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Originally published Friday, September 6, 2013 at 12:05 PM

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Driftwood comes and goes, telling stories

You see them everywhere, time travelers journeying through the brine or lined up on quiet beaches where they form a uniquely Northwest tableau of astonishing depth and variety.

Pacific NW magazine writer

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SKY DARWIN straddles a bleached driftwood log in Lincoln Park, his back to the sun as he takes his Swiss Army knife and carves a notch into the pencil-thin stick of driftwood he’s lifted from the pile at his feet.

He takes another piece, sharpens it to a point and places the tip under the notch, watching as the stick seesaws and pirouettes in the afternoon breeze.

He does this again and again, building downward until the pieces form a delicate, whimsical tree that, like much of the driftwood scattered along the water line, will surely be gone by morning.

“I usually build after a tough day at work,’’ says Darwin, his bearded face shaded by a floppy olive-green hat. “It’s great. I go home, and my fingers smell like the ocean.”

As Darwin’s knife pierces and sharpens the wood over and over, crows alight nearby on driftwood forts that are assembled by small hands and disassembled by high tides.

Darwin, 44, is part of the constant motion of the beach, a human tide from South Park who comes and goes, bringing his “shiftwood” sculptures to the park’s pebbled shore.

His presence here is as ephemeral as the material he uses to tell simple stories of the Northwest, its human and natural history.

Soon he’ll be off on an adventure to the Pacific Coast, where he’ll try his hand at creating a driftwood sculpture garden. But right now, he’s captivated by the slender wood before him.

It’s a beautiful coincidence that the driftwood resting in his hands has its own stories to tell.

YOU SEE THEM everywhere, time travelers journeying through the brine or lined up on quiet beaches where they form a uniquely Northwest tableau of astonishing depth and variety.

Bleached white and stripped of their bark and branches, the behemoths possess a kind of prehistoric beauty that invites the mind to wander: Root balls are gnarled fists ready to beat back waves, a twisted branch the sinewy silhouette of a sea serpent rearing up from the sand.

Many of the logs have been journeying around the Sound for hundreds of years. They float alligator-like offshore until weather and tides push and roll and float them ashore.

Some find permanent homes on the beach, their root balls anchoring them deeper and deeper into the sand as they spin like corkscrews with the changing tides. Others become seafarers, undertaking ocean odysseys to Hawaii. Still others become “deadheads,” the equivalent of wooden icebergs floating vertically in the water, ready to take down boats.

In between, they provide food for gribbles and shipworms — wood-boring creatures that transform hulking logs into lattice-like sculptures that appear as light as bone china.

Beyond that, driftwood remains largely a mystery.

Walking the beach at Shorewood Park in Burien one recent morning, University of Washington professor Charles Simenstad points to a 40-foot log that is still covered in resin.

The former tree was probably 500 years old when it died and may have been in circulation for 100 years or more, says Simenstad, an aquatic and fishery sciences professor who studies river and coastal marine ecosystems across the Pacific Northwest.

Given the log’s size and its location on the upper reaches of the Shorewood beach, there’s a good chance it will be there for the rest of the summer, if not longer.

“The bigger and longer the wood, the more likely it will be established until a really big king storm,’’ Simenstad says, referring to the extremely high tides during the winter months.

Driftwood helps protect beaches from erosion, and becomes important habitat for plants and animals, Simenstad says.

The crescent-shaped beach at Shorewood is rimmed with an orderly assortment of driftwood, most of it facing north-south past the high-tide line. Contrast that with the private beach to the south, where trees peeling off the bluff serpent westward across the sand toward the water, soon to become driftwood.

Bluffs and two rivers — the Skykomish and the Nisqually — provide most of the Puget Sound driftwood we see today, but no one knows what portion comes from rivers and what portion from bluffs, Simenstad says.

Despite its prevalence, surprisingly little is known about the characteristics or functions of driftwood in the Sound, or how it has changed over time.

What is clear: There was once a lot more of it.

One U.S. Forest Service report noted that in the 1870s, the Skagit River “had a driftwood jam three-quarters of a mile long and a quarter mile wide.” During that same period, drifted and dead trees on the Stillaguamish River “were so numerous, so large and so deeply embedded in the bottom that a stream ‘snag boat’ operated for six months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.”

And those were just the ones that died naturally. Once logging reached a fevered pitch, trees that had been cut down and moved via water to mills joined the driftwood flotilla, soon to be united with the detritus of civilization: pieces of piers and docks, even broken-up boats.

