Mike Merta has rowed all his life. He started on the Detroit River, and after the former nurse moved to Seattle, he took his hobby to Green Lake. A favorite spot for water revelers of all types, the North Seattle locale was great when he got there, but it was also a considerable drive from his South Seattle home.
“I just thought, why am I driving all the way to Green Lake when there’s water right here?” he says. “It’s perfectly calm water. Why is nobody rowing on that? It’s stupid.”
So Merta started the Duwamish Rowing Club, which operates out of two old shipping containers and a shed at Duwamish Waterway Park.
The Rowing Club now has a solid footing in the neighborhood, attracting local kids who might not be able to travel to another boathouse or have the means to afford membership in a more established program—Coach Merta maintains a suggested $250 donation for youth membership. The same price applies for adults, a great deal that Merta hopes will help to better establish the club in the area. A more traditional boathouse and a dock are in the works, says Merta, but the club is moving forward as is; its first regatta will take place this summer, on July 9.
As we talk, the club’s adult membership and their youth coxswains start to filter into the office, chatting and joking as they get their gear together. They take the boats down the block, past a factory, to the river. At the riverbank, in sight of smokestacks and rusted tugboats, the rowers flip the boat over their heads, set it gently in the water, lock their oars, and pull their way into the river—which, at this moment, looks like any other.
It isn’t, of course. That the port and factories that line the river have turned its silty bottom into a cancerous sludgeshake is common knowledge. And while Seattle waters like Green Lake, the Ship Canal, and Lake Washington are thronged by swimmers, boaters, and fishers each summer, the Duwamish remains, in the minds of many Seattleites, as sleepy and toxic as ever.
For those who live in the neighborhoods on the banks, though, an older version of Seattle’s only river is regaining its hold, and the Duwamish Rowing Club is just part of it. The Duwamish has become a place of relaxation and recreation, where kids from South Park swim and cast for salmon and the Duwamish Tribe has built a longhouse in which it can stage community events. It’s a great place for all kinds of water recreation all summer long, as long as you’re mindful of certain unique constraints that come with its status as a Superfund site.
For example—you should not eat the fish, unless it’s salmon. Because salmon are migratory and spend most of their lives in the open ocean, most runs are safe to eat up to 12 times per month. In fact, the Muckleshoot tribe fishes Duwamish salmon runs commercially.
But there are other kinds of fish in the river. “No resident fish are safe to eat from the Duwamish,” says Hannah Kett of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, the nonprofit that assists the EPA with the cleanup. In addition to maintaining a website with cleanup updates and advisories—indispensible to anyone who spends lots of time on and in the river—the Cleanup Coalition puts on an annual festival celebrating the river and the communities around it; this year’s edition falls on August 20 and will feature boat tours and performances.
The Longhouse is the hub of visitor activity on the northern end of the river, hosting tribal cultural events and tour groups, as well as an excellent tribal history museum. From where it sits on the West Seattle side of the river, about a mile south of Delridge and Harbor Island, the West Seattle Bridge and the container port seem to loom almost directly over the building.
Across West Marginal Way from the Longhouse is Herring’s House Park, where Chief Si’ahl grew up and archaeologists once excavated an old Duwamish tribe settlement. The park is home to a boat launch suitable for canoes and kayaks, and from which the Cleanup Coalition and the Port offer kayak and small-boat tours.
The Duwamish River trail runs along the west bank of the river, past the Longhouse and Herring’s House Park and through several public parks maintained by the Parks Department and the Port; bikers can ride about three miles from the mouth of the river to South Park, where summer revelers can connect with the longer Green River Trail on the upper part of the river. Or, maybe, stop by the Duwamish Waterway Park, where a boat might be coming in, filled with rowers, young and old, reclaiming a history once forgotten.
CORRECTION A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition would be helping to put on a lucha libre match in South Park on July 23. It is the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle that will be spearheading the event. The story has been corrected.