Christina Rusnak | 50@50 Islands of the Salish Sea, WA
Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer whose work reflects a diversity of styles. Actively seeking to integrate geographic and artistic elements into her work, her goal is to compose music that engages the performers as well as the audience.
Christina Rusnak, Composer, Explorer, Music, Outdoors, Exploring with music
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50@50 Islands of the Salish Sea, WA

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Water is thematically defining my work this year.  Hiking and rafting the Rogue River inspired a horn trio. Later this summer, I will travel to Alaska to explore the Yukon and Charley Rivers Preserve in Alaska, and in the fall explore the history and culture of the John Day River in Oregon. Culture encompasses so much: artistic expression, the beliefs and customs of individuals and communities, the stories they tell and the very way people interweave the landscape that exists with the landscape they create.

In keeping with the focus on water, I embarked on a journey to the Salish Sea which encompasses Vancouver Island, the inside coast of British Columbia, the the San Juan Islands, and Puget Sound in Washington. Recognized ecologically as a single estuary, the name Salish Sea pays homage to the indigenous Coast Salish people who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. As the 21st century dawns, over 7 million people live within its watershed. While, one could explore these waterways, islands and rivers for a lifetime, I had only a couple of weeks. So I concentrated on the landscape of the islands of Whidbey, Fidalgo, and San Juan.

Britain’s George Vancouver is generally credited with the “discovery” of the islands in 1792 and the charting of the Salish Sea area. His maps were so accurate they were used for nearly 200 years.[1]  Vancouver’s expedition found thriving Native communities but also stumbled upon curiously empty villages. Much to his dismay, the British also encountered the Spanish. The Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza had already been here a year and already charted much of the area.  Moreover, Eliza informed Vancouver, the Spanish had first explored the northwestern coast of what is now British Columbia and Washington in the 1770s.[2]

My first stop is Whidbey Island. The southern part of the island is reminiscent of an English pastoral painting. Located on the western coast near the Victorian town of Coupeville, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve protects and preserves the landscape as a continuous historical record of Puget Sound settlement from the 19th century to the present. Settled by Issac Ebey the prairies of central Whidbey Island attracted farmers and fisherman, spurred by westward expansion. Historic farms, still under cultivation reveal land use patterns unchanged since the 1850s. Hiking amidst wild grasses and flowers, I could see, from above, the agricultural landscape – imagining it over time, situated on a plateau overlooking the Puget Sound. After about ¾ mile, the path turns parallel to the ocean on a high ridge. It then descends about a mile later and returns along the driftwood covered shore, for a total loop of 5 ½ miles.[3]

Deception Pass bridges the islands of Whidbey and Fidalgo – literally. The iconic bridge links the he three segments of the Deception Pass State and the islands.  The scenery and hiking is both stunning and fairly easy. We hiked about a mile around the eastern portion of Whidbey to the top of Goose Rock. Heading back under the highway bridge toward West Beach, the trail straddles the rocky north shore and the forest with hidden picnic and kissing spots.  Though I expect George Vancouver did not foresee that when mapping the islands in 1792!


La Conner, picturesque town lies in southeast Fidalgo near the mouth of the Skagit River. Surrounded by farmland, it has evolved from its origins as a lively port for fishing, timber and agriculture transportation. The art scene here is vibrant. But what struck me most about La Conner was the juxtoposition of the Swinomish Reservation with its vibrant pavilions in the shape of Cedar Hats right across the the channel – two worlds visually cohabitating. In reading about the geographic history of the Island, I learn that the solid island landscape, interwoven with creeks and rivers, that I see is much altered from the marshy watercourses that existed prior to settlement. The ebb and flow of water changed as settlers formed dykes, which created fields and drained many of the marshes. The way of life, fishing, and culture of the Swinomish changed as the landscape changed.[4]

After the signing of the Oregon Treaty in1846, border debates between the US and Canada seemed to be over. The islands of the current Salish Sea divided Britain’s boundary in the middle of the strait’s channel – but wait, there are two straits, the Rosario and Haro! Britain maintained that the San Juan Islands were British Territory, even as Americans continued to move in and settle. In 1852, Oregon Territory created Island County, specifically including the San Juan Islands. In 1855, the newly created Washington Territory sent Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company on San Juan Island a property tax bill.  Since they refused to pay, Washington sold the properties to satisfy the unpaid taxes. This escalated to an international crisis when both governments sent in troops after an American shot the pig of a British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Setting up camp on opposite sides of the island, each figuratively stared down the other for 12 more years. The resolution was finally decided in 1871by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany who ruled in favor of the Americans. Britain officially withdrew peacefully, but I wonder how many of the British stayed. The island still retains the feel of another country.[5]

I hiked the Historic Parks, but another aspect of the island’s culture is revealed at Lime Kiln Point State Park. A key natural resource, the limestone here is very pure. Operations began quarrying in 1860 and kilns were built to the produce the lime until 1920. The parks acquired the property in 1996, partially restoring the kiln for visitors. Roche Harbor, on the north end of the island was built as a company town for the workers of another lime operation. The hikes here are relatively short and easy, though veering off the trail, the rocks can be slippery.

San Juan Island, and Lime Kiln Point State Park in particular is actually much more famous for something else all together. Whales. The park is famous for Orcas sighting. Apparently, three pods reside in the islands and meander along the shore on a regular basis. Whale watching expeditions will take you out into the straits to see the whales and other sea life up close. I didn’t see any the late spring afternoon I visited the park, but some days I’m told people see up to a dozen or more.

Experiencing the islands of the Salish Sea exceeded my expectations. Rich cultural and environmental history enhance the beauty and serenity of these islands.  Walking its shores and hiking its hills make its timelessness tangible.


[1]             One reference stated that the maps were actually used until after WWI.

[2]             The 1770s smallpox epidemic ravaged the Pacific coast from Mexico into Canada. An estimated 1/3rd of the native population in the northwest died. Most likely the Spanish brought smallpox but other sources site that an epidemic simultaneously was moving from the Great Lakes westward through the Indian trading routes into the Columbia River Region.

[3]              A parking lot is located there if you want to skip the extra 1 ½ miles to and from the overlook parking lot.

[5]     The park includes hikes and historic walks



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