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Finishing Swim Duwamish

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.

DSC_0503Swimming 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.

Adult SalmonOne 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.

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Stormwater & Toxics

I’ve been waiting for this. From the time I got into the river’s pristine headwaters, I was waiting for the Darth Vader of my journey. It’s time to swim through the Duwamish River’s toxic mess. This is the part of the river that scares people.

I found several storm drains pouring water into the Lower Duwamish. Some were carrying water that looked fine, but one was cloudy and smelled bad. I put my GoPro inside of one small storm drain and got an interesting video of the inside of the pipe. Finally, I came to the grand salon of the Duwamish Diagonal, the largest storm drain in Seattle. It has two entrances leading to a very large pipe. Big enough to swim inside…

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…and so I swam into the storm drain. This is probably not recommended, but I couldn’t swim this far down the river and dodge away from the problems. See video at this link and below.

Toxics in the Lower Duwamish come from 2 sources.  Industrial dumping from past decades remains buried in the mud.  But the biggest source of new pollution is storm drains like the Duwamish Diagonal that bring polluted runoff into the river when rain falls and flows over oily roads and other hard surfaces.

Fortunately, King County and others are working to clean up polluted stormwater runoff, and you can help.

Storm drains and runoff are not the pretty part of the Duwamish and Green River.  But they’re reality, and an important part of the story.

Duwamish Downstream

DSC_0352I see more signs of people along the river downstream from Flaming Geyser State Park. The river runs through backyards and farmers’ fields, and a few people wave when they see me swimming. I stop to talk with one group sitting in chairs on a gravel bar, they’re surprised to hear my Swim Duwamish story.

DSC_0534 Most of the people that I talk to along the river know their favorite places well, but they don’t know areas further upstream or downstream. A fisherman and a swimmer that I met both said they come to the river a lot, but only near where they live. They don’t feel connected to the mountain headwaters and they really don’t feel connected to the polluted and developed Lower Duwamish.

DSC_0427There are some fantastic areas along Green Valley Road where King County has acquired land for the Green River Natural Area. Metzler Park has about 20 parking spaces and is a short walk from a beautiful swimming hole. There are huge “gallery” cottonwoods and maples along the river that look to be at least 100 feet tall. I didn’t know such a place existed in this small agricultural valley. It’s one of the rare easy access points in this part of the river.

DSC_0394It’s a change to be out of the fast water, bedrock, and boulders of the areas upstream. I know the river changes here, and I expect to see more habitat damage caused by people. Yet I’ve gotten so attached to the river that I’m not eager for such sights. There is good and bad ahead, and I’m in this swim to see everything. I’m all in.

Flaming Geyser State Park

rapidsThe Green River Gorge is beautiful, but dangerous. I’ve been warned that it’s not safe to swim this section, so I’m only entering at a few safe places. I may come back later to swim more of the gorge if I can get some expert advice. The gorge is a miracle within King County, with high canyon walls, a beautiful wild river, and some rapids that can be exciting during high water. One photo caption calls it the “Grand Canyon” of the Green and I have to agree.

It’s hard to imagine that the Green River Gorge is connected to the Lower Duwamish. Yet the water in the gorge will flow down to the Duwamish in about two days! There could not be a sharper contrast between two sections of river. While shooting some video, I swam in the gorge one day and the Lower Duwamish right after. I went from being showered by a high waterfall in the pristine gorge to bumping alongside rusty barges and huge cranes in a noisy, gritty urban port. Is it possible to reconcile these two opposite poles that are the Duwamish?

Swim Duwamish 4 VideoThere are lots of fish here, including some big ones. I also saw a family of river otters, a frog, and a crayfish (aka crawdad—looks like a small lobster) eating a dead fish (see video). The river otters were funny, two little ones climbed onto the back of the bigger otter (mom?) and they swam away. I tried to get them on video, but they escaped my camera.

River insects are also interesting. Most of the plant life in a small river grows on the surfaces of rocks. Insects are the grazing animals (herbivores) that eat the plants and provide food for predators like fish. I’ve been seeing grazing insects since I started my swim, and today I settled down to get some good video of them. Here the main insects are caddis flies. They’re related to moths but the caterpillar (larval) stage lives in water inside of protective cases made out of small rocks glued together with silk. In the close-up video you can see their legs and mouths as they scrape algae off rocks to eat.

fish4Moving downstream, the river comes out of the gorge and enters Flaming Geyser State Park, a lovely place with great river access. That’s a bit unusual for the Green River. It’s been difficult to find good places to get in and out of the river.

People are out enjoying the river thanks to the good access at Flaming Geyser State Park. There are quite a few groups of people floating downstream in inner tubes and small rafts, often carrying drinks. It’s no surprise to find a few bottles and cans on the bottom of the river.

frogI wonder if the people floating above know that there are lots of fish swimming just a couple of feet below? It’s an interesting contrast to look at the different worlds of people and fish. From the view of a fish it’s hard to recognize the people, they’re just floating blobs with paddling hands.

I’m propelled mostly by moving water here. There are only a few big pools where I have to swim to move downstream. But this will change soon. The Green River flattens out and slows down after Flaming Geyser. There is a transition here in the river’s path down from the high mountains to Puget Sound.

The flatter landscape below Flaming Geyser provides people with more options for using the land. Farm fields surround the river just downstream from Flaming Geyser. It’ll be interesting to see how the river changes as the landscape changes.