One year ago, I committed to swim the Duwamish River from headwaters to mouth. On September 30, I finished the swim. From its start in the upper Green River to Puget Sound, the Duwamish is much more than a Superfund site.
Swimming the river has been a great adventure. As I swam downstream, I watched the river change from a small stream tumbling down a mountain to a salty industrial port. I’ve seen thousands of wild pink salmon—proof that the river is still alive. And I’ve visited with many other fish, mink, river otters, a bobcat, and birds like osprey, kingfishers, herons and eagles. I’ve also met quite a few people enjoying the river—swimming, tubing, fishing, or just looking.
To celebrate the swim, WEC hosted a gathering of friends and media at our finishing event at Jack Block Park. It was a fun day, and the media coverage was great. The Seattle Times front page story the next day was a great morning wake-up. Check out “Man swims 55 miles of Duwamish River, finds it’s ‘still alive.’” The Times even produced a nice two minute video. Also attending and covering the swim were KIRO TV, KOMO TV, KPLU, and the Kitsap Sun (front page!). This level of interest proves that people care about Seattle’s only river.
One thing I’ve learned is that many people don’t think of the Duwamish as a connected network of water from the mountains to the Sound. People who know anything about the river mostly know their place, and don’t think too much about what happens upstream or downstream. And people who love Puget Sound mostly try not to think about the polluted Duwamish River.
As I swam through the Superfund site and actually swam inside Seattle’s largest storm drain, I saw that there are no fences or boundaries separating these places from the prettier parts of Puget Sound. The Duwamish River is Puget Sound, and Puget Sound is the Duwamish. The Superfund site in the Lower Duwamish contains saltwater. With each tide, ocean water flows back and forth, bathing polluted sites and your favorite ocean beach in turn. As if that’s not enough trouble, every time it rains stormwater brings new pollution through streets, gutters, and pipes into the Duwamish and Puget Sound.
If you love Puget Sound, then you need to learn to love the Duwamish River. There’s no escape. Fortunately, good work is being done cleaning up and restoring the Green/Duwamish River. I’ve seen it and if you’ve looked at our videos, you’ve seen it too. Suzette Cooke, the Mayor of Kent, joined us amid the jumping salmon at Van Doren’s landing to talk about restoration and KOMO and KIRO shared the good news.
The main thing I learned during my swim is that the Duwamish River is still alive. The strong run of wild pink salmon this year was a sight to see, and a reason to be optimistic. It’s hard to think of the river and pink salmon as being fragile if these fish can thrive despite all we’ve done. This is not to say that everything is fine. On the contrary, steelhead and chinook salmon are in trouble in the Green/Duwamish and elsewhere. Yet not all the news is bad, and I hope we don’t forget to celebrate what we have. Tim Egan, writing about the Duwamish River’s pink salmon in the Duwamish in the New York Times, seems to agree.
One year ago, I set out to find the heart of the Duwamish River. I found it in Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila, where I saw thousands of wild pink salmon. It’s an improbable setting, but it’s just the kind of new story we need to lead us into the future.