When friends or family come to stay and ask for recommendations on what to see or where to go, possibly the last place you’re going to send them is to one of the more unattractive parts of town. The Duwamish River runs close to the heart of the City of Seattle. You can even see its beginnings from across the Puget Sound at Pike Place Market, yet you’ll hear few residents talking about it. During the summer months, the Duwamish River is the last place you’d take your kids for a day out or meet your friends for a picnic. Having said all of this, I can’t recommend the Duwamish River Clean-up Coalition Cruise enough.
The two-hour tour talks you through the history and the demise of the river and by the end of it you’ll be wondering if Seattle’s title of "Emerald City" is quite so deserved. Leaving from Gate C on Harbour Island on a showery Saturday afternoon, our guide talked knowledgeably about the many changes that have contributed to the pollution and alteration of the river. Human interference is evident from the outset. At the mouth of the river sits Harbour Island, which is itself a manmade entity. It is the largest manmade island outside of Kobe, Japan, and was born out of the heaps of dirt dug up during the Denny regrade project and the leveling of the Seattle hills.
Immediately after, you learn about the dramatic re-shaping of the Duwamish. Over the past 100 years the river morphed from a winding wetland oasis into a straight waterway, ideal for shipping and industry. Now flanked by concrete factories, the Duwamish has the dubious honour of being a Superfund site. There’s nothing super about it. The Superfund law was created to protect people and communities from heavily contaminated toxic waste sites. The contaminants in the Duwamish include PCBs, PAHs, mercury and phthalates. I didn’t know what most of these were before I went on the tour but when you learn that no fish or salmon in the Duwamish or even in the Puget Sound is considered safe to eat now you know it’s not good.
Heavy industry along the river has polluted the mud to depths of 12ft and is polluting the air too. Smoke stacks from the cement companies emit toxic odours, which have caused headaches and sickness to local school children to the point where the school has had to send them home for the day. Cleanup efforts are in place but its obvious that much more work is needed and it’s an ongoing battle of politics, as agencies contracted for the cleanup operations tend to be the cheapest and not necessarily the best qualified for the job. In addition there’s the tough question of where to transfer the polluted materials to once they’ve been extracted from the river.
A more encouraging part of the trip talks about Kellogg Island, which is the only remaining natural part of the waterway. From the boat you can catch a glimpse of what the Duwamish used to look like as it winds its way around the steep, grassy banks of the island. It’s illegal to land a boat here as the island has protected status as a nature reserve providing a small haven to nesting eagles and ospreys. Across from Kellogg Island, the Duwamish Indian tribe purchased land back from the city (the land here originally belonged to them) and they’re in the process of building a centre for environmental education on the site of the tribe’s original log house.
The boat continues down under South Park Bridge, which everyone on board was horrified to learn is in a worse condition than Seattle’s earthquake-damaged viaduct. There’s an ongoing argument between King County and Tukwila as to who will bear the cost of replacing the bridge and if a resolution isn’t reached in the next two years the bridge will be closed.
The Duwamish River Clean-up Coalition Cruise certainly isn’t an activity with much of a feel-good factor but it’s one way to get to know a very real if unfortunate side of Seattle. It’s all the more shocking because the Duwamish River runs through the heart of a city that prides itself on its proximity to nature and all things green.
The cruise boat holds 40 people and up to 60 people outside if both front and back decks are used. The tour itself is free of charge and as the boat pulls back into dock at Harbour Island, there’s a friendly request for donations for what is clearly a very worthwhile and deserving cause.