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Originally published May 2, 2014 at 12:03 PM | Page modified May 9, 2014 at 8:17 AM

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We are water: In it, on it, around it all the time, it shapes us

Of the 142.5 square miles that make up this city’s total area, 58.7 square miles are water. Geographically speaking, Seattle is almost half liquid.


Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Wearing flip-flops and hoisting an umbrella lit from within, Lauren Buzzell is prepared for all weather conditions as she watches the Luminata Lantern Parade at Seattle's Green Lake. The city's bays, waterways, lakes and notoriously wet weather not only offer beautiful backdrops for personal reflection; they also reflect who we are.



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Lovely, lyrical prose -- well done, Tyrone. You really captured a sense of this place -- I've often said we are a city... MORE
Wow, these photos are really phenomenal. Well done, Erica. Any way to purchase them? MORE

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THE RAIN blows sideways against the woman’s face as she passes a stranger on Pike Street in downtown Seattle. She turns up her collar and soldiers on, sans umbrella.

Let the rain come down unimpeded. Let the water drip from our chins and soak our hair and ruin all but the most weatherproof gear.

The woman gives a subtle, encouraging nod as if to say, “Hang in there, buddy; we’re all in this together; and besides, there’s plenty more where that came from.”

But this is the pits. If it were possible to look up at the clouds and contemplate a silver lining to this moist madness, that’d be one thing. But the rain pours so hard and obscures the business district’s high-rises so completely it’s as if the entire city is in a cloud.

In the muck of misery comes a moment of clarity, a redeeming impulse, like a surprise sunbreak between showers: Don’t look up and curse. Look down and marvel.

As the rain falls, it covers the pavement in mirrors, a peek-a-boo gallery of puddles that reveal gleaming fragments of what is, even in this mess, a stunning city.

The intersection of Pike and First presents a double of itself. The red-neon lights of the landmark “Public Market Center” sign glow in reflections on the rain-slicked intersection, blurring with every car that splashes by, then locking back into focus.

It’s mesmerizing, our city staring back at us from the streets, reassuring anyone who bothers to notice that there’s a romance to our waterlogged town that only starts with the killer views offered by myriad bays, waterways and lakes.

You’re so lucky, West Seattle, with your panoramic view across Elliott Bay toward a city skyline all laid out like supermodels in sequined dresses.

Good for you, too, ferry commuters, houseboat owners, fishermen, weekend sailors, rowers and everybody fortunate enough not to be landbound during this weekend’s opening of boating season.

From your vantage point, it’s easy to see what sets this city of seven hills but 150 bridges apart: a landscape and a people defined by water.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

A lone rower sets out on Lake Union during a foggy morning. Although many people complain about the weather, the moist climate can make everyday scenes seem painterly.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Seattle is 41 percent water, and that doesn't even count the 36 inches of it that falls from the sky on average each year. Here, raindrops accumulate on feathers at the Washington Park Arboretum.

OF THE 142.5 square miles that make up this city’s total area, 58.7 square miles are water.

Geographically speaking, Seattle is almost half liquid, from Puget Sound on our western flank to Lake Washington to the east to 580-acre Lake Union at the heart of the city to the man-made channels that reach out in either direction, dividing us socially and uniting us spatially.

With so many watery settings, we are spoiled for choice, and with so many choices, we spoil ourselves that much more.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, for instance, that Washington state is reportedly the world’s largest producer of luxury “superyachts.”

Along the scruffy Duwamish, Seattle’s sole river — if you don’t count the “atmospheric rivers” that dump successive rainstorms on us in the wet season — Delta Marine builds huge leisure craft for the mega-rich smack in the middle of one of the city’s last blue-collar districts. The shipyard also sits a stone’s throw from where manufacturers of more-utilitarian, wooden fishing boats helped establish the city’s bona fides as a maritime hub in the last century.

At Delta Marine, enormous unfinished hulls brood on stilts in the back lot like dinosaur skeletons in a museum. The company’s website boasts that one recently completed vessel, a 240-foot yacht named Laurel, is one of the largest custom yachts built in this country in more than 75 years.

Yet when these dreamboats, which can run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, set sail, they will ply a river so polluted by the industry along its banks that it has been declared a Superfund cleanup site.

But then, downstream near Seattle’s artificial Harbor Island along what is today a largely man-made waterway, those yachts will pass a longhouse and cultural center built by the Duwamish Tribe, whose lore harks back to when these waters ran freely and teemed with salmon, not ships.

As we have been shaped by our waters, so they have been reshaped, physically and conceptually.

