As the sun rises over Gig Harbor, sailboat masts and stately evergreens stretch toward the sky. The pale outline of Mount Rainier is sketched into the horizon. Within the serene setting, two redheaded boys carry a rail-thin kayak to the public dock for an early paddle. In this Washington community, locals don't want to waste a minute of the new day.
"We wake up every morning to incredible beauty―the mountains and rippling harbor. You never take it for granted," says Janis Denton, owner of the Waterfront Inn. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, she says, "creates a psychological break from the rest of the world. We will always stay peaceful because of the surrounding water."
Geography has long defined the town's identity. For more than 100 years, fishing, boatbuilding, logging, and farming dominated life in Gig Harbor. This place once boasted the largest fishing fleet in the Pacific Northwest. Today, many descendants of original Croatian settlers still own and operate the barnacle-encrusted vessels and net sheds lining the shore.
Born and raised here, fisherman/photographer Guy Hoppen takes pride in the area's maritime past. "A lot of guys I went to school with couldn't wait to get out, but that thought never occurred to me," he says. "I'm still very connected with the water. I want to make sure Gig Harbor retains its nautical character."
Citizens support conserving both the marina and the town center. A sign outside No Dearth of Books reads, "Shopping the Internet is easy and convenient, but it does nothing to fix Gig Harbor potholes." With the recent addition of a megastore center to the north, some worried the populace would abandon the historic district. But with improved sidewalks, beds of tulips, and two new parks that preserve open space, the downtown stays viable and fun.
"Everyone loves to get involved," says resident Jennifer Kilmer. "During the Fourth of July parade, there are more people marching than watching." It's small enough for everyone to know each other, she adds, "but there are enough new people for the town to feel welcoming."