Off limits

Posted by Ken Campbell July 25, 2012 3 Comments 1134 views

So… there’s this island in south Puget Sound that I haven’t been to. I’ve been to just about all of them, even spent the night on Squaxin Island once, but there’s still one more pin I have to put in the Salish Sea map. Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve made it a point to visit as much of the Sound as possible, I’ve written a few kayaking guide books that more-or-less covered every portion of the shoreline… it may seem unlikely that I haven’t been to all of it.

Take a look at the map though. There is one island that, until very recently, could be accessed by invitation only. (Although “invitation” may not be the right word.)
McNeil Island has a long history as a prison island, both as a Federal Penitentiary and as a State Prison, but it’s been closed for about a year now. For the whole time I’ve been in Washington State, there was no easy way to get close to the McNeil shore. I did get within shouting distance on a few occasions – I know, because the guards shouted at me to get away – but I’ve never actually set foot on the beach.
Now, technically, it’s still off limits. Even though the calaboose is shut down and the patrols are no longer running, the powers that be don’t want people out there. Concerns about vandalism mostly, which is a valid point. But I won’t vandalize anything, I promise. I do want to see the place though.
The fact is that it’s going to be a while before there’s a plan for the island. Who owns what is sure to be a major sticking point and I expect more than a few competing visions about what the island’s future should look like. I don’t know if it will ever look better than it does right now, however. After 136 years of forced isolation, the entire island is something of a time capsule, looking the way they all used to look, back before bridges and strip malls, plastic water bottles and horseless carriages. 
The time for a moonlight paddle to McNeil may be soon coming.

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