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A stroll in the park and across the cut

A Walk Around Lake Washington.

From top: The view east across Lake Washington from Seattle at Interstate 90 (right), with Bellevue in the distance (upper left); Foster Island in the Arboretum; and the view looking up Sammamish Slough.

Third of four parts. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The third morning, it was hard to believe that only a day had gone by since I’d set out at Newport. As I was busing into Seattle, I felt dizzy and sick, and I ended up taking the 14 in the wrong direction for quite a ways; it was an unfamiliar route, but I wasn’t thinking very well. I didn’t really get going until late morning, but the walk along Lake Washington Boulevard, north from Interstate 90, was lovely, an extension of the lakeside path of the day before. I looked out from the shade onto the sunny lake, walking along quiet stretches of pathway where I could hear my own footfalls, heading to the walker’s golden oasis of Leschi. Pausing for a while, it was almost easy to imagine Leschi as the cable car destination of the 1890s, with a bandstand and gardens – but a hotel? A ferry landing? A zoo? And even harder to imagine, just north of I-90 had been Guy Phinney’s steam sawmill, which was either the first or second mill on Lake Washington, according to McDonald – I kept comparing her photo to the shore, testing her location against my maps, trying to imagine a sawmill there, somewhere, on the lakeshore. The photo showed a strange shallow shoreline, with rushes growing in the water, so different from my post-Ship Canal shore. But knowing that the mill had once been there, that its engine and blades had commodified the forest here, filling the air with smoke and racket, informed the present for me. How wonderful it would be if the photos that I studied so earnestly were there for every passerby, to get behind the familiar.

The lakeshore is undergoing constant change and renewal, and nowhere was this clearer than among the elegant estates and homes of Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, where the narrow streets were jammed with the trucks of landscapers, carpenters, plumbers, decorators, painters, florists, furniture shops, and housekeeping services. Otherwise, the entire neighborhood seemed empty – no kids on bikes, no moms pushing strollers, no old folks out for a stroll – no one. The only owner I saw stood mournfully next to a plumbing contractor, sadly surveying a work in progress, as they stared together at a crew at work in a deepening trench.

I walked down into Madison Park, and found a picnic table I could lean on. I’d had visions of treating myself to a great al fresco luncheon at the beach, getting takeout at one of the restaurants. But I didn’t feel like eating. I packed up and climbed westward out of Madison Park, trying to walk in the shade whenever I could and to keep my hat brim down whenever I couldn’t. I turned north into the Washington Park Arboretum and paralleled the noisy, busy road on a dirt path back up in the trees. At times, the roar fell away, and I could hear my feet, little invisible birds, and the rustle of the leaves. Seattle’s Arboretum is a magical place, another Olmsted design that has emerged as a glorious urban compromise between those who hoped for a rigid museum collection of plants and those who hoped for a green place of recreation and reflection. I crossed the little bridge to Foster Island, once a burial island for Native people, then the home of Joe Foster, then doubled in size by the lowering of the lake in 1917. The city bought the whole island for $15,000 to add it to Washington Park – the heart of today’s Arboretum. I passed through the tunnel under Highway 520, then began to follow the lovely trail through the wetlands and across Marsh Island to the Museum of History & Industry, where I work. I felt at home here but never get tired of the delights of walking on the water; the walkway bucked and pitched in the waves and a welcome breeze blew across the lake. Bushes arched over my head to form a dark, cool cavern, and I reflected, as always, on the aged Danish man who lived on Marsh Island during the Great Depression. A Seattle Times reporter and photographer came out in a boat to interview him: He was cooking a stew outside his little shack, and he rowed back and forth to Madison Park for supplies. He had nowhere else to go; his was a one-man Hooverville.

