Her feet complete a circle in time

Last of four parts: On Day 5, the author, an historian, completes her circumnavigation of Lake Washington on foot, returning to Kirkland, which was a spectacular failure as a steel town but is a booming modern suburb. Her total distance: 67 miles. Duration: centuries.
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From top: A path at St. Edwards State Park, just feet from Juanita Drive; a residential view of Lake Washington from Juanita Drive; back home.

Last of four parts: On Day 5, the author, an historian, completes her circumnavigation of Lake Washington on foot, returning to Kirkland, which was a spectacular failure as a steel town but is a booming modern suburb. Her total distance: 67 miles. Duration: centuries.

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

Friday, my last walking day, I started at St. Edward Park and walked along Juanita Drive, often far from the lakeshore. I was tempted to walk the Holmes Point loop down closer to the lake, and looking back, I wish I had. Coming down into Juanita, steep Goat Hill and Finn Hill rise back up from the lake, and Dorr Forbes' 1878 water-powered sawmill makes a lot of sense, to master that rushing water power and turn Douglas fir into rough lumber you could sell. After the lake fell, one unintended consequence was the emergence of a beautiful sandy beach at Juanita, itself renamed for the third time in about 1880 after a popular song of the day. There are still a few beach cabins along the shore to the west, not yet transformed into modern waterfront homes. Narrow your eyes when you look at Juanita Beach Park, and you can see the hot dog vendors and swim suit rental stands of the original resort developers, families who used to offer cheap vacation fun to Seattle city folks. The black and white snapshots of the 1930s – my friend's grandparents in their uncomfortable swimsuits, shading their eyes. A blanket spread on the beach under an umbrella; kids with sand pails and shovels; a picnic basket, packed frugally at home with lemonade, hard-boiled eggs, deviled ham sandwiches, apples, and oatmeal cookies.

Turning south along the lakeshore, I walked away from the rushing traffic and down onto the old road, now off-limits to cars. Recently a golf course, Juanita Bay Park is a bird sanctuary today and offers more than 1,000 feet of lakefront – after Seattle's Olmsted parks, it felt wild, artless, and lovely. The Native village of Tahb-tahb-iuh held at least three longhouses and was located on the old shoreline here. Juanita Bay Park is lavish with signage to interpret the plant and animal life, the lake, the stories of human use of this part of the lake and its shore. There is even a map, showing native geography. I enjoyed the park for a while and just watched people walk their dogs, push their strollers, and read the signs. They really did read the signs; they shared my craving to understand this place, through time.

Walking into Kirkland, I was coming home. I know this place. This Native place, with its villages: one, Stah-lahl, once stood on the bluff just north of downtown. Slow American settlement and then the great excitement, when Peter Kirk chose the ridge east of town for his great steel mill that would use local coal, iron ore, and limestone, and roll rails for the railways of the Pacific Rim. "The Pittsburgh of the West," people said, and Kirk certainly devised an American-style company town for his workers, with tight controls on what people read, how they worshipped, and how much they drank. He had his engineers plat the townsite, naming Kirkland streets for familiar places back home in England, and building Victorian brick business buildings at the intersection of Market Street and Piccadilly. The mill was a spectacular failure, victim of the failing economy that caused the Panic of 1893 and toppled dominoes all across America.

But Kirkland remained. The King County ferry began regular service to Kirkland from Madison Park in 1913, pulsing hourly traffic through the town that accurately styled itself "Hub of the Eastside." In 1922, Union High School opened, the town's pride up on the lakeshore bluff, its windows oriented west across Lake Washington, toward the Naval Air Station under construction at Sandpoint in Seattle, today's Magnuson Park. When the school opened, the Lake Washington Ship Canal was only five years old, Native people were vivid on the lake. As I walked by, construction was racing ahead on Kirkland's Heritage Park. I'd been looking for old plantings, old buildings, old walkways, old machinery for five days – I saw a bit of rusty iron ahead. It was a horseshoe, hanging at eye-level on the chain-link fence that surrounded the property. I guess a worker had found it and hung it there – it was on the sidewalk side. It is heavy, and it seems to me to have shod a big horse. I took it and I have it; perhaps the Kirkland Heritage Society will want it, perhaps they will not. But I put it in my backpack.

