Harstine Island in Mason County is the cat’s meow for people looking to get away — maybe to retire; telecommute; run a home-based business; visit a state park; or, speaking of cats, provide a quiet sanctuary for big cats like cougars and tigers.
“It’s pretty quiet out here,” said Mark Mathews, founder with his wife, Shelleen, of Wild Felid Advocacy Center, a wild cat sanctuary housing approximately 60 cats. “It’s a really good match for the cats.”
And a good match for the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 annual visitors who venture to the sanctuary for tours, which must be reserved online (wildfelids.org). The quietness makes it easier to hear the cat sounds, “hoots and howls … sometimes, growls, roars, or whatever,” Mathews chuckled. The sanctuary, which started in 2004 in Olympia and moved to Harstine Island in 2010, houses cats typically once held as pets.
Cats include two tigers approaching 300 pounds, one Bengal and one Bengal-Siberian mix; a snow leopard; African leopard; Geoffroy’s cat; cougars; bobcats; and lynx.
The sanctuary — which sits on about 25 acres, five for the cat enclosure — is open for tours three days a week and is a notable attraction on unincorporated Harstine Island. While closed during the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” emergency order in effect through May 4, the sanctuary in early April planned to begin accepting reservations online beginning May 5, in accordance with the order, Mathews said, adding the sanctuary also was in need of donations that can be made online.
Harstine’s economy includes residents working from home; a few making arts and crafts; at least one running a small farm, from which vegetables and produce are sold at a weekly farmers market; a nursery; small bakery; a few tradespeople; and visitors exploring three state parks, the most-visited being Jarrell Cove State Park, a 67-acre marine camping park. Across the cove from the park is Jarrell’s Cove Marina, with a small seasonal convenience store and fuel. Salish Seafoods operates a shellfish-processing facility on the island.
The largest neighborhood is the 215-acre gated community Hartstene Pointe, on the island’s north end, with myriad amenities.
Harstine Island commemorates Lt. Henry J. Hartstene or Hartstein (spellings of his name vary) of the U.S. Exploring Expedition under Commander Charles Wilkes in 1841, according to a Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission letter. The state officially settled on “Harstine” in 1997.
Squaxin Indians were the island’s first inhabitants, and Robert and Philura Jarrell the first settlers, in 1878, according to Sandy Murphy, who volunteers as historian for the nonprofit Harstine Island Community Club. Murphy and her husband built a vacation cabin on the island’s south end in 1980 and moved there permanently in 2005.
The Harstine Island Community Hall, built in 1914, might be the busiest place on the island, home to holiday events, plays, festivals, the Saturday farmers market, an indoor market, garden club meetings, Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau programs, weddings, and more. It was used 503 times in 2019, according to an annual island newsletter published in January and packed with information about the club’s many activities and dedicated volunteers.
“The community club is the heart of the island — that’s what we call it,” Murphy said.
If it’s the heart, a key artery was the opening, in 1969, of the only bridge to the island, a 1,466-foot span for which a 50th anniversary parade was held last year. The bridge links with E. Pickering Road, which intersects with State Route 3 northeast of Shelton. Before that, the only access was via a county ferry.
Murphy estimates 80 percent of islanders are retired, with most of the other 20 percent telecommuting and driving to work off-island.
Mason County Commissioner Randy Neatherlin, whose district includes the island, said: “They’re a very strong, independent community, which is what I love about it.”