It took me awhile to warm to the Duwamish.
Several years of sharing a bank with it, in fact, and I may never be a fan of the diminished river that flows through Auburn, Kent, Tukwila and Seattle like I am of other waters.
Perhaps if I’d grown up in this gritty, highly industrialized part of Pugetropolis it would be easier.
But the Skykomish, Sultan, Wallace, as well as the Sauk, forks of the Stilly, Icicle, the upper Snoqualmie trio and other streams on either side of Washington’s Central Cascades were where I tramped and wade-fished in my younger days, and they became what I know of as “rivers.”
Nothing wishy-washy about them.
Brawny, emerald-hued streams, bottomed by salt-and-pepper-speckled granite, lorded over by bald eagles.
Gravel bars and plentiful skipping rocks, ever-shifting side channels, the roar of rapids, big downed trees that were no match for the power of relentless currents, logjams, deep eddies, Carrock-sized boulders.
They’re the kind of Western waters that get admitted into the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as birthright.
A guide marker for winter morning and evening flights of crows.
Deceptively brown as it slithers over its silt bed.
Carrier of flotsam, and overgrown by brambles and other invasives.
Damned to indecision, reversing itself twice a day in late summer and fall, and carrying the occasional dead body first towards saltwater, then sending it back upstream as if realizing it would be immoral to dump it in the Superfund zone when the tide changes but not having any better ideas either.
Apparently it’s possible to be an elitist snob about rivers, because that’s what I was, someone who looked down his nose at a stream running a course that geology, a volcano and more than a little help from mankind have dealt it.
But I’m working on it, and salmon fishing has been that path.
I WOULD HAVE REMAINED IGNORANT OF THE DUWAMISH — other than it being somewhere underneath one of the many bridges between home and the Columbia — had we not moved the offices of Northwest Sportsman magazine and our other titles from Seattle’s stadium district to an office park a hail Mary away from the river in late 2013.
By then, that year’s pink, coho and kings had long become nutrients, and the chums and hatchery steelhead were in its upper end, so it was too late for any before-work, lunch-hour or after-work casts.
I ignored 2014’s silver run, as I’m admittedly a rather late devotee of freshwater coho (saltwater is something else), so it really wasn’t until August 2015 that I began sniffing around the river with an eye for access points to odd-year humpies.
Fishermen’s paths through the brambles took me down to a foreign water, one with a different smell, a dirty hem line that marked high tide on leaves trailing into the river, and the slickest looking mud you’ll ever see disappearing into unknown depths.
Danish bogman country.
Afterwards I began to discover that the river carries an amazing story.
At one time the valley its lower end sidles through was actually a saltwater channel, a sheltered marine passage between what would become the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, according to the Burke Museum.
In those days, returning pinks, kings, coho and chums would have swam past what you might call “SeaTac Island” to enter the Duwamish.
Eventually that channel was filled in by multiple mudflows that came off of Mt. Rainier and gradually pushed the mouth of the river north.
In its Waterlines exhibit, the Burke says that 2,000 years ago, the estuary was right here in Tukwila, somewhere by the Fun Center, the Sounders’ practice facilities, Southcenter Mall, the casinos.
But then a huge earthquake 11 centuries ago lifted the land on the south side of the ominous Seattle Fault by 20 feet, moving the river’s mouth to where it is on Elliott Bay today.
At that time, the Duwamish was a far mightier river, collecting the runoff from a nearly 1,700-square-mile watershed that stretched from Everett, Mukilteo and Mill Creek in the north, to Redmond and Stampede and Naches Passes on the Cascade Crest in the east, to the massive Emmons Glacier on the northeast side of Mt. Rainier in the south.
It was fed by the Sammamish and Cedar Rivers, which drained into Lake Washington and out as the Black River.
And the Black met the combined flows of the Green and White Rivers at Fort Dent to form the Duwamish.
The system was “highly productive” for salmon, according to the Burke, and Native American villages and longhouses once stood near the mouth and along Elliott Bay. The area where Longfellow Creek flows off of West Seattle might have even been the site of a tribal smelt fishery, the museum suggests.
