Ancient rhythms of sport and nature at Genesee Park

Bulldogs and Vultures, playing lacrosse on reclaimed land bordering Lake Washington, produce a scene that is elemental and joyful.

Crosscut archive image.

A map showing when Wetmore Slough was a Columbia City harbor.

Bulldogs and Vultures, playing lacrosse on reclaimed land bordering Lake Washington, produce a scene that is elemental and joyful.

A high school game can remind you there’s something both elemental and joyful about sports.

As we approached the upper field at Genesee Park in southeast Seattle, the two teams were gathered in tight knots around their respective coaches. Bending into hear the final pre-game instructions, teammates growled encouragement to one another. Then with a shout of their team nickname each knot broke and the lacrosse match got under way.

In white, with purple trim, were the Garfield Bulldogs, the presumptive favorite with a 4-2 record. In black, gold trim, the Vashon Vultures at 2-4 on the season. The city versus country cast of the contest lent immediate drama. How would the country cousins fare against the city boys? Pre-game intelligence indicating that Garfield was both bigger and more experienced prepared us for witnessing a rout, but the Vultures jumped out in front quickly with two early scores.

Both teams looked to be highly focused. There was no sideline silliness or distraction. The somewhat menacing Darth Vader-like helmets worn by lacrosse players may contribute something to that, as well as to the appeal of the sport to young men.

“We’ve got ‘em back on their heels, don’t let up,” shouted the Vashon coach. Fifteen to 20 spectators sat or stood on the several sections of aluminum bleachers beneath an expansive blue and grey sky. Cloud formations rolled and raced north and east toward the lake.

Each team had about 20 players in uniform. Ten play at a time. Lacrosse, a sport rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S. and Canada, is an American original and is thought todate as early as A. D. 1100 among Native Americans, who once played with as many as 100 on a side. Matches ran from sunup to sundown.

After each score in lacrosse, there’s a “face-off” at mid-field with one player from each team laying his stick flat to the ground, then at the whistle trying to trap the ball and flip it out to a teammate while fending off the opposing player with his body. After that, lacrosse seems a hybrid of soccer — there’s lots of running — and hockey — there are sticks and a good bit of contact. Garfield came back to tie the game at 6-6 late in the second quarter, and we wondered, would the the Bulldogs run away with it now?

When a Garfield player went down with a twisted ankle, all the other players, on the field and the sidelines, “took a knee,” meaning they knelt on one knee, arms crossed on the other. It’s apparently the protocol for injury time outs that everyone kneels and maintains silence. Nice. When the injured player got back on his feet there was light applause. Then all the others popped up as well, and the game was on again.

From the south side of the upper Genesee playfield you can look down the 57.7-acre Genessee Park toward Lake Washington and Sayres Pits, where the Seafair Hydroplane races take place each year in August. Before the Lake’s water level was lowered by the Lake Washington Cut in 1917, the park area had been a wetland, dubbed “Wetmore Slough.” Early residents of nearby Columbia City had visions of dredging Wetmore Slough to create a fresh-water port at the northern edge of Columbia City. Looking north, you can see how the idea would make sense to them. There’s a continous open valley from Columbia City to the Lake.

The Park is a green swath bounded to the north by Lake Washington and covering the low meadow between hillsides that veers west toward Rainier Avenue at its southern end. It is bisected by Genesee Street running east to west. “Genesee” apparently means “beautiful valley” in the language of the Seneca.

In 1947, the slough, having lost most of its prospects as a waterway, was purchased by the city for a dump. From 1947 to 1963, it was operated as a landfill, meaning that Seattle’s garbage provides the foundation for today’s sports fields, off-leash dog area, picnic shelter and playgrounds, as well as restored meadowland and native bird habitat.

During our occasional snowstorms, the park makes a lovely spot for cross-countryskiing, while in summer it hosts not only Seafair, but various other events, like a Danskin Triathlon, an Ethiopian New Year’s festival, and an annual community bike-swap.

In 1960 Seattle voted to turn the area into a park, but it wasn’t until 1968 that development began. Only recently have the two playfields at the south end, across Genesee Street become state-of-the-art turfed and lighted fields. First the upper field was re-done ten years ago. Two years ago the lower field was converted from sand to field turf. Nowadays, both are in heavy use, mostly for soccer, but also lacross, and the occasional pick-up football game.

As the fourth quarter got under way Vashon had a narrow 11-10 lead, but we had a sense that the Vultures smelled victory. When they got a quick score to open the final time period, a Vultures assistant coach yelled, “First blood! First blood! Keep it up.” Another Garfield player went down, and again everyone “took a knee.”

At 7 pm the clouds were darkening and in the distance they appeared to be letting down gauzy sheets of rain. Minutes later, rain began to fall on the field and players. But at the same time, the setting sun eased beneath the western cloud bank, illuminating the rain drops. Another score by the Vultures with two minutes left and the Vashon sideline was now jumping up and down not just on scores, but more or less constantly.

Garfield made another push toward the goal, but desperation was in the air along with shouts of frustration from the Bulldog players. When the final whistle sounded it was 14-10, Vashon.

As the game ended a brilliant rainbow arced completely across the eastern sky. The rainbow stood in the sky, dramatically, as the lines of the two teams filed by one another for the traditional hand slaps and “good games.”

The drama in the sky — racing clouds, off-and-on rain, and the brilliant (now double) rainbow — dwarfed the field and the players. But not only dwarfed, somehow spotlighted them as well, giving the whole sweaty contest an epic feel. The helmeted warriors seemed, for a moment, Athenians and Spartans, Iroquois and Senecas.

The light and colors of the rainbow lent a grandeur to this game in southeast Seattle, which seemed fitting given its intensity, the victory of the country-cousin underdogs, and the enduring joy and camarderie of high school sport.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.