A history of Lake Washington, one step at a time

First of four parts: It's been done before and written up, but historian Lorraine McConaghy wanted to circumnavigate metro Seattle's vast urban lake on her own terms, to soak up the past by lingering in the present. At her pedestrian pace, she saw and felt a great deal of change.
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From top: The author sets out in Kirkland; in solitude, looking out at Lake Washington from a bench in Wetherill Nature Preserve; and the view at Enatai Beach Park.

First of four parts: It's been done before and written up, but historian Lorraine McConaghy wanted to circumnavigate metro Seattle's vast urban lake on her own terms, to soak up the past by lingering in the present. At her pedestrian pace, she saw and felt a great deal of change.

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

I originally decided to go for a long walk to clear my head. That's what vacations are for, and this year we weren't going to be able to get away. Rob was very busy with a new job and didn't want to talk about camping in British Columbia or hiking in Oregon. But I had set a week aside at the end of July and protected it fiercely: no meetings, no classes, no due dates. It was mine to use.

Lawrence Cheek published an article in Seattle Weekly in 2003 about walking clear around Lake Washington, and I had saved it. It teased at me. Maybe I could do that, too, and re-center myself and find a different rhythm in my life; maybe understand the lake differently. I love to walk, always have. And Rob and I, we especially love urban walks – I can't tell you how many times we've walked around Lake Union in Seattle, starting in 1969, or looped from Belltown to the International District and back, or along the Duwamish River and the waterfront.

The rhythm of walking is a thoroughly human rhythm, the beat of one's feet, the swing of one's arms, the stretch of one's stride. I feel very alive walking, much more than on a bike or in a car, more in charge of the journey. I like the world's slow reveal as it unfolds in my path, as the way yields to my pace. I like the secret places that are only open to the walker because only the walker moves slowly enough to notice them. Getting underneath the familiar is one very good reason to go for an urban walk.

But in the end, I decided to walk around Lake Washington for a variety of reasons, not all particularly good ones. Personally, I just wanted to accomplish something, to actually finish something. Cheek had clocked in at about 75 miles – I thought I might be able to manage that in less than a week. And I'd just turned 60, which was a real shocker – I needed to test myself, this new person suddenly grown old. And I loved Lake Washington but couldn't afford to live on it; maybe encircling it, learning it, would let me truly see this urban lake and own it without ownership. OK. It was decided.

I walked away from our house as soon as the rain stopped late the morning of Sunday, July 29. Rob saw me off and took two photos of me, looking ill-at-ease by our front door and then walking away – he hastened up to hand me the camera so that I could document my first day. I know this part of the walk very well; we live on Rose Hill in Kirkland. I started out by walking a jagged southwest course, downhill to the lake. I cut through the field so that I could check on the blackberries growing along the margin. I'm impatient for them every year because these are the best berries around and make great cobblers, and they seemed to be late this year. They were wet and fresh with the rain, but they still needed a few days of sun to sweeten up and be ready for baking. Once this set of sports fields was Kirkland's municipal dump, before that it was part of an 1880s homestead, and before that it was Native ground.

I walked down past the transfer station, by Bridle Trails State Park, then crossed my first big highway, arcing west over Interstate 405 on the pedestrian overpass, and looked down on the never-ending streams of trucks and cars, racing away north and south. Whichever way they're headed, they'd soon have a fleeting glimpse of Lake Washington. I headed down toward the lake through a ravine, dark, damp, and ferny, and then onto an open pathway. As the freeway roar faded behind, these houses unfolded one after another, very quiet, very new and rather exotic. This is a dramatically different place than our worn and cozy Rose Hill neighborhood. Some people say that downtown Kirkland is a little like Sausalito; well, then, this neighborhood is a little like Pacific Palisades. There are more palm trees here than rhododendrons, and lots of statuary, "water elements," and pastel stucco; the houses are arranged in amphitheatre rows overlooking the performance of Lake Washington, spreading to the west from Madison Park to nearly Lake Forest Park, dotted with powerboats and accented by the distant towers of Seattle.