But to truly appreciate the complexity of our relationship to one of life’s essential elements, you don’t need to know the difference between a skiff and a schooner or be a student of history.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

At dusk, the Great Wheel on the Seattle waterfront offers glimmering, dramatic views of the downtown skyline and Elliott Bay. The climate-controlled gondolas shield passengers from the elements, giving riders a chance to see the city in all of its moods.

Try riding the Seattle Great Wheel in a rainstorm instead.

The human body is 70 percent water, but from inside one of the waterfront Ferris wheel’s 42 gondolas, on another awesomely drenched recent evening, the oneness with our aquatic surroundings is total.

The wheel, positioned dramatically at the end of a pier, begins its magical ascent, its psychedelic light display bathing everything in a sweet, pink hue. The gondola, streaming with rivulets of rainwater, rises like a lost balloon, first breaching the roofline of the waterfront piers, then rising high enough to spot green-yellow-and-red-dappled streets climbing vertiginously up into the towering business district. As the gondola reaches the topmost position, we are face-to-face with the grandeur of the twinkling city at night, which the dripping-wet gondola renders with kaleidoscopic intensity.

Life inside the bubble: Police lights flicker, but you can’t hear the sirens. Jets on their way to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport soar noiselessly overhead. The bay thrashes but doesn’t threaten. It is a silent extravagance.

The view is arresting but brief. Suddenly we are flung into darkness as the gondola descends, at one point taking passengers 40 feet out over the bay’s churning, black expanse before repeating the dazzling circuit. Bright lights, brute nature. ’Round and ’round we go, rising like waves and falling like raindrops.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Ron Dunphy, a busker, mingles with friends at Pike Place Market during a shower. "I like the rain," he says. "It knocks the pollutants out of the air. I can smell the trees. It makes it cozy. It makes your pillow more comfortable back home."

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

A gaggle of black umbrellas, a strangely uncommon sight in a city where natives pride themselves on not owning any, crosses the intersection at Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown.

IN EVERY CORNER of Seattle, we are reminded of the water’s power over our lives and our ideas about what it means to live in the Emerald City, City of Industry.

The birthplace of the United Parcel Service on South Main Street in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, for example, is marked by a raging, 22-foot, man-made waterfall tucked away in an enclosed pocket park that is easy for harried passers-by to miss if they’re not paying attention.

But inside, the force of the cascade muffles all other urban sound and temporarily transports those who step into this lush garden setting to a more primal mental state. Here, cocooned by the roar of this unlikely falls in the concrete jungle, we can also reflect on the ways we harness the water around us — and exalt it.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Peter Aye, a bridge maintenance technician on the Interstate 90 floating bridge, gives a tour of the cable gallery inside a bridge pontoon near Mercer Island. "Even on crummy days, I feel pretty fortunate to be out on the lake," he says.

Pete Aye gets more opportunities to contemplate this complicated relationship than most. Aye is a member of the Washington State Department of Transportation crew that maintains the Interstate 90 floating bridge, a flight of man-against-nature fancy if there ever was one.

Aye’s “office” is Lake Washington, and his job is to make sure the world’s second-longest floating bridge, at 6,620 feet, stays in place on top of it, even as wind storms and the seasonal raising and lowering of the lake by a couple of feet exert incredible tension on the behemoth structure’s anchoring cables. To help, the crew uses a 150-ton hydraulic jack that can pull the slack out of the cables and set the proper tension.

It is the most beautiful of dirty jobs.

“Today when the sun came up, you could see the fog coming in from Mount Rainier and from Bellevue,” Aye says on one particularly scenic day.

He never takes his gorgeous, lake-bound surroundings for granted. But his cubicle-bound wife, he says with a chuckle, is a bit tired of hearing about it.

Working on the lake comes with hazards, though. For one thing, the lake suffers from sudden mood swings.

“It can change dramatically in a couple of hours from being perfectly flat to white caps lapping over the bridge,” Aye says.

If winds reach 65 miles an hour for at least 15 minutes, the bridge has to be closed to traffic for safety.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Aye says of days like that. “Fortunately, they provide pretty good rain gear for us.”

Last fall, when a stormy weekend of powerful, 50 mile-an-hour winds buffeted the structure and sent wave mists over passing vehicles, Aye and his team were sent out on “wind watch” to measure its velocity as well as check for stress to the structure and report on visibility.

The lake’s tantrum didn’t last long.

“It was pretty the next day,” Aye says.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

LeRoy Johns of Sisters, Ore., loads his net on the Pacific Rose in Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, where the city’s historic status as a maritime hub still rings true.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Rust forms on 55-gallon drums at All Metal Co. in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. Famously nicknamed the Emerald City because of our lush landscape, it's easy to forget that our bayside location also makes us an important industrial port town.