In one of the few studies to look at the function and characteristics of local driftwood, UW graduate student Daniel Tonnes tagged and carbon-dated logs at eight Puget Sound beaches. He found that more than 90 percent of the larger logs died between 90 and 300 years earlier, with the majority dying pre-1850.

Among the species he identified: Western red cedars, hemlocks, maples, alders, birch, Douglas fir and cottonwoods. But most couldn’t be identified because they were so heavily bleached.

Tonnes writes that “more than 150,000 logs were removed from five rivers in Puget Sound from 1880 through 1960,” most of it by congressionally funded “snag boats.”

Contrast that with today’s laws, which make it illegal to remove driftwood from most public beaches, including those owned by Seattle and the state of Washington.

Driftwood on private beaches is presumed to be the property of the owner, and anything floating in the Sound is fair game — at least until it’s picked up by the M/V Puget, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat that plies the lakes and the Sound from Olympia to Port Angeles, clearing shipping lanes of debris.

“In the old days, there used to be a problem with ships colliding with large wood debris,’’ says John Hicks, chief of navigation for the corps’ Seattle District.

“Deadheads,” massive waterlogged trees that float vertically in the water like icebergs with their tops sticking out of the water, are still an issue, he says. “It’s like hitting a rock: it doesn’t move.”

The Puget’s five- to seven-person crew fishes out logs as long as 120 feet from the waters, cuts them up and hauls them back to the Ballard Locks, where they remain on a barge until needed for beach restoration.

“On a routine day, we clear 15 tons,’’ Hicks says. That translates to about six or seven trees. “We get anywhere from 800 (tons) to 5,000 tons a year.”

It’s still possible to collect driftwood, but it helps to have a plan.

ZACKARAYA LECK has been searching for driftwood most of his life.

“It’s like a time capsule,’’ he says. “You carve 3 inches into the tree and you’ve gone back 200 years. The wood you’ve exposed hasn’t seen light since the 1800s.”

A native of Orcas Island, where his main studio is, the 34-year-old artist and craftsman followed his father into the blacksmithing trade. He branched into woodworking, creating exquisite tables and benches from some of the massive hunks of wood that float onto the island.

Driftwood, he says, is “a piece of nature, distilled by the forces of nature.” And though it’s no longer alive, its ability to bring life to austere spaces or works of art is profound, he says.

Leck has what he calls his secret beaches, privately owned coves and outcroppings owned by friends who have given him permission to harvest wood there. He paddles his kayak along the shoreline, searching for red and yellow cedar, hemlock, Douglas fir and, his favorite, juniper.

Unlike Sky Darwin, whose shiftwood sculptures are intentionally ephemeral, Leck’s work could last hundreds of years.

“I love to work with monolithic pieces,’’ he says, tucking a lock of long, straight hair behind his ear with a hand that seems to have doubled in size from muscle. We’re standing in his Seattle blacksmithing studio at the Pratt Fine Arts Center, where the temperature is 10 degrees past baking. As he flips through a photo gallery of his work on his iPad, you can almost smell the saltwater.

Certain beaches tend to act like big scoops, collecting huge volumes of wood, especially in the winter. “Crescent Beach (Preserve) has so much in the winter, they have to plow it off the road,’’ he says.

Others are like temporary showcases, where wood is deposited and cleared according to the tides, he says.

Working with driftwood requires intense commitment and timing, as is evidenced by Leck’s successful effort to retrieve a 40-foot-long, 3½-foot-wide piece of yellow cedar on a friend’s private beach.

“I had to work with the tides,’’ he says, describing how he went to the beach at 11 p.m. to jack up the log 4 feet at low tide. He returned at high tide 11 hours later and floated it to the tide line.

“When the tide went out, it was in a place where boom trucks could reach it,’’ he says, smiling. He cut the log into three, 12-foot sections and hauled it to his studio to dry out.

“Sometimes it’s been tossed around for a generation or more. What’s left is a very tough piece of wood,’’ he says. “It’s the process as much as anything. I love to be on the water, exploring new places. I’ve seen pieces and remembered them and saw them a year or two later. It’s not common, but it does happen. Sometimes we get cedar branches, and they look like ribs from a whale.”

Searching for and using driftwood is a big part of his life, Leck says. “If I could do that all the time, it would be the best job ever.”

Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Reach her at skelleher@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2508. On Twitter @susankelleher. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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