As I walked downhill, the pitch steepened and water rushed down through culverts and streams, heading for the lake; you could hear hissing all around, the living water of this living earth. Down, down, down, following a trickling stream, and then across Lake Washington Boulevard to Houghton Beach Park, on the shore. The lake and sky were both gray, and the park was nearly empty. I sat down on a dedicated bench, invited by the children of Vernon and Flora Fouch to share their parents' love of sunsets on the lake. Waves washed ashore in a wind-driven rhythm; it's a big lake, 200 feet deep in places and 35 square miles, and it makes its own weather. I checked my backpack: camera, cell phone, wallet, water, lunch, notebook, and map. Oh, and my umbrella, in honor of Harvey Manning, whose Walking the Beach to Bellingham transformed urban walking, or interurban walking, into something grand and brave. Over my desk at work, I have a photograph of him on a rainy Puget Sound beach, under a streaming umbrella. He looks annoyed; it makes perfect sense. The one book I'm carrying today is Lucile McDonald's Lake Washington Story. Published more than 25 years ago, it remains the best history of the lake and the lakeshore, written by one of the Pacific Northwest's most distinguished journalists. I knew her and I liked her. In my mind, though, my companions were David Buerge and David Williams, Coll Thrush and June Burn, all lovers of walks through time and space.

I've lived in Kirkland a while. When we bought our house over here in 1980, our city friends acted like we'd lost our minds and moved to Dogpatch or Levittown. It was just hopeless to tell them that $75,000 went a lot further on Rose Hill than it did in Wallingford. And that we all live in a metropolis centered on this lake; that's what people recognized in 1958, when Metro was formed from all the municipalities that ringed Lake Washington. The lake was absolutely filthy, and the whole metropolis had to work to clean it up because it was a shared responsibility. Metropolitan Seattle grows more real each year; the city has overtaken the sprawling suburbs. I think of the Woodland Park Zoo, Third and Pike, Lake Union, Volunteer Park – all that – as my own. As I hope Seattle folks think of Houghton Beach Park, Marymoor Velodrome, Lake Sammamish, Mercer Slough as their own. Anyway, my view of Seattle across the lake from Houghton was too familiar, and it was time to move south, to Carillon Point.

Opened in 1989, Carillon Point used to be the largest private development on the lake. That's changing, with new projects to the south. The site's story began as all lakeshore history does – as Native history. When American settlers first began to build along this lakeshore, they incorporated boards from Native homes into their own. Until Lake Washington was lowered by the Ship Canal in 1917, Native people were part of everyday life on the lake, especially on this more thinly settled eastern shore, pursuing their resilient culture and participating in a new, mixed one, too. Settlers began building wooden steamers in Houghton in the 1880s, and three shipyards followed one another on the site, ending with the gigantic Lake Washington Shipyards, which closed its doors at the end of World War II. From 1870 until 1950, blue-collar industries – logging, mining, milling, and shipbuilding – employed thousands and gave the Eastside a tough, gritty, pre-suburban feel.

The shipyard site retained that feeling as late as 1983, with many dilapidated docks, cranes and shops on its 31 acres – it was quite beautiful. But Carillon Point today is an astounding lakeshore development, renamed to honor an instant tradition. As I walked past the Woodmark Hotel, outdoor tents were set up to shelter a wedding party; waiters hustled hors d'oeuvres and champagne for the guests. Office windows, darkened for Sunday, looked out over the marina filled with private cruisers and sailboats. Carillon Point has overwritten what passed before, and if it weren't for the rusting interpretive signs explaining the site's history, one could only guess at the palimpsest.

