoculars on them, I was astounded to see dark, buffy wash on the birds’ breasts. Pectoral sandpipers? Impossible, and the wash didn’t cut off sharply enough. Red knots in transitional plumage? No, that would be unheard of, and the wash wasn’t that solid or extensive. They certainly weren’t sanderlings, peeps, or dowitchers, and you wouldn’t ever see a flock this large of solitary, spotted, or stilt sandpipers, and they were too small to be anything like a curlew, godwit, or yellowlegs.

    Reader, they were juvenile Baird’s sandpipers, twenty of them. The key field mark is that their primary flight feathers protrude past their tails. Baird’s are unusual on our coast at the best of times. I hadn’t seen one in years, and I’d never seen so many in one place. I sat and watched these rare, beautiful visitors forage for an hour until it got too dark.

    30 Marrowstone Island Baird's sandpiper.jpg
    31 Juvenile Baird's sandpiper on the beach at Fort Flagler. An unusual and beautiful find.

    31 Baird's sandpiper.jpg
    32 Another juvenile Baird's. It was especially remarkable to see so many of these at once.

    On the last morning, I mistimed the currents, which lag the tides by at least an hour, and ended up with a slight adverse flow on my way across from Fort Flagler to Fort Worden. Unlike the other forts, the gun positions at Fort Worden are not at the water’s edge; they are at the top of a tall hill. I was grateful to be able to drive most of the way to the top, and grateful again that thanks to the time I saved driving, the coast artillery museum was still open when I came back down.

    33 Fort Worden secondary battery.JPG
    33 Fort Worden secondary battery. Each type of gun had its own special role to play in the tactical scheme.

    34 Fort Worden main gunline.JPG
    34 Fort Worden main gun line. Up here were the big ten- and twelve-inch guns, which with the twelve-inch mortars made up the heaviest weapons of these forts.

    35 Fort Worden communications tunnel.JPG
    35 Fort Worden communications tunnel. These concrete tunnels must have been deafening when the guns were booming.

    36 Exploring Fort Worden.JPG
    36 Alex exploring Fort Worden. The fun part of these forts is the scrambling up, down, and around the various structures.

    The Quadrangle of Fire was a huge success. I got to enjoy two beautiful, sandy beach campgrounds, a rarity in our inland waters, plus the amazing architecture and history of the forts, plus some grade-A birds. I couldn’t have asked for a better expedition on Admiralty Inlet.


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    Last edited: Aug 29, 2018
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Superb report, Alex. Your photos really bring out the gunnery aspect of the forts. There are three forts at the mouth of the Columbia, all state parks, one in OR, and two in WA. However, the forts you detail are better annotated by signs, and somewhat better kept.

    Your use of currents made for a safe, much easier trip. Anyone contemplating your route would do well studying your report. Admiralty Inlet can produce incredibly huge water if the wind is up!