I walked up Shelby Street and across the Montlake Bridge. Looking east down the Montlake Cut to Lake Washington, there was a long parade of pleasure boats – not at all what Thomas Mercer envisioned in 1854 when he renamed Lake Union and Lake Washington, forsaking their Duwamish names. One year after Washington Territory was created, Mercer suggested renaming the large lake to honor the first president and the territory named in his honor. Lake Union, he hoped, would be the “union” one day between Lake Washington and Shilshole Bay; there would be a water highway from the Cascade foothills on Lake Sammamish all the way to saltwater. Mercer was thinking of timber, coal, and ore getting out to bunkers and mills on the waterfront, and so to markets in San Francisco and Honolulu. But the Lake Union route vied with others and didn’t open until 1917, with major cuts here and at Fremont, and then the great locks at Ballard. Once, Montlake was a Native portage, and a log chute was dug through in the 1880s with great labor, and then the great channel it is today – not for log booms, coal scows, and tugs, or seaplane tenders, tuna boats, and whaling ships, but for kayaks, sailboats, and cruisers.

Up to campus, crossing the Burke-Gilman Trail, and to my meeting, and then home. A short day.

Next morning, my sunburn hurt and my head ached; I couldn’t hear very well, and bright lights hurt my eyes. I hadn’t slept much. My face was swollen and three of my toes were so badly bruised – it hurt to put my socks on. I delayed setting out. This is ridiculous! This is just a walk around an urban lake! I have a bus pass, a cell phone, a Visa card, sunglasses – everything. But as it turned out, I didn’t go anywhere on Wednesday, just slept much of the day and avoided the light. I felt like a complete failure, fearing that this walk would become about my decrepitude, and not about the lake at all. And what would that self-absorption mean?

On Thursday morning, I gritted my teeth and took the bus over to the University District, and set off on the Burke-Gilman Trail, north along the lakeshore from the University of Washington. Surely there aren’t a lot of trails in the world named for investors – wily Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman orchestrated the capital for the Seattle, Lakeshore, and Eastern railroad, failing in their grandest design but succeeding in opening up Seattle and King County from Ballard to North Bend. I love this old railroad line, and we used to walk it in 1969 and 1970, when there were still tracks to deal with. Back home, growing up, we walked the railroad tracks all the time, and it had been reassuring to find them in Seattle, in the midst of the city. In fact, in one of the silliest Earth Day projects ever, four of us actually picked up broken glass and trash along the tracks in 1970. On this day close to campus, there were scores of bikers and walkers, but fewer the farther north I walked, and the path was nearly empty north of the National Archives on Sand Point Way. This was wonderfully easy, level walking, and the leafy, shady tunnel was just what I wanted to protect my face from the sun. And the lake was always there, glimpsed between houses and at street-end parks.

Between McAleer and Lyon creeks, trail traffic picked up, and I was eager to step off the trail into the Lyon Creek Park, drink some water, and make sure I knew where to turn onto 68th Avenue Northeast, to get to Juanita Drive. At the north end of Lake Washington, a whole lake’s worth of lumber yards and cement plants have gathered, to memorialize Kenmore’s long sawmilling history. Today, the walker’s experience is pretty hot and dusty and loud – but Log Boom Park is a wonderful spot for another break and a good long chance to engage with the lake. I crossed the Sammamish Slough, the engineered channel of the old meandering Sammamish River – exasperated settlers bound for Issaquah used to portage their canoes across the loops and curves of the river, to save time. But I didn’t realize how thoroughly accustomed I was to the pleasure of walking the Burke-Gilman Trail until I wasn’t walking it any longer and had to share a roadway shoulder with bikes, and all of us were within arm’s length of speeding trucks and cars. Juanita Drive is very unsettling to the walker, almost disorienting, after the peace of the trail. It was certainly the most dangerous and unpleasant stretch of my walk around the lake.

I thought that Saint Edward State Park would be a good place to stop for the day – it was 2 p.m., and I didn’t want to walk in the hottest, brightest part of the afternoon again. The long incline up Juanita Drive to the park entrance seemed tougher than it really was, and I was frustrated by an unmarked trailhead that, as I learned later, would have taken me into the park’s shade. But I wasn’t sure where it led, so I walked along the road to the park entrance, and down a path to a picnic table under some trees and sat. I drank an entire bottle of cold Snapple that I’d bought at the nearby Plaid Pantry. It was great. After I felt better, I read Bruce Barcott for half an hour and went home. Barcott was getting ready to really take on Mount Rainier; it was pretty intimidating stuff. Probably not for me, I had to admit.

Tomorrow, Part 4: Final steps

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