A Sick River Offers Its Medicine: Paddling the Duwamish
February 26, 2015
These February days have been unnaturally bright and mild, inciting the early bloom of cherry blossoms, the early buzzing of bumblebees, and awakening the paddling bug. Moving water has an incredible draw for many people, myself included. There's something powerful and soothing about being near a waterway, a kind of medicine of sorts, good to ward off the ill effects of cubicles, work stress, and overly full inboxes (check out this article for an exploration into the healthful effects of proximity to water). So with only part of a day to spend on an outing, I chose a paddle trip down the Duwamish River, Seattle's backyard waterway.
The Duwamish is the continuation of the Green River. The Green River becomes the Duwamish where it crosses under I-405 down near Southcenter until it dumps into the Puget Sound, embracing both sides of Harbor Island on its way, a distance of some 10 river miles. For much of that length the Duwamish is an industrial waterway, and industry has not been kind to the river. Now a superfund cleanup site, the river's history is one of overt and toxic abuse. Paddling the river provides for a study in decay, one illustration after another of a natural resource stripped bare of its cleanliness and beauty.
So why paddle it?
The answer is because, alongside the decay of the Duwamish, you can see the resilience of both the natural world and the beginnings of recovery. The story of the Duwamish isn't finished, and maybe by spending a day with this river I get to play a part, however small, in the next chapters of its story. And in spite of the ravaged state of the river the Duwamish is still ready to offer the powerful medicine of moving water. Below find a description of the route along with images and thoughts collected along the way.
The Duwamish can be paddled in segments, as there are lots of places of entry/exit along its course. Some even put in near the mouth and paddle up and back, rather than deal with the logistics of shuttling from a put-in and take out. The Duwamish is a tidal river, affected greatly by the ebb and flow of Puget Sound, however, which can create strong river currents when the tide is receding.
Fort Dent is a park devoted to soccer -- the home of the Seattle Sounders training facility and a goodly collection of recreational sports fields. It's also surrounded by an oxbow of the Duwamish. There isn't a good boat launch at Fort Dent, but it's quite possible to slide a canoe into the water under the overpass that enters the park. Probably not a spot to launch that spotless cedar-stripped outfit, but an aluminimum craft doesn't seem to mind the dings. Given the miles between put-in and take-out, arranging for a shuttle is helpful. In my case, my lovely and capable wife drove me to the put-in, and would collect me 2 1/2 hours later at the take-out.
The Upper Duwamish
The upper Duwamish can, in the right light, show the paddler a little bit of its old beauty. Industry is at least beyond the banks of the river here, though sometimes looming close.
In one bend of the river wooded banks, geese, and kingfishers. In the next bend, maybe something less photogenic...
I moved a collection of Canadian geese down the river for a couple of miles, collecting a few more on each bend.
..until they finally took off for somewhere with fewer canoes. On this morning I think they could have gone pretty much anywhere. I didn't encounter one other canoe or kayak all day.
Perhaps you recall Ratty from The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” A river rat will be a river rat, as this riverside home attests.
Casting a gaze back upstream, squinting into the sunlight, the upper Duwamish could almost pass for a cared-for urban waterway, like the Spokane River, perhaps. A waterside parkway offering an ever-renewing vista to its neighbors. I think part of the struggle of the Duwamish is that people don't generally see it. It's tucked away in hard to reach, or even off-limits, places.
While eddying out below this footbridge I was spyed on by a harbor seal. The seals make their way upstream to feed on all sorts of things, and to investigate the occasional pleasure craft.
Old pylons for a long lost bridge. There are lots of places along the river where the relics of human activity still stand, long after the activity itself has gone away.
Look carefully and you might find the two bald eagles in the trees ahead. Eagles, kingfishers, herons, geese, cormorants -- a goodly variety of bird life can be observed tucked in between the cement plants and rail cars.
The Lower Duwamish
The river opens up, and its industrial nature becomes explicit. No longer does industry perch just beyond its shores, but instead looms over the current, projects out into the river itself, even defines the very banks of the waterway.
Frequently chain link and razor wire define the edge of the river, where factories, warehouses, and loading bays crowd the shore. But consistently, almost in every mile of the river, I saw people standing as close as they could, taking in the river and its surroundings. Even through chain link fences the river offers its medicine to people.
I also still found wildlife, in what seemed like unlikely places. Search this picture for several geese, standing at the edge of the bank, who got nervous while I floated quietly by but otherwise seemed perfectly at ease with the noisy gypsum plant behind them.
The Take Out
I reached the take-out at the Diagonal Way Public Shore Access point almost four hours after setting off from Fort Dent. The tide was low, so I had to carry the boat and gear some 20 steps from the waterline up to a small grassy park, tucked away between the Army Corps of Engineers campus and a collection of pier warehouses.
Seattle actually has a really amazing variety of urban and near urban paddling experiences available. For my outing I was choosing between Lake Washington, Lake Union, a Puget Sound Paddle from Golden Gardens, and Green Lake, to name a few. Expand the map a little bit and the Samammish River comes into play, the Green River, and many other easily accessible and novice-friendly waterways. Spending time on the water is immensely satisfying. This is something you can do on a free morning or afternoon, solo or with a group, without a lot of drive-time. It's always good practice to research a trip before getting the boat wet (read this tale of woe as an illustration of this point), and of course to practice good water safety. Lots of resources are available online: check out the Paddle Trails Canoe Club, or Trails.com. There's a definitive guidebook for Washington State: Paddling Washington.
The Duwamish would benefit from more visitors -- people who come to care for the river and its future. There is a coalition of such folks, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, effectively advocating for the waterway. Perhaps someday more people will get their river medicine from the Duwamish. It's certainly ready to offer it.