The lakeshore is a manuscript on parchment so treasured, so rare, that it has been written over again and again. To know the lake and to pace its shoreline is to respect the ancient texts and hunt for their traces. Getting behind the familiar, beneath the superficial, was difficult. For five days, I hunted for old fence posts and old apple trees, mossy stairs that went nowhere and random pilings in the lake. I delighted in named places – Enatai and Sammamish, Prichard Island and McAleer Creek, Atlantic City and Beaux Arts – and tried to understand their mysteries, and the instant traditions that they commemorated. I wasn't rejecting the new and mourning the old; I was trying to see the old in the new, to see the richly illuminated manuscript fully as the layered palimpsest it has become.

As I walked south, I followed the shoreline through old Houghton, and around the south shore of Yarrow Bay, heading for the Points. An unexpected trail veered down into the Bay wetlands – how could I not have known about this? But I resumed walking along the north side of Highway 520, heading west. The highway dominated my walking world – trucks, motorcycles, cars, horns, engines, tire noise. That's my commuting route every day from Kirkland to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood, across the lake, and I saw Metro bus 255 pass by, just on the other side of the fence. I often see walkers and bikers on this trail, from my seat on the bus, and envied them. Now I was one of them.

I stumbled on the Wetherill Nature Preserve, another wonderful surprise. Jacob Furth's descendants had donated this land in 1989, and many local families had dedicated benches and other simple amenities to remember those who had loved this place. I walked on a winding trail and found a bench right on the water at Cozy Cove, where the lake was framed by holly, ferns, and rhododendron branches. I ate my lunch in solitude, meditating on the value of quiet. I felt privileged to be alone on the lakeshore, as the sun began to master the clouds and the little waves slapped on the beach. Small animals rustled in the undergrowth and birds sang in the trees. But those moments were stolen between airplanes – all week, every day, it was impossible to get away from the sound of motors and engines. The racket of leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and hedge trimmers; cars, trucks and airplanes, powerboats and personal watercraft stole the silence.

I walked up out of Wetherill and crossed 520 on a pedestrian overpass, heading down Evergreen Point Road through Medina, as the sun burst through the clouds. Great wealth closed around me and the highway noise faded away. Soon, the only sound was the low whisper of accumulating capital. Driveways headed west, over the rise, down to hidden homes along the bluff and lakeshore – I'm sure some of them had the distinction of character and tradition. There were glimpses of pools and tennis courts and lawns large enough for polo. Beautiful old rhododendrons grew to majestic heights – as much as 40 feet – and glorious stands of fir and cedar lined the road. Amidst the reticent estates of old wealth and the garish showplaces of new wealth was a handful of modest homes lived in with grace: piled firewood, productive fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and cats lazing in the sun. A modest house like that was for sale, but slated only for demolition – the jargon is a "tear-down." This one-third-acre lot, with its tear down, was advertised for $1,490,000. It was shocking, a bit obscene – and I felt both foolishly naïve and very much a stranger there.

Following my map, I traced the Gold Coast shoreline through Medina, then down along Overlake Drive, with glimpses of the lake, and then curving around Meydenbauer Bay. German immigrant William Meydenbauer, a successful Seattle baker, saw the promise of this remote shoreline on the other side of Lake Washington - he homesteaded on the bay in 1869. Later, Seattle folks jaunted over to Meydenbauer Bay on excursion steamers, to dance in the pavilion at Wildwood Park, picnicking on fried chicken and beer. Here and there, I could see old ferry landings along the shore, places where the steamers used to stop and pick you up, if you stuck a pillow case up on a pole to signal. Squinting, I tried to imagine the whaling fleet at anchor. So much on Lake Washington changed in 1917, when the Ship Canal opened a water highway to Shilshole Bay and Puget Sound. Before that, the lake was much bigger; the islands and peninsulas much smaller. Current wetlands were well under water, and past wetlands are now dry beaches. But that's also when the whaling ships began to come through the Chittenden Locks, to spend their winters in the Bay. Meydenbauer Beach Park is a sliver of land, stretching inland, with access down to the lake. To the southeast, Bellevue's downtown cityscape dominated the sky, with half a dozen construction cranes sketching the city to come.

