On May 9, 1792, while HMS Discovery was anchored just north of Nodule Point on the east side of Marrowstone Island, some of her crew rowed around the south end of the island and noticed a grove of large oak trees.
“In consequence of this valuable discovery,” wrote Captain George Vancouver, “the place obtained the name Oak Cove.”*
The name of this secluded bay was changed to Oak Bay in 1847, but it is possible some of the same trees observed more than 200 years ago are still alive today. If you look to your right just before crossing below the new bridge from Indian Island to Marrowstone Island, you can see these historic trees spreading their gnarled branches across the sky and over the bay.
A century after Vancouver and his crew passed through the area, one of Port Townsend’s native sons, James McCurdy, wrote that “Scattered trees dotted Kah Tai valley…” Most likely these were Garry oaks, which often grow in of camas prairies throughout the region.
Recognizing the rarity of these trees in our area, Marrowstone residents Janet Welch and Willi Smothers took on the ambitious project of planting oak seedlings along Jefferson County’s Isthmus Trail west of Kilisut Harbor. This spring, they planted more than 90 young Garry oaks, providing each a couple handfuls of mulch, a protective wire cage, a bit of flagging and a soak of fresh water.
“We were very inspired by the Elwha Dam restoration project in Olympic National Park a few years ago,” Smothers said. He and Welch spent more than 60 days as volunteers on the Elwha project, working in the greenhouses to propagate native plants and helping plant them in the old reservoir beds.
“That was mission number one for us,” Welch said with a smile. “Helping to restore Garry oaks is mission number two.”
Before Welch and Smothers began fostering oak seedlings, they noticed saplings growing along the roadsides, but the few that were there had been repeatedly mowed by roadside brush cutters. They carefully transplanted about a dozen of the saplings to safer places where they could grow beneath their parent trees. A couple of years later, they noticed hundreds of acorns scattered on the road and hatched the idea to gather some and grow them in pots at home to help restore the grove. Another batch will be ready to plant out after the Kilisut Harbor bridge project is completed next winter.
Garry oak, also known as Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), is the only native oak tree found in Washington state. Some live more than 500 years and grow more than 100 feet tall. In 1839, the species was named after Nicholas Garry, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company and was a friend of Pacific Northwest botanist David Douglas.
Throughout their natural range, from Northern California to British Columbia, the oak woodlands that existed during Vancouver’s voyage have declined to less than 15% of what they were prior to the 1850s. More than 80% of the remaining wild Garry oak groves are on private property.
Habitat loss, cutting for firewood and heavy cattle grazing contributed to the loss of Garry oaks. Another factor that added to their demise is fire suppression, since without frequent fire intervals of two to 10 years, Douglas fir forest will quickly take over oak and prairie landscapes. Native people who once harvested acorns and camas bulbs for food kept the groves healthy for thousands of years by setting fires in the fall after plants had gone to seed.
Although setting fires on Indian Island is not part of their restoration plan, Smothers and Welch hope their efforts will make a difference to ensure there will still be oaks along the shores of Oak Bay in another 100 years.
“Mission number three? We would like to be part of the restoration team in Snake River Valley when those dams come down,” Welch said. Garry oaks just might be included in that plan if their dream comes true.
If you have room in your yard, you too can make a difference by planting young oak seedlings or saplings. In just a couple of decades, you or your children can relax in their shade. The Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society on Whidbey Island has a guide to growing and planting oaks. Learn how at their website.
You can also experience the majesty of an historic grove of Garry oaks on the south Kitsap Peninsula at Oak Patch Natural Area Preserve.
* From Vancouver’s Voyage Round the World, Vol. II, pp. 80-81.