This map shows the portion of Washington state that was coverde in ice thousands of years ago.

Our Icy Past: | Kitsap Naturally

Imagine not having to wait in ferry lines to cross Puget Sound. About 17,000 years ago, we could have simply walked across it (assuming we were skilled ice climbers), because there WAS no Puget Sound.

Back then, our entire area lay smothered below a massive sheet of ice which had bulldozed its way south from Canada to cover all of our present day neighborhoods.

Called the “Puget Lobe,” it rose over 3,000 feet where Seattle’s skyscrapers huddle (that’s over 2,000 feet above the city’s tallest building, the Columbia Center.)

Most Olympic and Cascade Mountain peaks on either side were barely visible above the frosty blanket. As the ice crept over northwest Washington, the gravel, rocks and boulders it carried at its base relentlessly ground away at the terrain below.

Eventually, thanks to a gradually warming planet, the Big Thaw began. As the frozen barrier retreated over the next few thousand years, the mighty Pacific Ocean rolled in through an ice and boulder-carved trench to form the Strait of Juan de Fuca; at the same time, ocean waters filled up another gouge running northward into British Columbia: the Strait of Georgia.

These two water bodies, along with our own Puget Sound, are collectively known today as the Salish Sea.

The name is derived from the Coast Salish people who occupied these shores long before George Vancouver arrived with his tall ships in 1791 and bravely charted numerous salty byways without benefit of Global Positioning Satellites, or even a decent set of charts (a true “Captain Courageous!)

Today, these waters are heavily traveled by cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats, tankers and all sorts of pleasure craft from giant yachts to kayaks and canoes.

But what about the land itself? Once the ice melted, a big weight was finally lifted; Kitsap County and adjacent areas rebounded slowly, rising hundreds of feet to expose the lands we now occupy.

And by the way, because that ice sheet left so much sediment behind, we have a wealth of sand and mud beaches in the Sound. If you should overfly the area, you’ll notice very few rugged rocky shores.

I have friends and relatives back east who’ve never been west; they assume Seattle is perched right on the Pacific Ocean (which is actually 95 odd miles to the west of the city.)

These folks have never heard of Puget Sound, our little “inland sea.” Little do they know of the (usually) peaceful, labyrinthine waters that surround us, including narrow passageways, canals, bays and inlets, as well as islands large and small.

Kitsap County narrowly missed being a large island itself, except for a skinny land bridge at the southern end near Belfair, connecting us with the rest of mainland Washington State.

Thus have the forces of moving ice influenced the topography we live on: where we build, where rivers empty into the Sound, where wetlands lie, where harbors provide safe haven, where fish return upstream to spawn. Our unique water wonderland may be one of the country’s best kept secrets. (I won’t tell if you won’t.) Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re privileged to live in a special marine environment, carved by ancient ice. Especially today, these natural surroundings deserve our most careful stewardship.

Next: A world beneath our waters

— Nancy Sefton is a writer, photographer and artist who is active in the Great Peninsula Conservancy. She writes about the natural wonders of Kitsap County monthly for Kitsap Weekly. You can reach her by emailing

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