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Gig Harbor

Our kayaks glide across the glossy dark green water. Kingfishers scold and mallards scatter as we make for the city docks. “Stay clear of the seals,” shouts our guide and instructor, Mik. “They like to play. Unfortunately, play means leaping onto your vessel.” We paddle away from them. Fast.

There are six of us following Mik, like ducklings. We maneuver around pilings under the piers and emerge next to a fleet of fishing boats. The sight of the fleet moored instead of working weighs heavily on me. The boats are silent and hulking, slowly becoming relics of better days when fish were plentiful. Because of their hardy character, because of their life on the seas, they seem more beautiful than the fiberglass sailboats sharing moorage.

Located on the Key Peninsula west of Tacoma across the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which dramatically spans a narrow passage of Puget Sound, downtown Gig Harbor is tucked away from the helter-skelter hubbub of freeway traffic, mini malls and rampant development. As you descend the long hill from Hwy. 16 down Pioneer Way, you will end up at the harbor’s edge where Harborview Drive becomes the main thoroughfare. Harborview is just that, the main road winding along the harbor, leading from the central downtown about a mile and a half to the north shore and another small district with shops and cafes.

The historic maritime village was named by Captain Charles Wilkes in 1841, who, during a storm, sheltered his ship officer’s longboat, or “gig,” in the beautiful harbor. In 1867, fisherman Sam Jerisich became one of the first white settlers, followed by Croatian, Norwegian and Swedish fishermen. Commercial fishing and boat building became the vital core of the community lasting for more than 100 years.

These days, you’d never guess Gig Harbor was once a busy working harbor. A few of the original boat building wharves and historic homes can still be seen, most now accommodating art galleries, shops and cafes. A walk along the waterfront has heritage markers with photos describing historic buildings and places that are no more.

We paddle our way past the many yachts and sailboats and see that some restaurants have access from the water. But light is slipping away towards evening and we must get back to our dock. The seals seem to lie in wait. As we try to outmaneuver them, they swim toward us. Mik slaps his paddle on the water to distract them as we speed to safety. Alas, we’re back safe and sound except for the one woman who drops her camera into the water. Maybe the seals will find it.

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