Nature's bridge

The death of an eagle says a lot about the misty magic of the 520 bridge, the poor man's waterfront, and about living in Seattle.

Crosscut archive image.

Traffic on the SR 520 bridge

The death of an eagle says a lot about the misty magic of the 520 bridge, the poor man's waterfront, and about living in Seattle.

The recent death of an eagle on the 520 Bridge was tragic. The big bird was blitzed during the morning commute by a Metro bus doing 50 mph. I live within earshot of the accident site, but we didn't hear a thing. Just the steady hum of the bridge commuters.

We are used to seeing and hearing eagles. Just the day before, we'd seen a juvenile bald eagle circling over Broadmoor, perhaps hoping for some blue-blooded carrion (one can hope). It might have been one of the young of the eagle who died, but there are a number of eagles in the general neighborhood and I don't know enough to tell them apart. Eagles are so often circling ciphers, brown and white, flapping and gone.

In the mornings, I sometimes hear eagles talking. Their cries are a bit seagull-like, though that seems undignified for the national symbol. They are very verbal and I'm somewhat ashamed that I don't know their language, which seems complex, and often a bit whiney. "Why are you crows always hassling me, man?" But, then it took me six years to get through French 3.

I am very aware how lucky I am to live in a city where the sounds of highway are mixed with the voices of eagles and chickadees chattering away. The first week in August, they are occasionally drowned out by the sound of Blue Angels overhead. When the Angels' jets roar, real birds shut up as if predators are visiting. Do the birds think they are the thunderbirds of lore? The sound of death they make is really for us humans to admire and fear. Still, I have seen eagles dive and capture coots for lunch, so I understand the caution of small birds.

The death of the 520 eagle reminds me of the what I used to like about the bridge all those years I commuted across. It is a mid-century modern minimalist span that brings drivers close to the water. Like a ferry ride, I always thought of it as poor man's waterfront as I used to sit stalled in traffic in my 1970 Datsun. I could never afford a house on the Eastside's Gold Coast, so an extra 10 minutes sitting on the floating bridge was a kind of lakefront holiday. One of my favorite views: seeing a vast, arching rainbow the end of which landed squarely on Bill Gates' house.

Each day I would see something new. The morning light making a wonderland out of Husky Stadium and the campus beyond. The direction of the wind rippling the lake north or south, often indicating the weather to come. Mt. Rainier playing peak-a-boo. Seeing seasonal flotillas of fishermen trying to catch salmon. Watching mist rise from the lake surface and turning it a primordial pink or purple.

Route 520 goes through beautiful places. It cuts next to Marsh Island and across Foster, and these are remarkable wetlands recovered from freeways and landfills. Last year, a new species of spider was discovered on Foster Island, also reputed to be an old Indian burial site. The area also crawls with kayakers and canoeists.

Union Bay across the way is a bird watcher's paradise now, but I remember the clouds of crying gulls, smoke, and bulldozers when it was a city dump out of Dante's inferno. I'm sure down deep there lies some of my family's old appliances, perhaps my baseball card collection, now supporting habitat where I saw a rare (for here) western meadowlark last year.

The whole area is about to undergo new disruption, after so much healing, with the massive expansion of 520. A bigger bridge, wider highway, years of disruption and pounding pile drivers. The nature so long lured back will be blasted again, worse than the Blue Angels buzzing like mega-mosquitoes. Many years from now, more healing will begin, but it seems a shame to tear it up and start over.

The abundance of nature is amazing. Eagles, once so rarely sighted in Seattle, are common here. Often, you see an eagle perched on one of the 520 light standards. It was one of these, presumably swooping down to get some roadkill, that lost its life. But even years ago, traffic on the bridge could be stalled by nature. 

I remember one early morning traffic jam, the cause of which was a mystery until I got near Foster Island and there on a log boom sat an enormous California sea lion sunning himself, probably sated on salmon he'd chased through the Locks. 

How many cities have sea lion traffic jams?

Commuting by car is often miserable, and the planet is better off if we don't do it so much. The psyche too. But the one thing I do miss was driving west across the old toll Eastside plaza and seeing as I came over the rise that first Oz-like view of Seattle ahead, not knowing what raft of grebes, what shaft of sunlight, what activity of beavers, what configuration of clouds was going to greet me.

Such is life in a city of eagles.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.