A Gift of the Glaciers
Swan Lake is a rare estuarine wetland left behind by the glaciers that once covered Whidbey Island and much of Puget Sound. For thousands of years it was a coastal lagoon, fed by upland fresh-water runoff and connected to the saltwater by an outlet stream. The lake and watershed helped sustain more than 100 species of birds, many mammals, fish and native plants.

Native Americans
Native Americans of northern Puget Sound traveled to seasonal camps on the west side of Whidbey Island to gather fish, shellfish, berries and useful materials. One well-known seasonal camp was located in the Cranberry Lake sand dunes area of Deception Pass State Park, a few miles north of Swan Lake. Another is reported to have been on the eastern shores of Swan Lake, according to accounts passed down from the now-deceased engineer and historian, Mr. Sandusky, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sandusky’s name is preserved today on the Sandusky Plat (Happy Lane).

Settlers and Farmers
In the mid-1800s European and American settlers began arriving on Whidbey Island. Here, as elsewhere around Puget Sound, many farmers favored the marshy, lowland areas along the shoreline for agriculture. To drain the wetlands they built dikes, ditches and tide-gates, and installed pumps.

Land sale ad, circa 1910

Draining the Lake
At Swan Lake the earliest known historical map is an 1871 T-sheet of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (click to view), to which color later was added to more clearly show surrounding vegetation. The earliest known report of efforts to drain the lake was a brief mention in the Island County Sun of July 11, 1891, that J.S. Metzler of Swantown had finished installing 200 rods of underground ditches to drain a marsh (click to view) . An 1891 map of the Plat of Juanita was modified sometime prior to about 1910 to show the addition of a “sluice” (click to view) at the end of a ditch at the current location of the tide gate. The term formerly was used to indicate a tide gate.

Dairy Farming
The first dairy farm at Swan Lake was started by Peter Bos, who emigrated from Holland to the Dakotas in the early 1880s and then continued west to Whidbey Island. Swan Lake originally was known as Bos Lake, in his honor. Chuck Bos, Peter’s grandson, was born in 1915 and shared his memories of early farming and tide gates in this 2009 interview with GayLynn Beighton (click to view). Farming at Swan Lake continued until the 1970s, when it was no longer economically sustainable. Since then, the lake has been returning gradually to a more natural state.

1871 T-sheet1871 map. Dark green band (added later) highlights saltmarsh vegetation, indicating likelihood of tidal exchange. Click to enlarge.

What We Know Now
Now, more than a century after the first efforts to drain Swan Lake and other places like it, fisheries biologists understand we need coastal estuaries because they provide critical nearshore habitat for juvenile salmon and other marine fish. Such habitat helped sustain the large salmon runs that once supported a thriving commercial fishing industry as well as recreational fishing. Estuaries provide places for salmon to adjust their metabolism to the marine environment while feeding on insects and taking refuge from larger predators. Wetlands provide precious habitat for many species of birds, plants and other wildlife, and help recharge our aquifer.

Reclaiming the Wetland
In 1999, Island County purchased Swan Lake and surrounding property with Conservation Futures funds for wetland and wildlife habitat, storm water and flood control, low-impact and minimally developed parkland, and low-impact recreation. It is now designated a Habitat of Local Importance. It is a refuge for more than 100 species of birds – one seventh of all birds found in the entire nation, according to Whidbey Audubon Society. Otters frolic while eagles and herons soar overhead. Sunset Beach is only footsteps away. The nearby Joseph Whidbey State Park to the north and wooded lands to the south combine to create a refuge and habitat for many rare plants and animals. Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group are looking into the feasibility of restoring an enhanced tidal connection to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Swan Lake, 2008