Best of 2009: If sturgeon could talk

A short history of Lake Washington, as told to our author by one very long fish
Crosscut archive image.

William Howard Taft

A short history of Lake Washington, as told to our author by one very long fish

Editor's note: This story, first posted on April 16, 2009, is part of our year-end celebration of Best Crosscuts of 2009.

The recent news that some 1500 sturgeon had grounded themselves at low tide in Port Susan made me think of other sturgeon sightings, more than 20 years ago — and ultimately of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which opened on the University of Washington campus 100 years ago this June.

The fish at Port Susan were evidently so busy eating they didn'ꀙt notice the ebbing tide. 'ꀜSome fish biologists speculate that the sturgeon . . . were hungry for critters found in shallow mud flats,'ꀝ Michelle Ma wrote in the Seattle Times. 'ꀜWhen the tide dropped, the fish were trapped in the estuary'ꀙs shallow channels, unable to move across the exposed, muddy ground to deeper water.'ꀝ When the tide came back in, most of them swam off into the sunset, leaving behind a dozen very large dead fish, some of them 10 feet long.

The first of the older sightings featured something that was very much alive. In the 1970s and early '80s, people reported seeing some kind of sea monster in Lake Washington. It was way too big to be a leaping salmon. It wasn'ꀙt a human swimmer or a boat. No one pretended Lake Washington was the next Loch Ness, and the sea monster attracted less interest than the Green Lake caiman of 1986, but the strange sightings in Lake Washington continued.

Then, in the fall of 1987, the remains of a giant sturgeon were found floating at the north end of the lake. The fish (what was left of it) measured 11 feet from nose to tail, and weighed 670 pounds. One mystery was evidently solved. The fish was definitely big enough to have made people wonder. But another mystery was created: What was an 11-foot sturgeon doing in Lake Washington? The annual rings on a thin slice of the fish'ꀙs leading pectoral fin ray indicated the sturgeon had lived almost a century. The fish had hatched out in the late 19th or early 20th century. How long had it been in Lake Washington? How had it gotten there?

No one knew, but a 77-year-old man recalled hearing an explanatory story back in 1922: Thirteen years earlier, a pool at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition had contained a number of young sturgeon. When the A-Y-P closed down, the fish were turned loose in Lake Washington. Evidently, one of the fish had survived there for more than 70 years, lying low as it were.

Was this plausible? Sure. 'ꀜIt is possible,'ꀜ explains University of Washington marine habitat specialist Jim Brennan, who calculated the sturgeon'ꀙs age back in 1987. (He counted the growth rings, just as you would count the rings on a cross-section of Douglas fir.) 'ꀜI have no idea if the sturgeon found in Lake Washington was from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909,'ꀝ he says. 'ꀜIt is possible that the sturgeon was landlocked, or gained access through the Ballard locks or the [defunct] Black River.'ꀝ

Dead, the sturgeon couldn'ꀙt have been mistaken for much except a floating log. Alive, it could have been the elusive sea monster. Although sturgeon 'ꀜtend to spend much of their time close to the bottom for feeding and resting,'ꀝ Brennan explains, 'ꀜthey also exhibit aerial displays of leaping out of the water, or emerging vertically — usually seen with large individuals — similar to a whale 'ꀘspy hopping.'ꀙ This was a common observation in San Francisco Bay, where I tagged several thousand sturgeon, and I have also observed this behavior on the Columbia River.'ꀝ

What would an 11-foot fish have eaten in the lake when it wasn'ꀙt jumping? Basically, anything it wanted. 'ꀜSturgeon primarily feed on fishes and benthic invertebrates, including smelt, lamprey, clams, and shrimp,'ꀝ Brennan says. 'ꀜHowever, sturgeon will consume a broad range of food items. I have read that a domestic cat was found in the stomach of a sturgeon, and have been told that historically, farmers fished for sturgeon in the Sacramento River with large hooks and whole chickens'ꀝ

Where the table is set doesn'ꀙt much matter. 'ꀜIf a sturgeon were landlocked, it could survive for an extended period of time, as do sturgeon that have become landlocked between the dams on the Columbia River.'ꀝ In the Columbia, 'ꀜlandlocked sturgeon were prevented from making their seaward migration after the dams were put in place,'ꀝ Brennan says. 'ꀜWhite sturgeon live to be in excess of 100 years, and even though they are naturally anadromous, they are capable of living for extended periods in freshwater.'ꀝ

'ꀜSome of the sturgeon that persist have lived in the river long enough to retain a memory of the Columbia before the dams,'ꀝ William Dietrich writes in Northwest Passage. 'ꀜWhat must the sturgeon have thought when the current finally stilled, the river began to deepen, and they prowled upstream and down to find themselves boxed by walls of concrete, their range now limited to a reservoir pool?'ꀝ (Calls to sturgeon for comment were not returned.)

