At first glance, the meadow's contents seemed out of place. Tall evergreens, nurtured by the Northwestern climate, surrounded a field of tepees, which are characteristically a...
VASHON ISLAND At first glance, the meadow’s contents seemed out of place.
Tall evergreens, nurtured by the Northwestern climate, surrounded a field of tepees, which are characteristically a plains dwelling.
Co-manager Jake Mulhair had just finished setting up our tepee when we arrived at AYH Ranch Hostel. Our stay marked the beginning of tepee season, a warm-weather Vashon tradition that continues at the hostel through October.
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A friend and I began our journey by fighting our way through Seattle’s downtown traffic on a Friday evening, only to battle boredom in the hourlong wait for the Fauntleroy ferry. Our pulses began to slow during the water crossing. But they didn’t reach resting rates until we hit the cool, foliage-scented breezes of Vashon Island.
Finding our destination wasn’t difficult. There’s one main highway on the island.
Getting around Vashon isn’t tough, even without a car. A young couple from Seattle’s Capitol Hill, also staying in a tepee, hitched a ride back from town in a sports coupe with an island resident named Vance and his Rottweiler, Chopper. The couple, Sarah Bray and Gabriel Van Boven, squished into the sports coupe with the driver, Chopper and two other hitchhikers picked up along the way.
Van Boven characterized his Vashon visit as kind of an “Alice In Wonderland” experience.
Rest for the weary
More than hitchhiking, biking is a popular mode of transportation on Vashon, and that’s how the couple had arrived at the hostel, traversing 40 miles that sunny Saturday on single-speed bikes.
Vashon is not flat. Its terrain rises and falls in the middle of Puget Sound, between Seattle, Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula. And while the rural island, 12 miles long and eight miles across at its widest, has no mountains, the day of biking with no gears wore on the couple’s legs.
So they were ready for a rest when they stopped at a store in the town of Vashon and a clerk told them about the hostel and its tepee accommodations.
On the spur of the moment, they decided to stay the night because the tepees inspired their musings. There are covered wagons you can sleep in, too.
“During the middle of the night we were talking about, ‘Hello, could you imagine what the experience would have been like back in the day?’ ” Bray said the next morning as the couple waited to fix pancakes in the hostel’s communal kitchen. (Pancake mix was included in the price of the stay, and guests could fix as many flapjacks as they wanted if they could find the mix hiding in a cabinet under the microwave.) “We were just like ‘oh-my-gosh, being nomadic and having to carry this around with you?’ “
“I think life would have been hard living in a tepee, but it would’ve been fun nonetheless,” said Van Boven, grimacing as he sipped the dark coffee we had made, and stealing some milk from another guest’s carton. “We felt like it would have been more in-tune with nature.”
Finding home in a tepee
From inside our tepee we noticed tufted dandelion heads poking in from a gap between the ground and the canvas. The wind also sneaked inside occasionally, rustling the sides of our temporary dwelling. Later, a couple of bright yellow spiders sneaked into our clothing.
Of the 10 tepees, ours stood in a clearing, about two football fields in size, of bright green grass surrounded by firs. Twelve tall wooden poles reached up to support the canvas covering, called the “skin,” which stretched in a circle. After ducking through the entry flap, we found plenty of headroom; the tepee rose to about seven feet at its highest point.
“All the tepee poles on the land are made from the fir trees in our own woods with our own hands,” said Mulhair, who grew up at the hostel. “Everything here has been a family commitment.”
Inside our tepee, two wooden bunks sat on a cement floor. The largest tepee housed six bunks. Unlike the traditional Native American dwellings, there was no fire pit in the center, and canvas walls replaced animal skin. Indoor bathrooms close by and padded bunks made the stay more comfortable than outback camping.
Fun for all ages
That’s kind of what this place is: a summer camp for all ages.
Staying in two tepees next to us was a Girl Scout troop of five giggling 13-year-olds and two leaders from Ballard. The girls’ youthful vivacity was palpable as they did cartwheels in bikini tops and shorts in chilly 60-degree weather.
“For people who are used to living in hotels, this might be difficult, but we’re trying to help the girls learn how to have fun in any environment,” said Hope Haugen, a troop leader.
Haugen and Tara Mitchell have led their daughters’ Girl Scout troop since their kindergarten days. They try to take the girls tent-camping about three times a year. After hearing about the tepees, the two women had been waiting for an excuse to bring the troop over for a Native-American-style sleepfest where they could snooze to the sounds of frogs croaking and awaken to the twitter of birds.
They finally found a marine-nature workshop on the island for the girls to attend and planned a night at the hostel. The girls also took a ride on the large-fendered cruiser bicycles offered for free to hostel guests.
“How often do you really get a chance to stay in a tepee when you’re from the city?” asked Mitchell.
‘Favorite spot in the world’
We followed a trail that crossed the field and led into woods, to a 90-acre wildlife preserve surrounding Fisher Pond. Dodging blackberry brambles and spider webs, we soon reached the basin filled with yellow-flowering lily pads that seemed to parade across the water.
Stopping at a picnic table by the pond to rest our dew-moistened toes, we watched gnats lit golden in the morning sun.
“That’s my favorite spot in the whole world, and I’ve seen a lot of the world,” said Mulhair.
For several seasons, he lived in a tepee at the back of the hostel’s property, a short distance from his favorite site. Now 28, Mulhair remembers the hostel when it first opened 24 years ago.
“As far back as I can remember, the telephone has been ringing and people were coming to the door,” said Mulhair. “It was really exciting growing up here.”
His mother, Judy Mulhair, began the hostel as a way to retain the property after a divorce.
“My grandma does the books,” said Mulhair. “My mother is the creator. My brother and I have become the management, the fuel to keep the place going.”
They learned to erect tepees from a relative and have since expanded the concept to include four antiquated covered wagons from Fort Lewis and Eastern Washington. The wagons are single-occupant accommodations.
Though something of a cultural melange, the hostel’s tepees, totem carvings and pioneer-esque covered wagons have made a long-standing peace with each other.
“I’m amazed at how delicate the tepees are, yet strong and durable,” said Mulhair. “I just think the concept of the tepee’s circle is a very powerful element.”
On an island lulled by the slow slosh of Puget Sound waves, tepees fill a field where there should be none and most guests agree that the juxtaposition is just right.
Jennifer Lloyd: 206-464-2113 or firstname.lastname@example.org