Friday, February 17, 2012

Wilkes Provides the Answer to the Wooden Towers at Discovery Bay and Dungeness

View across the entrance of Discovery Bay from the Strait of Juan De Fuca

In 1792, George Vancouver sailed his ship into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and then into the bay that is now named for his ship, the Discovery. Vancouver observed wooden towers at Discovery Bay and at Dungeness Spit, west of Discovery Bay but he was unable to determine their purpose. Over 50 years later Berthold Seeman (flattery-rocks-berthold-seamann and quotes-from-narrative-of-voyage-of-hms ) sailing on the HMS Herald observed the same towers at Discovery Bay. If there are any remnants of those towers today, I have not observed them, but having done a fair bit of work along the shores of Discovery Bay I was curious about the purpose of these mysterious towers as well.
Charles Wilkes had followed Vancouver's route in 1841, sailing from Hawaii to the Oregon Country. He anchored in Discovery Bay and spent several days exploring. His expedition was charged with gathering information on the Oregon Country. The information was needed by Congress and the President, who were engaged in negotiations with Great Britain as to how the Oregon Country would be divided between the two nations. Wilkes spent a fair bit of time assessing the large bay as a potential port.

His initial reaction was very positive. The bay was large and appeared to be sheltered by Protection Island located at its entrance. The down side was it was deep with abrupt shores, not a very safe setting for sailing ships. Like Seeman, Wilkes described the First Nations people living in Discovery Bay as being in a rather miserable condition.
A land party described travel as nearly impossible, due to the thick vegetation and many downed trees. They observed no wildlife other than birds. I find this description interesting because today the forest around Discovery Bay is reasonably open. It is an area that becomes very dry in the summer, so it is surprising to hear that it was heavily vegetated at that time. This would suggest that when Wilkes was there, burning was not a common practice, or that burning had been discontinued.
But back to the wood towers, which Wilkes observed as well. The local Discovery Bay native people explained that the towers were used to string nets across area where birds would fly. During the night, they would frighten the geese and ducks, flushing the birds from their nocturnal rest. The birds would then fly into the nets where they could be captured quite easily.      
View of Discovery Bay entrance looking to the northwest from above Becket Point

Becket Point with backwater estuary. Perhaps a good place for bird catching net towers.

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