Before I write these From the Editor pieces, I obviously have to come up with something to write about. If nothing comes to mind quickly, I’ll look around my shop, the garage and outdoor places where I keep my boats, my digital photo albums, and the attic where I have all of my slides of boat-related projects and travels. If I come up empty handed in my searches at home, taking a boat out often helps. Visiting a new body of water can provide me with some fresh perspectives, so I may scan the satellite imagery on Google Earth. As I was doing that last week, I noticed Swamp Creek, a small tributary to the Sammamish River. I had rowed, paddled, and motored the river countless times and had never noticed the creek. Its entrance, just a dimple on the right bank, had been all too easy to overlook from the river. I decided to take my Whitehall there to see if I could find and row the creek.
The public launch for the Sammamish River is 1/3 mile upstream from its meeting with the north end of Lake Washington. The water there is quite still, and only when the bow was resting on the back end of the trailer did the current slowly push the stern downstream. I pulled the boat up next to the ramp on sand that was smooth a few feet up from the water’s knife edge. It must have been washed over by the wake of a boat that had passed long before I had arrived. I parked the trailer, shoved off, and rowed upstream.
This section of the river I’d seen before. A mobile-home park crowds the right bank with double-wides clad in white metal siding and capped by low-pitched roofs. On the left bank there are two-story houses set back from the river behind winter-bare 40′ high weeping willow trees, trunks and branches as jagged as lightning, and slender branchlets seemingly falling like rain.
The entrance to Swamp Creek was hard to overlook this time. It was right at the edge of the mobile-home lot and there was a low steel bridge blocking its entrance. On top of the bridge an excavator with orange boom and silvery hydraulic piston rods was pawing at the ground on the south end of the bridge. Containment booms, orange on the left bank and yellow on the right, lined the first 100 yards of the creek.
I stopped a few boat lengths from the bridge eyeing the clearance beneath it There seemed to be just enough room for the Whitehall, so I waited to catch the eye of one of the three workers, who were all wearing white full-brim hard hats and were occupied with something on the left bank. The excavator crept across the bridge and onto the muddy ground on the north side and the bridge was clear, but only for a moment. A tracked dump truck crossed the bridge and stopped at its south end; its cab and dump box swiveled like an Army tank turret to face the opposite direction and it poured out a load of crushed rock. Emptied, it headed back across the bridge.
A worker wearing a Day-Glo lime-green vest looked my way and asked if I wanted to pass through. I saw the excavator heading for the bridge and said I’d wait until its weight was off it. The worker signaled to the excavator operator to stop and motioned me to go through. I hooked my toes under the thwart ahead of me and leaned back over the open space encircled by the sternsheets. The bow slipped under the middle girder, the lowest point of the bridge, with little room to spare. The worker, looking at me face to face as I coasted by, called out “Limbo!” The thick flange at the bottom of the girder passed by 2″ from my face. When I emerged on the other side and sat upright, two workers were watching me. One, dressed in dark-green overalls, asked “What are you up to?”
“I’m a magazine editor and I have to write an editorial this weekend. I haven’t come up with anything yet, so I thought I’d row the creek to see if something would come to mind.”
Upstream from the bridge, on the right bank, there were two more workers, one with a clipboard in hand. Next to them were the tangled roots of a 15′-long tree trunk set on its side, its top sawn off. The trunk was one of a half dozen neatly and evenly spaced on the muddy slope of the right bank. They made it evident that the work being done was a restoration of the stream and the wetlands surrounding it.
I kept rowing facing forward to maneuver around branches of half-submerged trees and piles broken just above the water.
The creek ran straight for ¼ mile, and beyond the containment barriers the banks were mantled with thick mats of grass that winter had turned tan and softened so it could no longer stand. Clumps of it at the water’s edge, had been pushed downstream by a past high water and were ragged and curved like old straw brooms. The tips of the grass that touched the water gave the only indication of the stream’s flow—faint ripples that looked like paths left by water striders.
A sparse copse of spindly leaf-bare trees had lengths of corrugated black plastic drainpipe around their trunks, an indication that there were beavers in the area. A second cluster of trees a few dozen yards upstream had been surrounded by a fence of chicken wire and welded-wire mesh, but one of the wooden fence posts was broken and the section of fence it was holding up had collapsed. Only one of the trees in the enclosure was left standing; knee-high stumps were all that remained of the rest.
A quarter mile from its mouth, the creek took a 45-degree turn from east to northeast and was cast in shadow by a stand of tall evergreens on the left bank. About 100 yards farther upstream, three locust trees on the right bank leaned across the river at a 45-degree angle, and their branches curved downward in dark lacy arches over the water.
I slipped past them and in another 20 yards stopped at an impassable barrier of locust trees that had fallen flat across the creek. Their bark was rough and fissured like scored bread crusts. Two branches on the uppermost horizontal trunk were growing straight up, becoming trees themselves with branches of their own reaching out in all directions.
On my way back out, I stopped at the crook in the stream where there was a muddy streak leading from the water’s edge to a gap in the blackberry brambles on the left bank. While it looked like a footpath, there were no footprints and the muddied grass was not damaged but only pressed flat like slicked-back hair from the ’50s. It led into the brambles where no person could walk.
Another 120 yards farther downstream, I nosed the bow ashore where three blue spruce trees had their branches so thoroughly intertwined that no one tree could be distinguished from another. The ground beneath them was bare but for the umber-colored duff and looked like a good place to come ashore, but when I stepped out of the boat and climbed over the bank, I had to crouch down low to clear the plane of the lowest branches and even then, they scratched heavily across my back like a leaf rake.
There was a clearing beyond the trees, a field of tawny leafed grass with a few clusters still standing and the rest carpeting the ground. I thought I would be able to walk across to the Sammamish, and at first it felt as if I were walking on a mattress but a few yards in the mat yielded even more and soon I could feel myself sinking deeper with each step. I turned around and went back to the boat.
I continued rowing downstream. When I approached the bridge, the worker in the green coveralls was kneeling on the north side of the bridge, his front side bright with the blue-white light of arc welding. I passed under the opposite side and when I emerged, he had stopped welding and had his face shield flipped up over his head.
“What publication do you work for?”
“Wind and Boat?”
I knocked on the Whitehall’s varnished gunwale. “WoodenBoat.”
As I rowed off, he flipped his shield back down with a nod of his head and went back to welding.
I shifted around to my normal rowing position, facing aft, and rowed back to the ramp. With the Whitehall strapped to the trailer and my gear in the truck, I drove home, still hoping something would come to mind.