Home > Garden, History, Travel > Beautiful Bloedel Reserve

Beautiful Bloedel Reserve

We’ve been getting out of the house a bit more than usual lately, thanks to our Glaswegian house guests. I’ve already written about attending a Mariners game two Fridays ago and an Amos Lee concert at the Seattle Center the next day. Last Wednesday we were off to the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island.

The Reserve, in the words of its mission statement, “is an internationally renowned public garden whose primary mission is to provide a tranquil and refreshing experience of nature. The Reserve’s 150 acres are a unique blend of natural woodlands and beautifully landscaped gardens, including a Japanese Garden, a Moss Garden, and Reflection Pool, and the Bloedel’s former estate home.” It is on the northern edge of Bainbridge Island, not far at all. Just take the ferry from downtown Seattle to the island, a 35-minute ride, then drive about 6 miles and you’re there. For no good reason that I can think of, I had never been to it before. Gail had, once. Reservations were once required, but no longer.

The Bloedel name is big around these parts, the family having established one of the continent’s major timber companies. Julius Bloedel and partners began buying timber land in British Columbia a century ago. In 1951, his son Prentice oversaw the merger of the company with HR MacMillan to form MacMillan Bloedel. Their plan in the 1990s to clearcut large tracts of land on Vancouver Island led to a major environmental battle that had them in the news regularly. In 1999, Weyerheuser took them over.

It’s Prentice who, with his wife Virginia, bought the property on Bainbridge in 1951 that became the reserve. They were also major arts patrons in the region, a tradition carried on by their daughter Virginia (Bloedel) Wright and her husband Bagley Wright. (I wrote in March about the Wright Exhibition Space, a small gallery east of the Seattle Center that hosts occasional shows curated by Virginia Wright and showing some of their famous art collection. Bagley Wright, one of the builders of the Space Needle, has also been a long-time supporter of the Seattle Repertory Theater.) The Reserve’s website recounts some of its history:

The Bloedel Reserve was created by Prentice Bloedel and his wife, Virginia, who resided on the property from 1951 until 1986. . . . He took an early retirement from the MacMillan Bloedel Timber Company in 1950 to devote the balance of his life to the creation of the gardens of what is now The Bloedel Reserve. Although he was advised by and worked with noted landscape architects, including Thomas Church, Richard Haag, Fujitaro Kubota, and Iain Robertson, the overall vision for The Reserve’s gardens was his alone.

Prentice Bloedel was a pioneer in renewable resources and sustainability. He was the first to use sawdust as a fuel to power his company’s mills. He replanted clear cut areas, and started a company that marketed fireplace logs made from sawdust. He also was deeply interested in the relationship between people and the natural world, and the power of landscape to evoke emotions ranging from tranquility to exhilaration. Indeed, some believe that due to his early school experiences and his bout with polio as a young man, Prentice Bloedel may have been ahead of his time in his understanding of the therapeutic power of gardens and landscape.

We took the 9:35 ferry on Wednesday, reaching the reserve around 10:25. With cars parked, admission paid, and maps provided, we headed off on the recommended walking route through the reserve. Our walk took the very two hours that the guide suggests. We could easily have spent longer, but lunch beckoned. Plus, our friends had plans to push on to Port Townsend for an overnight outing and we, as newly joined members, anticipated many more visits to the reserve, so the basic overview walk was sufficient for the day.

You can get a sense of the walk by going to the reserve’s on-line map here. The starting point is near the upper left corner, by the white expanse that is the parking lot. One heads south through the meadow to the bird refuge, then north through the woods to the road, then east to the visitor center (the Bloedel home), from which there are backyard views across the small arm of Puget Sound known as Port Madison to the Indianola area on Kitsap Peninsula to the north and across the main body of Puget Sound eastwards to what must be Shoreline, just north of Seattle. Next, down past the waterfall overlook, around to the glen, across to the Japanese Garden, through the moss garden, then back south past the reflection garden and back into the meadow for the return to the parking lot.

Most striking is how varied the different sections of the reserve are. At times, you feel lost in a northwest rain forest. And then there’s the formal Japanese Garden. Ponds, a reflecting pool. Open views, tall trees with dense undergrowth and nurse logs. One reason to return frequently is to focus each visit on a different portion of the reserve, allowing time to absorb its details and mood. Another reason, of course, is to enjoy the seasonal changes.

The 14-minute video from 2008 gives a good sense of the reserve, as well as allowing us to meet the Bloedel family and learn more of the reserve’s history. You’ll see the guest house, once used for family visits, along with the swimming pool that has since been replaced by a Zen garden designed by Koichi Kawana. (And by the way, it’s not just any swimming pool. It’s the pool where Theodore Roethke, poet and former UW faculty member, died on a visit in 1963. His Seattle home is a short ways south of us. We looked at it years ago when we were house shopping and it was on the market.)

If — like me a week ago — you are in the area but have never been to the reserve, don’t wait any longer. Go. It’s a magical place.

Categories: Garden, History, Travel
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