DUWAMISH COHO ARE NOT THE EASIEST FISH TO CATCH, at least in my experience the past three falls.
It seems like I’ve primarily been engaged in moving product off of the rack at Outdoor Emporium and putting it up on the wrack that is all the submerged obstructions in the river.
Needless to say, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder why coho jump. Just because? The sheer thrill? To shake loose sea lice? Coming up on unexpected underwater obstacles? One after another does seem to leap in the exact same spots, I’ve noticed.
Recently as I was making a steeply slanted bank more hospitable to stand and cast from I came across alternating layers of brown-orange and dark gray soils. I’m no geologist but it suggested flood deposits from different sources.
The farmers who began working the Green and Puyallup Valleys in the late 1800s had differing ideas about where the silty White should drain.
Growers on the King County side would dynamite a logjam to get the river to flow west instead of north, and then farmers on the Pierce County side would blow up a bluff to force it north instead of west.
It went on for decades, with rifle-armed patrols watching warily what the other side was up to.
Then in 1906, “it all became moot,” reports Washington’s HistoryLink.org. One of Mother Nature’s infamous November atmospheric rivers sent such a flood downstream that it permanently shifted the White into the Puyallup River and its waters now meet Puget Sound at Commencement Bay instead of Elliott Bay.
A decade after losing that major tributary, the Duwamish was abandoned by the bulk of three more — all of the Sammamish and Cedar and nearly the entire Black — when the ship canal was opened and Lake Washington dipped 9 feet.
The Black is now just a trickle but it will periodically and temporarily rise with murky water when a dam releases water from a nearby riparian area. The watershed has shrunk to only 492 square miles.
Meanwhile, downstream, the estuary of the Duwamish was being filled in to make a deeper, better harbor for shipping interests.
Development backed up the valley, like the river itself rises at high tide. Riprap and flood protection levees straight-jacketed its course.
Whistle-stops and burgs became towns, towns became cities — a fake city even sprang up during World War II when the roof of Boeing’s B-17 factory on the lower river was camouflaged.
No doubt that the bombers that came out of the plant were instrumental in winning the war, but what also came out of the facility in the form of PCBs and other effluents was devastating to the home front and the area was declared a Superfund site. Cleanup there wrapped up in 2015, with a mile’s worth declared “award-winning new habitat areas” by the EPA.
Even as work continues on other polluted sites in the lower river, anglers are advised in nine different languages not to eat resident fish or shellfish.
My family and I have eaten several Duwamish coho the past three falls, and I plan to serve up some more, as sea-going salmon are on the safe list.
I think with the change in the weather this week that is more likely — as long as it doesn’t rain too hard. Even as contaminants are removed from near the mouth, storms are flushing street runoff into the river and it’s now believed that something in our vehicles’ tires is especially toxic to coho.
TODAY MARKS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I recently ran a photo essay on Northwest streams protected by the Congressional legislation signed by President Johnson in 1968.
There’s the muscular Rogue and Sauk, the deeply remote Imnaha and Owyhee, and the fishy Chetco and Klickitat.
The Duwamish couldn’t be more different — to fish it is to hear the roar, hammering and squeal of the cogs of the industrial world’s engines in motion — and I doubt it will ever join that prestigious club, but it has helped me see that messy, overlooked, down-on-their-luck rivers are important too.
In recent summers I’ve found myself fretting about its water temperatures, and drawing up plans for fish habitat projects.
And it’s got something else going for it. Earlier this fall, guided by the advice of a fellow angler I met on the banks last year, I caught my first two Chinook out of the river.
Duwamish kings were recently identified as among the most important stocks for our starving orcas, as key as salmon from the pristine and well-protected Elwha and Skagit Rivers.
Yes, there are wild and scenic elements of the river — Flaming Geyser — but the portion that I’ve gotten to know is anything but. Yet in doing so I’ve come to appreciate that there are more kinds of rivers. As long as there are salmon and salmon fishermen of all kinds are able to fish its runs, it will help keep the pressure on to clean up and restore the Duwamish. I think we owe that to a river we have so altered.
And now to catch one of its coho.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this mistakenly called Flaming Geyser Flaming Gorge.