The birth of Puget Sound

Ever wonder what our region looked like in the distant past, before there was nary a human being around (much less a McDonald’s)? There was life here, the likes of saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and the odd dinosaur, that crossed the ancient land bridge from Siberia. Traffic was pretty heavy then; be glad you weren’t around.

But more excitement was to come. First, consider today’s labyrinthine waters (all those lakes, channels, inlets, bays, streams and such). In the early 1900s, a scientist named Harlan Bretz suspected that ice was the perpetrator … tons of it. As he traveled the region, he discovered evidence of an ancient ice sheet that left its mark at high altitudes. Bretz surmised that about 17,000 years ago, a massive glacier bulldozed its way south from Canada to lie across our region. The ice rose 3,000 feet (that’s 2,000 feet ABOVE Seattle’s Columbia Center building!) so deep that it nearly covered the Olympic and Cascade peaks on either side. But its most significant feature lay underneath: loads of gravel, rocks and boulders, natural grinding tools that reshaped the terrain below.

The glacier crept down to Olympia before it finally surrendered to the Big Thaw. The ice then beat a gradual retreat, leaving us with Puget Sound and dozens of fresh and saltwater byways. But the story isn’t over yet. During the next few thousand years, the Pacific Ocean slowly penetrated our region through an ice-carved trench we call the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another giant gouge, stretching northward, filled in to become the Strait of Georgia, up north in British Columbia. Combined with Puget Sound, these 3 water bodies are today known as the Salish Sea, after the Salish people who occupied and navigated these convoluted shores long before George Vancouver arrived with his tall ships in 1791.

Without the weight of all that ice, the land slowly rebounded, rising hundreds of feet. And if you’ve ever wondered why our shores display mostly sand and mud, think of all that sediment created by the glacier as it slowly abraded the rocky terrain below.

Throughout this upheaval, Kitsap County narrowly missed being an island; there’s still that skinny land bridge at the south end near Belfair, conveniently connecting us with the rest of mainland Washington.

Today, much about us is influenced by the ice sheet that shaped our land: where we build, where creeks and streams meet the Sound, where wetlands lie, where harbors provide safe haven, where fish go upstream to spawn.

In a clam shell, that’s the story of our “inland sea” and adjacent waterways. Not a bad place to live today, but these labyrinthine waterways deserve our careful stewardship, especially these days. Fortunately, cleaning up Puget Sound, reducing pollution of many kinds, is on the state’s agenda now that funding has been forthcoming for this major undertaking.

The most similar waterway in the U.S. may be the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern seaboard. But I’ll just bet that area never hosted saber-toothed tigers, dinosaurs and those awesome woolly mammoths!