- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

CAMANO ISLAND, Wash. (AP) - There was talk of a splashing storm on the horizon, with a sunny morning masking the stiff winds to come. And still I came. I visited Cama Beach State Park in late November, well past the season of beach balls and sandals.

The stories I had heard. There were the vacationers in November who were awakened at 3 a.m. to a whale breathing near their beachfront cabins.

There were the 17 juvenile bald eagles perched on a fir, taking turns diving into the water to practice fishing. “They were right in front of the cabins,” said state park ranger Jeff Wheeler.

How could I not book a cabin after that?

Cabins can rent for as little as $53 a night at the state park in the offseason, much cheaper than in the summer tourist season. Here’s the other benefit: You pretty much have the place to yourself, and fewer human visitors means that birds, seals and deer roam more freely. Your chance of seeing wildlife increases.

When this former fishing resort looks like a ghost town, “the animals feel safer,” said ranger Wheeler, who lives near the park. “At six or seven in the morning, there are bald eagles. At first light, they will chatter up a storm. Great blue herons will fish in the shallows of the eelgrass. They will walk around in a couple inches of water.”

Short drive away

Cama Beach State Park sits on the southwest shore of Camano Island, about an hour and 15 minute drive from Seattle or the Eastside.

The main draw is the park’s 33 cabins and bungalows, many so close to the Saratoga Passage saltwater that the windows catch spray during a wicked storm.

It’s a 432-acre park, though in summer hardly anyone wanders more than a few hundred yards from their cabin. Why bother when you have views across the water to Whidbey Island and, beyond that, the snowcapped Olympic Mountains? To the north stands Orcas Island’s Mount Constitution, its peak visible even on a cloudy day.

A few feet away is an outpost of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, where during the tourist season families rent motorboats, sailboats, kayaks and rowboats for fun on the water, or to go crabbing, or to take a lazy paddle along the beach.

Savvy vacationers book up to nine months in advance to snag a cabin during summer.

But come winter, many cabins are vacant. If you don’t mind the clouds and the cold, it’s a quiet, cheap getaway. And if the weather turns, just drag a chair up to your window with a cup of tea and storm-watch from your heated cabin. The crashing waves and whistling winds can be mesmerizing.

Under eagle eyes

I caught Cama on a clear morning. I dropped my bag and firewood on my front porch and wandered while the sun was generous. I saw park ranger Tom Riggs and asked: “You see any birds today?”

“Well, turn around,” he said, pointing up. Sure enough, there were two perched bald eagles eyeing the water from a towering Douglas fir.

Unlike the 17 juvenile eagles, these big birds didn’t look as if they needed any practice fishing.

Along the nearby Cranberry Lake Trail, I saw more deer than people, and if you’re patient enough, you might catch a glimpse of a beaver outside two dens.

But no whale sightings for me. Maybe you’ll have better luck. In winter, orca pods gobble up chinook during the salmon run through Saratoga Passage. From late February to May, gray whales feast on ghost shrimp that burrow in the mud along these beaches.

“I’ve seen (gray whales) as close as 40 feet” from the cabins, ranger Wheeler said.

5 miles of trails

The park has about five miles of trails, a network of short, dirt paths. Cranberry Lake Trail, about 1.5-miles round trip, is the longest. The best trail, on the north end, is the mile-long Marine View Loop, with three viewpoints where you can peer between madronas and firs from atop a 90-foot cliff.

The beach is blessed with surf smelt, Pacific herring and sand lance, which is why you might see pigeon guillemots, double-crested cormorants, ospreys, great blue herons, eagles and other birds hovering over the water.

If bird watching is not your thing, take the Cross Island Trail, which connects to nearby Camano Island State Park and its seven miles of trails.

Even with a map, the Camano Island State Park trailheads and connectors can be difficult to navigate. There aren’t enough trail markers and kiosks. But it’s only a 134-acre camping park; it’s hard to get lost or stray too far from the streets.

I took the West Rim Trail along the bluff down to the beach, with views of an icy-blue Lowell Point along the way. On a hunch, I took Roy Trail and then veered toward the bluff and was rewarded with scenic views of Elger Bay.

But the best part of Cama Beach was in front of my cabin. Saratoga Passage was my front yard. The air smelled of salt and shells. When the sky turned pitch-black at 6, I just piled logs on the fire pit, roasted some salmon, sipped a beer and listened to the crackling fire and the hum of the wind. It’s not a bad way to spend an evening. Not bad at all.

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The original story can be found on The Seattle Times’ website: https://bit.ly/13rnkgy

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Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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