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An island in Puget Sound, about 16 miles long, stretching between Seattle and Tacoma. It is accessible only by ferry, one at each end: from Fauntleroy in West Seattle at the north end, and from Point Defiance in Tacoma at the south end. The ferry ride is short, about 15 minutes, and the island is a nice place to visit for a get-away. It has several interesting restaurants and numerous bed and breakfasts.

Because there are no bridges or other driveable connections to the mainland, the island has remained largely rural, with the shorelines lined with summer cottages and its inland dotted with small farms. Its population is also kept low by the relative scarcity of drinkable water. In the 1960’s this isolation attracted many hippies, and the ambience of much of the island is still counter-culture- oriented. Its most well known industry is K2 skies. It used to be known for orchids. It is also home to Camp Sealth, a Camp Fire camp named after Chief Seattle, whose real name was (sort of) Sealth.

Vashon was named for Admiral James Vashon by the explorer George Vancouver, who named many parts of the Puget (pronounced PEW-jit) Sound area, including the Sound itself after his captain, Peter Puget. Vashon has a Strawberry Festival every summer; when I was a child, it was a Peach Festival, but something narsty apparently happened to the peaches.

When I was growing up on Vashon, the town of Vashon itself was one block long and one block deep. It has expanded to maybe 3-5 blocks square. When I was a child, the beach we lived on was reachable, on land, only by a mile-and-a-half trail through the forest. We had water and electricity, but all food, clothing, etc had to be carried in by knapsack. Our telephone was a 17-party line, with a different series of rings for each family. Oil for the stove that heated our house had to be fetched from the ferry dock in a rowboat powered by a 1 ½ horsepower Johnson outboard motor. We moved into “Town” (Seattle) when I started school because cougars were sometimes sighted on the trail to the school bus stop. I never saw one, but I did put out milk for the deer that came down to the shore at night. They lapped it up by morning.

I have never been to Vashon Island. When I was younger, I used to look at it every day. My grandmother had a house in the southern suburbs of Seattle, and I used to look across the arm of the Puget Sound towards Vashon Island, three miles distant. I used to watch the ferries, little white rectangles, come and go towards the pier on Vashon Island. But despite my proximity, I have never been there.

Vashon Island, like several islands in the Puget Sound, is only reachable by ferry, (or, in rare cases, by airplane). Vashon Island is about 50% larger than Manhattan, and has a population of around 10,000 people. While 10,000 people is relatively small compared to the population of the Puget Sound area, Vashon Island's population of 10,000 makes it one of the top 5 most populous unbridged islands in the United States outside of Hawaii, with only Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Kodiak Island having larger populations.

Most of the non-bridge accessible islands in the United States fall into one of three categories. They are either areas that are economically productive because they are islands (Kodiak Island), islands that are mostly recreation or retirement communities (The San Juan Islands or Martha's Vineyard) or islands that once fell into one of the two categories, but are now inhabited by traditionalists (many of the islands off of Maine or in the Great Lakes). Vashon Island is different because, while it is an upper income area, and has a reputation as a culturally active place, it is not purely a resort community. Vashon Island is a suburban area where people can still commute, via ferry, to jobs in the city. Although it is hard to exactly qualify this, Vashon Island is probably the only large island community in a metro area. This is (as far as I can guess), the only place in the United States where a city bus crosses by ferry to an island.

Unique communities, whether that comes from geographic or other factors, often must face a decision: they have to build bridges outwards, which leads to them losing their identity. Or they stay isolated, leading to social and economic hardship. But sometimes, as in the case of Vashon Island, a community can manage to preserve its local identity but stay connected to the larger world.

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