Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
The southern end of the long curving sweep of the Birch Bay coastline ends at sharply formed Point Whitehorn. At only a little more than a mile from Birch Bay State Park, it offers a short pleasant paddle destination as well as the potential for an interesting low tide beach walk. Besides observing a different habitat and associated wildlife, the opportunity to search for an obscure but fascinating historical feature makes a visit to this point something out of the ordinary.
From the State Park, the low sand and gravel upland above the beach gradually gains elevation and steepness while the rocks, appearing to rise out of the falling tide, become more numerous. Along the way a gradual shift in marine life can be seen. The shallow relatively warmed waters of the bay give way to the chilly clear waters of the Strait of Georgia. The rock surfaces are also responsible for the change in marine life. Adding vertical structure and a hard substrate they create an entirely different habitat for sedentary plants and animals and the life forms that feed on them. The birds are the most apparent foragers along this part of coast. Troops of shorebirds patrol the mudflats when they appear while just offshore compact groups of birds called rafts ride the waves. Not only is the wildlife observation good but depending on the tide and recent erosion, low-lying ruins of ship wrecks can sometimes be seen. Some craft were lost following collisions with the rocks that you now weave through; others suffered different fates and simply drifted to this part of the bay before grounding in the shallow water and settling in the mud.
Reaching the actual point, the upland has risen to a vertical wall of glacial and outwash deposits of sand and gravel. From the foot of this bluff and extending into the Strait, a rock garden of boulders extends outward eventually disappearing beneath the waves. The marine life to be found here is abundant and often colorful making use of the rock substrate not extensively available in the bay. Here too, artifacts mostly in the form of rusty pieces of boat engines and even truck frames may be found, deeply settled in the eroded sand and gravel that has weathered out of the nearby bluff. While neither ancient nor rare their appearance gives a little mystery to this location.
The origin of the name of this point, Whitehorn, seems obvious; a hornlike projection from a prominent headland with surf polished startling white glacial erratics to be found along the beach. Yet despite the obvious, the point and surrounding area were named not for its natural features but for a young gunner’s mate, Daniel Whitehorn, a member of a government exploring expedition of 1841.
Located not far from the north end of Point Whitehorn is an obscure and extremely difficult to find reminder of another expedition, the historic 1858 Survey of the Coast. When mapping the coastline, reference points for sighting had to be established. Today these would typically have a bronze medallion fixed into rock or concrete but at that time they were simply a small hole drilled into a rock which held a thin flagged stick allowing it to be sighted from either side of the point. If attempting to find this, look for a ½ inch hole drilled into a flattish non-descript rock about two feet square and only about a foot high (see map point indicated, this article). Not as dramatic as you might have expected for such a seemingly important location. Be aware that snails are attracted to this hole and may congregate there making it even more difficult to find.
If you’ve arrived on foot from the State Park, make sure you return the same way you came and before the tide rises. All the uplands on this side of the point are private and must not be accessed. Around the point a segment of private tidelands and the potential for entrapment by rising tides are reasons enough to avoid going that way. If you’d like a longer outing, consider walking the country roads and short greenways trails over to the Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve and public trail (see article this website). For paddlers you have more choices. Continuing around the point it’s only about another mile of paddling to the Reserve however consider the sea and weather conditions as well as the tidal currents before committing to rounding the point. A strong tidal rip can form just off the point and the typically protected and calm conditions of the bay are often in contrast to the windy and exposed southern side of the point.
Point Whitehorn is located about a mile south of Birch Bay State Park (see article this website) on the northwestern coastline of Whatcom County.
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San Juan Islands