Suddenly, the road curved and I was in Old Bellevue - the transition was dramatic and amazing. And I felt as thought I'd just walked into Friday Harbor or Eastsound, as though I'd walked from a leafy island lane into a bustling island town. The map showed a confusing jog to the south and I headed inland, ending up on 104th Avenue, grumbling about all the great lake views I was missing. But this proved an interesting and varied neighborhood. So far, I had seen few people; here I saw dozens, men and women working on their houses and yards, kids playing, folks walking.

I was really looking forward to walking in Beaux Arts village; I loved the story of its 1908 founding as a communal arts colony on 50 acres, with the airy ambition that everyday life would become exquisite, everyday acts become artful. Art, life. and work would be one, as residents worked in their studios and lived in their homes far from the city and shared the common workshop, woods, and beach. Everyday beauty by design would inform this experiment in bohemian, cooperative living. In 1979, Lucile McDonald had written that the oldest home, built in 1909, was still occupied - I hoped to see that, and the other houses, too. How over-written was Beaux Arts? Had the 1909 home become a tear-down? But the "no trespassing" signs were forbidding - did they really mean it? For walkers? I actually began to walk down the hill past the signs, into the village. But I was beginning to think of my feet and knees, not just my curiosity - I didn't want to walk all the way down the hill, only to find a locked gate, and have to walk all the way back up, for nothing. I turned around and left Beaux Arts without braving the hill or testing the sign.

I walked down into Enatai, one of very few surviving names on Lake Washington from native geography. Lucile McDonald wrote that the word was Chinook jargon for "beyond," or "on the other side." The jargon was a patois used by English traders, American settlers, and numerous language groups of Native people – it's a wonderful palimpsest, as its vocabulary changed through time to represent the different needs of its speakers. In the past, a hundred thousand men and women, now dead, spoke the word "Enatai" aloud, as they spoke the names of so many shared Native places on the eastern lake. We've lost nearly all of those words in our daily speech, except this one. Klahanie, Illahee, Hyak, Tyee, Tillicum – today, they are rootless words, referring to restaurants, marinas, schools, and housing developments. So Enatai was "on the other side of" the slough, a lake inlet that used to run as far inland as I-405, where the Hewitt-Lea Sawmill steamers came to load lumber before Lake Washington fell 9 feet, when the Ship Canal was completed.

Lucile McDonald had lived here at Enatai – I visited her, interviewed her, had the chance to spend time with her. I honor her. And, too, this was where Lawrence Cheek began his own walk around the lake. I think I could identify the very spot where his wife took his photo, as he began. But Enatai was definitely the low point of my own first day. It was late afternoon, and I suddenly realized that my feet hurt and my boots were hot, my neck ached, and I couldn't seem to find a comfortable way to wear the backpack. And I had drunk all my water. But the stressful part was that I wasn't sure how to go, and I didn't want to make a mistake and have to backtrack. I couldn't just stop; if I didn't make reasonable legs around the lake, I wouldn't make it in time. I might not finish at all. I had the bike map, but there were some iffy spots on that map. When I had thought the walk through, one hard part seemed to be right here: south of Bellevue, finding the path to Renton through the weave of Interstate 90 and I-405, in the Mercer Slough. And so it proved to be.

It was long and humid and hot and buggy, and the narrow path was filled with speeding bikes. All day, I was one of only two walkers I'd seen out of perhaps 75 bike riders, but there was usually plenty of room for us all. Heading east from Enatai, there was not enough room. I was uncertain that the well-marked Mountains to Sound bike trail would let me head south, to Renton. It seemed sensible, and a kindly berry-eating bike-rider agreed, so I kept going and finally found a trailhead that clearly indicated I was heading in the right direction. Another half mile into clarity, and I simply sat down next to the road on a piece of concrete rubble, at the entrance of the Southeast 40th Street boat launch. I phoned home; Rob got there in 17 minutes. It had taken me five hours. I headed home for a shower, aspirin, wine, and dinner.

Tomorrow, Part 2: The longest day


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