A FADED SIGN painted on the brick wall of a historic building in Pioneer Square sums up our love of seaside environs with a pun: Washington State Ferries, Have Lunch Over Seas.

That romanticism endures.

Dylan Kilpatrick presses his finger against the window of a privately run Victoria Clipper catamaran one recent Saturday and excitedly tells his partner, Beth Richer, who’s seated opposite him for their weekend voyage to British Columbia, that he’s spotted the place where only a week before he proposed: Discovery Park, at the waterside edge of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.

Gazing toward the mainland from the middle of Puget Sound, it’s as if the 31-year-old is viewing the city he grew up in for the first time. From the water, few landmarks seem recognizable. The city’s North End is all bluffs and marinas and evergreens. But that tiny spot, at the bottom of a steep cliff overlooking the Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond, is seared in his memory.

The previous Saturday, he woke Richer early to suggest they take a walk around the park, one of their favorite places to stroll and the site of their first date. Kilpatrick had more in mind this time.

As they reached a dune along the Sound, he got down on bended knee and pulled out a little box with a ring in it.

The location couldn’t have been more perfect. By coincidence, some other hopeless romantic had already drawn a heart in the sand near the spot where he was proposing.

It was just the two of them now, though.

Kilpatrick asked. Richer said yes.

“When she looked down at me, she could also look out onto all this beauty,” Kilpatrick recalls.

A short time later, another surprise. It started snowing — water once again shifting itself — and the scene.

“Growing up in Seattle, I took that beauty for granted,” says Kilpatrick, who grew up in the Green Lake neighborhood and commutes every day across Lake Washington to his job in Kirkland. “Everywhere you look, there’s beautiful mountains and water.”

“On the ride up (aboard the Clipper), I spent a lot of time looking at the actual outline of the land — sheer cliffs, water eating into little coves,” Kilpatrick says of that particularly rainy, rocky trip to Victoria.

“I always forget what it looks like from there. It switches so quickly from the busy, big high-rise, beautiful city to, ‘Wow, there’s not much going on here.’ ”

“It helps me carve out that little niche that is extra special for us,” he says of being able to pinpoint, from the water, where he proposed. “Out of all that landscape, I can identify that one spot.”

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

An onramp to Highway 520 shelters a man from the rain as he walks through Washington Park Arboretum on a drizzly day. The weather creates a climate where plants can thrive, but we have found a way to thrive in our soggy surroundings, too.

AS DISORIENTING and discomfiting as the water can be, it can also help us find our bearings.

“Urban Float.” Even the seemingly contradictory name of this spa in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood stops you in your tracks.

The city is hard and in-your-face; floating conveys a certain above-it-all ease.

At Urban Float, visitors pay upward of $90 an hour to float nude or barely clothed in a Space Age-looking pod filled with Epsom-salt water, making the human body wonderfully buoyant. Each chamber has a hatch that closes shut, sealing off the sights and sounds of the outside world and immersing the customer in a soft, blue light.

In this state of sensory deprivation, only the beating of your own heart and the breath rushing through your own lungs penetrate the silence.

The experience of floating in saltwater without outside distractions is thought to relieve achy muscles, ease inflammation, regenerate the spirit and increase mental clarity as our frantic beta brain waves give over to the theta waves that promote deep, creative thinking.

Floating is, admittedly, a little scary at first, but after your gently drifting mass reaches a cozy stillness, it is sublime.

At 98 degrees, the water is almost exactly the temperature of the human body.

“It’s womblike,” manager Eve Minehan says. “You lose that sense of where your skin ends and the water begins; you feel kind of infinite.”

People either love or hate floating, Minehan says. It is a test, in a way, showing us what we’re really made of at the exact moment when it feels as if we’re made of nothing.

Some find the encapsulating solitude claustrophobia-inducing. Others are so saddled by thoughts that they can’t fully relax, their physical weightlessness sabotaged by the troubled waters of the mind.

With any luck, floating will help your own emotional and psychological contours come into sharper view.

After all, Minehan says of water, “It’s what we’re made of.”

An out-of-town friend once asked Kilpatrick, in all seriousness, “Do you guys get around by canoe out there?”

Of course we don’t — except when we do. Kilpatrick’s friend might be onto something. Anyone who has seen the kayak and boat traffic on Lake Washington or Lake Union on a glorious, summery day might wonder the same thing.

Water is what we’re made of, but it’s also what we’ve made of it.

Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

A strip of blue sky can be seen at twilight through the clouds at Fremont Peak Park overlooking Ballard. On certain days, the weather brings a mix of rain, slush and sunshine.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


On Instagram: Share your rain and water photos on the hashtag #SeattleWaterCity



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