Duwamish Waterway

Urban Biology Lesson


My wooden canoe paddle cuts silently through the liquid surface on this summer day in Seattle, Washington. But it seems that this tool of mine is the only soundless one for miles around. Overhead a jet airplane roars into a clear blue sky. In front of our small group of paddlers a tugboat growls as it hauls a barge filled with gravel. Behind us freeway traffic hums across the West Seattle bridge. The sounds of industry and Pacific Rim Empire surround us in this most unlikely of paddling destinations.


At first glance Seattle's Duwamish Waterway reminds me of a science fiction story that fascinated me as a child. The entire earth has been paved over and filled in with concrete. The last forests have long ago been loaded into climate controlled deep space museums just in case humanity decides once again to embrace its living heritage. But upon closer inspection of our surroundings a more recent Sci-Fi flick comes to mind. In Jurassic Park, the chaos theorist character makes a strong case for nature's ability to “find a way.” And that is exactly what we discover when we get up close and personal with this concrete framed river. The signs of life, aquatic, terrestrial, and airborne are here, despite the alien conditions.


The waters of the Duwamish originate as the Green River, which drains the slopes of Mt. Rainier, visible on the SE horizon from the metropolis of Seattle. In times gone by another river, the Black, which flowed from Lake Washington, joined the Green and the resulting flow was given the name of the native Americans who lived on it’s shores before the white man arrived – Duwamish. Now both the Black River and the Duwamish people have nearly passed into history. It is at this point that the Duwamish meets the industrial core of Seattle. The meandering S-turns of the natural river course have been straightened by engineers to accommodate the smooth flow of goods to and from the Pacific Ocean. And it is here that we find ourselves exploring the heart of a major artery of commerce in this port city.


Our put-in was near the Duwamish Head in Elliott Bay, western boundary of Seattle’s high-rise downtown district. Paddling into the mouth of the Duwamish, we immediately encounter massive container ships tied up below tall, bright orange cranes, loading and unloading containers from Asian ports of call. To our left lies Harbor Island, created specifically for catering to the cargo vessels. At first it is a shock to our environmentalist leanings, but we are paddling, after all, and the pace of the paddle helps us to embrace this water. For a while all we can see is the human matrix surrounding us. It seems that there is a break-in period that must be passed before we can settle down to observing this river for what it is and release our preconceived notions. Certainly, the obvious signs of pollution are not helpful in this regard. Decades of industrial refuse line the shore. Concrete slabs, rusted cable, blobs of cream-colored goo from who knows where. 

But soon we begin to see the signs of nature in adaptation mode and it has a calming effect. Life is not abundant, as it is in other western Washington river deltas, but we now realize that it is here in greater numbers than one might imagine. A Kingfisher patrols the shoreline, reminding us out loud that we are visiting his property. A mud bank reveals generations of clams. Songbirds flit among the thorny brambles. Tiny footprints of several species of small mammal trace an early morning foray along the mudbank. Small fish leap from the water, literally achieving escape velocity. Jet-black cormorants dry their extended wings in the sun. A large raft of ducks murmurs quietly, deciding on their next destination. Science fact among the human jumble.


In the middle of the slow flowing water, a vision from a greener past appears beyond our bows, an island covered with nothing but trees. Kellogg Island is a stopping off point for birds connecting the green dots in a concrete landscape. Several Blue Herons line the island’s shore, monitoring their comfort zone, ready to croak into the air should we come too close. I am reminded that the lower Duwamish has been the regular home to a colony of these seemingly prehistoric birds for many years. Kellogg Island is a welcome anomaly and we admire the forethought of the city officials and citizens that made it possible.


Paddling out from under a low bridge we look above us to see a row of fishermen with lines curving to the water. Moments later our question about their quarry is answered. A few feet from the gunwales of our canoe a startlingly large sea lion thrashes to the surface with a salmon between its toothy jaws. He flips the big fish around to the head-first position and swallows it whole. Two, three, and four salmon consumed in rapid succession. A swarm of seagulls collects the scraps and we take note that during this marine mammal fishing clinic not a single human fisherman’s line so much as quivers. Humans seem to me, in this moment, to be a very poor fishing species indeed. Mano a mano there is no comparison to be made.


It is only at the level of the river that we are able to see that life has maintained a foothold here. From a larger craft or a shorebound viewpoint, the subtleties of a river such as this are simply not as immediate and in many cases completely invisible. Our human powered craft allow us to approach the massive ships and the cautious herons with equal stealth. 


We did not find wilderness on the Duwamish and my visit to its waters has not softened my views about the abuses humans perpetrate upon the natural world. But precisely because of the juxtaposition of the industrial Duwamish and the wild animals that choose to adapt and live there, I have gained a perspective and an appreciation I otherwise might never have found. I will now visit these urban water trails with an eye to learning more about how the natural world deals with the constructs of humanity. And my hope is that by learning from examples of places like the Duwamish Waterway, the future of such at-risk rivers will be more than that of museum piece. Nature does indeed find a way to live with humans. In my own science fiction story, the humans of the future have found a way to live with nature.