It took two years and over 150 miles of somewhat rough terrain, but a group of Oak Harbor friends have managed to circumnavigate Whidbey Island by foot.
The final hike was last Tuesday along Ala Spit, a broad open area with water and mountain vistas. On the trail, the friends opened a bottle of champagne at the very place they began their adventure almost 40 hikes ago.
The hikes began as a challenge by seasoned outdoorsman Leif Haslund, who befriended Tom and Betsy Murphy.
They met in the North Puget Sound Dragon Boat club shortly after Tom’s surgery for prostate cancer.
“When you’re lying in the hospital with cancer and wondering what do you do next, you say yes to more things. Adventure is more important,” Murphy said.
Every Thursday, the group would walk along the beaches at low tide for about two to three hours. Haslund was a guide and also a mentor to the couple. He knew logistics and secret access points to the beach.
To avoid backtracking (and circumnavigating the island twice) the friends took two cars and plotted out stopping points.
At times, the terrain was much harsher than people find on wooded hikes, Murphy said. Some beaches were covered in sharp barnacles, had rivulets cutting through or were blocked by large trees that fell from the banks.
“Beaches on the west side are typically known for being easier than the east. There is more sand, more gradual beach and less seaweed and algae in general,” he said.
Murphy remembers a time when the group had to walk backwards for a few miles, after miscalculating the winds. It created a sand storm. Another hike contained dangerous mud flats at the tide lines that inhaled the hikers to their knees.
“You literally sink like quicksand,” he said. “I envisioned a scene out of a B-movie where the actors sink. It was one of those harried moments.”
Although many of the beaches were private, the friends never had a problem with parking or people demanding they leave. Murphy says the group planned their hikes very carefully and were courteous to homeowners. During their walks along Navy territory, they had help from their neighbor Jim Bruner, who was formerly in the military. He escorted them on base and talked with security.
As they hiked, they would stuff their pockets with unusual treasures such as beach glass and heart-shaped rocks. The Murphys collected rocks with letter shapes, and found the entire alphabet. Eventually, they began carrying trash bags and picking up litter.
More than anything, Murphy says, the hikes were a great way to learn about Whidbey Island. Haslund had a strong knowledge of birds, and would explain the different species. In one cove, the group saw about 360 blue herons, along with otters and seals.
“There wasn’t one walk that we didn’t see eagles,” Murphy said.
Over the past two years, the hikers formed a unique bond with Whidbey and each other, and while this particular adventure is closed for the three friends, they’re not ruling out something new. As Murphy was drinking champagne he said that he was wondering, ‘What’s next?’
“Our next plan is to kayak it,” Murphy said. “We’ll have to figure out the logistics.”