I walked through downtown Kirkland and along the shore, by Brink Park and Marsh Park and the pretentious condominiums that crowd the lakeshore: fountains and statuary, locked gates, expensive plantings, some lovely, some absurd. And so back to Houghton Beach Park, and the Fouch family bench. An entire extended family was there: the old folks seated on the bench, smiling at the rest spread on the grass nearby, eating a picnic brought from home – falafel, I think, and peaches. People love the lake, and they claim it for their own on hot Friday afternoons at this lake beach, reclaimed from beneath the waters when Lake Washington fell in 1917.

I finished my walk around this great lake three weeks ago. It's only 55 miles around the tightest outline you can draw, but it was about 67 miles for me. I didn't follow every fold of the shoreline, and I didn't visit every park or walk down every intriguing side road. If I had, it would have been a better walk. The walk was split pretty much half and half between streets and sidewalks, and pathways and trails. It took me four and a half days; my longest day was seven hours, my shortest was four. My blisters are nearly forgotten. I think I'm going to lose the toenails on my two small toes; they're still sort of bruised but they don't hurt any more. Once my sunburn peeled, I looked just like I did before I started, and I don't feel any different. I jotted lots of observations each evening but very few generalizations really held up. It's much easier to be glib about things, if you don't slow down and walk around them.

But these five generalizations did stand the test of time, and they're about my personal walk, not about the lake or its shore:

  1. Sunscreen sweats away just when you need it most.
  2. You really can't carry too much water.
  3. It is a delight to find that you are walking along a route served by public transportation, just in case.
  4. There aren't enough public restrooms along the way.
  5. The ripest blackberries are often within reach.

I'm still torn between pride and shame at my lake walk. Yes, it was hard for me; but because something's hard, does that make it worth doing? And, then, it was only hard for me; Bruce Barcott could do it in two days in his Wanderschuhes. There's something a little silly and obsessive about accomplishing a trivial thing. But there were times I really wanted to stop and I didn't, and I guess I'm proud of that. I did finish. I kept thinking of June Burn, just walking away from her home on the island, just walking onto a ferry with a real knapsack on her back, heading away. Just away. I hope I don't stop taking long walks; I'm planning my next.

But I'm writing about the walk because I wish lots of local people would do it. It's not really that hard; what it took was time, a resource that I had by chance. Any other year, I would have never spent a vacation week "at home" at all, let alone walking around the lake. But this experience was extraordinary, and I did feel, by the end, that I owned Lake Washington though I owned no property on it. And I certainly cleared my head.

This is our lake, and there is an amazing amount of public access to it, though there are certainly places where visitors are discouraged. But it's not a private pond, and we all have the right and responsibility to see the lake at its best and worst. When I was walking, both Coulon and Juanita beaches were closed because of e. coli contamination. I looked at many a lakeshore yard with a wondering eye – what herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers had produced those glowing, weedless lawns? Those gargantuan roses? How will the lakeshore development along the southeastern and Renton shores affect the lake and our experience of it? As a historian, I tried to see the overwritten manuscript, with its many scripts and languages: natural lake and lakeshore, Native lake and lakeshore, conquest, settlement, industry, recreation, transportation, privatization, and ceaseless redevelopment. I'm not an antiquarian, and I don't think that 1907 was "better" than 2007. Instant traditions are nothing new; Carillon Point is no more bogus than Beaux Arts, Foster Island, or Juanita Beach. But if we can live with history and see the moving finger that has written and, having writ, moved on – if we can see those old texts in the current manuscript, I am convinced that our decisions about what to write next will be better ones. I have hung my rusty horseshoe "luck side up," as my grandfather said, like a U, so that it holds the best future.


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