Seattle is renowned for its family-friendly lakes and many Puget Sound beaches. We love to watch our kids frolic on the shores of Lake Washington, clamber up the hill at Lake Union's Gasworks Park, and play in the surf at Alki Beach or Golden Gardens – especially on those long summer nights while waiting for the sun to set over the Olympic Mountains.
But what about the treasures offered to adventurous families along Seattle's river?
Those few Seattleites who are "in the know" about Seattle's hometown river are divided about its appeal. To some, the Duwamish River is no more than an industrial waterway in need of clean up after decades of dumping and pollution. What is less obvious is that the Duwamish is also a living, vibrant natural and cultural treasure – one that only reveals its riches to those who take the time to explore. With cleanup of the river underway, it is also a case study in environmental restoration and recovery – perfect for sneaking in a little education with your fun.
Herring House Park
Visible from the West Seattle Bridge, this city park and neighboring Port of Seattle property hug the riverbank along its last remaining natural river bend (the rest of the river was straightened to make way for development.) In the center of the park, a restored intertidal slough provides habitat for juvenile salmon making their way out to sea. To the south is Kellogg Island, a 20-acre preserve for birds and wildlife that lies just offshore. An inviting bench along the park's trail provides a perfect viewpoint for families to watch heron, kingfisher and osprey, and kids are delighted when they are lucky enough to spot harbor seals and river otters that visit the quiet river bend. In the background, huge barges hauling cargo to Alaska are escorted by tugboats along the straightened waterway. It's a dynamic juxtaposition of nature and industry that perfectly captures the character of this urban river.
Duwamish Tribe's Longhouse & Cultural Center
The Duwamish Tribe once had their winter fishing village just south of Herring House Park. The Port of Seattle planned to fill and develop the river bend in the 1970s, but while breaking ground, remains of the tribe's village were found along the bank. Today, the property is protected as a designated archeological site. You can follow the trail south of the parking lot at Herring House Park to see the site, which includes educational signage and public art, but for a detailed look at the tribe's history and contemporary life, cross the road to the Duwamish Tribe's Longhouse and Cultural Center. There you are likely to meet Cecile Hanson, grand-niece of Chief Seattle and the tribe's Chairperson since 1975.
There's no better introduction to teaching your kids about Seattle's Native American history. Engaging displays lead you through the tribe's historic and current struggles to maintain their culture and restore their traditions. Tribal members' weaving and beadwork are on display and some crafts are available for purchase. Be sure to peek into the traditional Longhouse that comprises the southern half of the building – the handcrafted wood floor is a work of art in itself!
Duwamish Waterway Park
The neighborhood of South Park, known to residents as "River City," is a hidden gem. Riverfront houses that predate the straightening of the river have a view of Boeing's historic "Plant 2" on the opposite bank, where B-17 bombers were built for the military during WWII.
The highlight of this reach of the river is family-friendly Duwamish Waterway Park, in the heart of South Park. The sandy beach here is perfect for families with small children, and is a favorite of visiting water birds. Picnic tables sit under shady trees, and on weekends you'll often see kayakers launching off the beach. You can arrange for delivery of kayaks here from Alki Kayak Tours if you want to try it yourself. The protected waters make it a perfect family paddling spot – just stay out of the busy shipping lane down the river's center.
A few blocks away, along 14th Avenue South, lie some of Seattle's best Mexican Restaurants – the neighborhood has more children per capita than any other in Seattle, making the local dining scene very informal and relaxed. Where 14th Avenue South meets the river, the South Park Bridge is being rebuilt. The walkway on the bridge's new span will provide the perfect vantage point for watching the environmental cleanup activity scheduled to start soon at Boeing and other river "hotspots."
IF YOU GO
Duwamish River Festival
Duwamish Waterway Park hosts the annual festival, to be held on Aug. 27. Other kid-friendly river activities include boat tours guided by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, and twice-yearly hands-on tree planting and trash cleanup events. For more information, visit www.duwamishcleanup.org.
Is the River Safe?
The Duwamish River is a federal Superfund site in need of clean up; however, most public beaches are relatively clean and do not pose any health risk from casual contact. As a precaution, hands and shoes should be washed and cleaned after a visit. The Washington Department of Health warns against eating any “resident” seafood from the river (fish and crab that live there year round) and advises limits on eating Chinook salmon from Puget Sound.
Polluted sediments (mud) at the river bottom from industry and urban storm water are the focus of the clean up effort. Cleanup of the river has begun, and will continue for several years. For more information visit www.duwamishcleanup.org.
BJ Cummings is an environmental consultant and avid traveler living in Seattle with her son, husband and cat. In her spare time, she writes, kayaks and does the occasional meringue.