An Urban Adventure: Kayaking a Superfund Site

An old river through a newcomer's eyes

The writer's POV. Photo by Carrie Hawthorne

Over beers one night my friend Jami mentioned she’d recently kayaked down the Duwamish River. Having just moved to Seattle from a rural mountain town in Northern California, I was intrigued. The urban adventure was planned and a few days later, we set off.

I should probably mention that even though I like outdoor adventures, I’m a total rookie. I’m afraid of rapids. I can’t tell a sockeye from a Chinook. And I usually forget my binoculars at home. So when a passerby warned us to watch out for the sea lion, I thought, What?! As if worrying about falling into toxic water wasn’t enough!

The river was only about 100 feet wide where we began. The water was high on the overgrown banks; tide was in. A calm washed over me as I sat near eye-level with the water.

The wind blew. The river coursed brown, full of debris including dozens of apples. An onion, too. We debated how they ended up there (Did they spill off a produce truck?) and were wary of what else we might see. A few miles downstream we spotted a huge, dark, menacing bird studying us from high in a tree next to a large nest. Jami was afraid it was going to swoop down and pop our kayaks. Having remembered her binoculars, we spent some time trying, unsuccessfully, to identify it.

Homes lined the water, their kayaks, motorboats, and fishing nets alongside them. Heat lamps stood on decks, lights strung through trees, and Adirondack chairs greeted the river. Floating by I imagined sunsets in those chairs with a drink and a quiet conversation. Then a plane suddenly roared. Peace and quiet, I realized, might be hard to find below a flight path.

The human alteration of this waterway has been dramatic over the last century
Illustration by Hum Creative

Rounding a bend near 112nd Street, we were met by toxic smells that burned my nostrils. Colored foam floated by on the river, now straight, wide and manmade, lined with concrete buildings. We had crossed into the Southern end of the Superfund zone. Geez, I sighed. I paddled cautiously.

Along the east side of the river, dilapidated factories and barbed wire fences reminded me of industrial zones in Ghana and in Guatemala, countries where I’ve lived. A steady manufacturing hum – whirring, chugging, throbbing – overpowered the environment. Yet I managed to discern the call of a seagull and observe an osprey perched in a dead, low tree.

We kayaked by massive scrap yard mounds, a steaming colossal machine magically swallowing up metal. I held my breath and paddled quickly into a blowing wind for one last half mile. After two hours, I eagerly exited the water at River Street in Georgetown. Jami and I deflated our boats and parted ways.

Once home I jumped straight into the shower. Never before have I scrubbed so hard after a paddle. Later that evening, I pulled out my bird guide, just as I would after any other adventure outdoors. That enormous bird observing us from high up in the tree? A juvenile bald eagle, not as easy to recognize without its iconic white head.

When I first moved to Seattle, adventures in the Olympic Peninsula and Cascades were quickly planned but the Duwamish wasn’t even on my radar. I now realize that exploring this river is an important part of getting to know this new place I call home.

“Would you do it again?” my husband asked.

Sure, I said. In a couple of years.

Read two other points of view on the Duwamish in River Seen.