It'ꀙs hard not to anthropomorphize. What must that old Lake Washington sturgeon have somehow remembered into the age of Microsoft if it really had lived there since the A-Y-P? Did it retain some dim recollection of President William Howard Taft, who visited the fair at the end of September, a wavering, inverted image of a 300-pound politician in a top hat, looking down into its shallow pool? Probably not.

Feeding and resting in the murky depths, a sturgeon couldn'ꀙt see much even if it had great vision — and, like other undersea critters, it doesn'ꀙt. What sturgeon do have, Brennan explains, is a set of 'ꀜvery effective sensory organs used to smell, taste, and feel their environment, including a lateral line system, a large nasal rosette for olfaction, barbels, and sensory organs along the underside of the snout, similar to the [ampullae of Lorenzini that sharks use to detect weak electrical fields.]'ꀝ Still, a fish might conceivably have noticed the difference between light and dark, or a difference in temperature when a 300-pound President blocked out the sun.

We have no reason to believe that Taft ever looked into the sturgeon pool, and even if he did, one somehow doubts that a fish would have found it memorable. Nevertheless, one is tempted to load the old sturgeon down with historical associations. First, there was the Olmsted-designed A-Y-P itself, where visitors could marvel at the 'ꀜbig stick,'ꀝ a milled Douglas fir beam 156.5 feet long, sip oolong at the Formosa tea house, sample whatever the chef at the Alaska exhibit made that day with canned salmon, admire the view of Mount Rainier from Drumheller Fountain, and explore a fisheries building (the most popular exhibit at the fair).

And, of course, one might have seen Taft, who arrived in Seattle by train. (He had stopped off in North Yakima, where he had admired the apples and acknowledged the Civil War veterans in the crowd.) He spent a whole day at the A-Y-P, touring the exhibits before lunch. Did he admire the sturgeon? The fisheries exhibit stood just a little east of the U.S. government building'ꀙs 200-foot dome, but accounts of Taft'ꀙs visit don'ꀙt suggest he stopped in. They do suggest that before the president left town, he spent part of the next day golfing with the one-armed lumber baron C.D. Stimson (grandfather of Stimson Bullitt) at the Seattle Golf and Country Club, north of the city.

Presumably the outbreak of World War I only five years after the A-Y-P, the Seattle General Strike 10 years later, the Depression, World War II, the economic cycles of boom and bust, weren'ꀙt widely noted underwater. But the fish knew and may have remembered the lake as it once was and as it evolved.

When the A-Y-P ended, Lake Washington was deeper and larger than it is now, and it drained to the south, through the long-vanished Black River. The fish could have swum down the Black to the winding Duwamish, not yet straightened or dredged, then out through the channels and shallows of a wide estuary to Elliott Bay. Within the lake, it could have swum through the shallows that separated the Seattle shore from the island that has long since become the Bailey Peninsula, site of Seward Park. It may have smelled sodden ash spewed by Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern locomotives hauling lumber and coal along the shore.

It must have noticed when the Montlake Cut was opened in 1916, for the lake level dropped 9 feet, and water stopped running south into the Black River. It must have found that the shallows behind Seward Park and elsewhere were now high and dry.

The fish may have sensed something new when workers built the first floating bridge across the lake in 1940. Did it taste aviation fuel leaking from the wreckage of World War II aircraft that took off from the Sand Point Naval Air Station and crashed into the water? Did it feel vibrations from the first Seafair hydroplane race in 1951, and encounter strange objects after the Quicksilver disintegrated at high speed and sank in 80 feet of water?

How could it not have noticed the algae that bloomed after World War II, as growing communities dumped treated sewage into the lake, and not have altered its behavior as the algae died and rotted, using up much of the dissolved oxygen in the depths? Conversely, how can it not have noticed when the oxygen concentration increased after Metro started piping sewage around the lake, treating it, and releasing it into Puget Sound?

The fish didn'ꀙt live long enough to notice the old floating bridge sink in 1990 or the completion of Bill Gates'ꀘ lakefront mansion seven years later, but if it really was dumped into the lake in 1909, it experienced a lot. As Seattle gets set to celebrate the A-Y-P centennial, most people probably envision a temporary city filled with women in long dresses and men in straw hats. I picture a young sturgeon exchanging a long, meaningful look with William Howard Taft.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.