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The poetry of Longfellow Creek
Special to the Seattle Times
What do a steel mill, Lorquin's Admiral butterflies, a shopping center, coho salmon, Chief Sealth High School students, public art and an ancient bog have in common?
Answer: The Longfellow Creek Legacy Trail in West Seattle.
Yes, urban nature reclamation projects make for some strange bedfellows — or in this case, creek-bed-fellows. The butterflies, bog and salmon have been around for a while, doing what they do. It's the human element that has stirred things up, and after more than a decade of imagining, meeting and sweating by neighbors and friends of the creek, the recently completed 4.2-mile trail along one of the last free-flowing, year-round streams in Seattle is proof that urban streams are worth saving. Along the trail you'll find artwork that complements nature, such as the footbridge framed by what looks like a salmon's backbone; the pavilion that resembles a dragonfly; tiled benches created by those high-school kids.
It's here that you can have a stare-down with a coyote, or watch a blue heron by moonlight, as West Seattle resident and frequent creek walker Jay Mirro has done.
"I always feel my day is going to be blessed by the nature god when I run into the coyote," says Mirro, who heads a group of locals who practice what they call stewardship of the creek. "For being about four miles away from downtown Seattle, Longfellow Creek is a gem in the emerald city. It's surrounded by more open space than any other creek in Seattle, which invites all sorts of wildlife. You can be on the street one moment drinking your latte, then you walk down and duck into the trail and you could be in the middle of the National Forest trail system."
A volunteer effort
A walk on Longfellow Creek
Here are directions to the Longfellow Creek Legacy Trail's Roxhill Park (and bog) starting point, at the south end of the trail. (If you prefer to begin at the north end of the trail, the trailhead is just west of 26th Avenue Southwest at Southwest Yancy Street or at 28th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Dakota Street.)
To Roxhill Park: On the West Seattle freeway, cross the West Seattle Bridge to Fauntleroy Way Southwest. At the first light, turn left onto 35th Avenue Southwest, continue south to Southwest Barton Street and turn left. Find the Roxhill Park sign at 29th Avenue Southwest. Turn right and park next to the playground and restrooms.
Maps are available free by mail. E-mail or call firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-615-1443. The map is also available online at www.longfellowcreek.org, or at West Seattle libraries, Camp Long and the Delridge Neighborhoods Association.
Sunday, Aug. 28, Longfellow Creek Watershed
specialist Sheryl Shapiro will lead a guided walk of the trail from 1-4 p.m. Meet at the Roxhill Park kiosk. All ages are welcome. Call 206-615-1443 for specifics on the route and level of difficulty. Guided group tours may be arranged for other dates.
Work parties are held the second and third Saturdays of every month. Groups and businesses can arrange a time convenient for them. The Longfellow Creek Watershed Council is looking for volunteers to adopt a section of the creek. Contact Sheryl Shapiro, 206-615-1443.
The trail begins at Roxhill Bog, a recently unearthed 10,000-year-old peat bog that is the headwaters of the creek. The route follows Longfellow's meanderings above and underground — winding right beside the water when possible — through Westwood Village shopping center, past sports fields, along neighborhood streets all the way to Southwest Yancy Street, four miles to the north. Here the trail ends and the creek makes its final 2/3-mile run through a pipe under Nucor Steel, train tracks and traffic jams into the Duwamish River.
The Legacy Trail is an exercise in contrasts. From lush, shady areas that quietly conjure a mountain stream, to sections that border convenience stores and the rush of traffic. To help guide the way through these varied environments, eye-catching banner-like signs depicting native plants keep hikers on the route, as do trail markers that note distances to points along the way. Much of the trail is on level terrain with some areas wheelchair accessible.
If it seems peculiar to find trail markers outside discount stores, remember that an urban creek is just that. Westwood Village stands atop a former wetland, probably an extension of the nearby bog. In fact, more than 1,000 support beams were drilled, up to 40 feet deep, to make a solid foundation for the shopping center when it was first developed in the 1960s.
Vivian McLean, a community activist and trail volunteer who has lived in the area for almost 50 years, recounts stories of children balancing across the creek on fallen firs, and damming up a swimming hole where they caught cutthroat trout in the 1950s and '60s. The Suquamish called the creek "to-AH-wee," which means trout, and these fish reportedly are still found there.
"I think our mental health is so dependent on the green," says McLean. "We're getting so close together in the city that we get on each other's nerves. We need quiet places where you can walk and hear the creek bubbling along."
At 84-½ years old, McLean jokes that she has 15-½ years left for volunteer work: "And there's a lot to be done!"
We want to hear from you
If you go on this excursion, let us know. Submit your comments.
Those involved with the project comment frequently on the camaraderie and commitment of trail volunteers. Hundreds of people of all ages from schools, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, government and businesses all over Seattle have pulled ivy, built bridges and nurtured native plants to bring the Legacy Trail to life.
"There's been an incredible outpouring from the community," says Kate Stannard of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association. "People come out and have fun at the work parties, they roll up their sleeves and get ready to do some restoration work — which is not that easy. One day we planted 700 plants in the Sensory Garden [Southwest Thistle Street and 25th Avenue Southwest] with 35 volunteers!"
"A ribbon of connection"
With the trail complete, creek stewards have turned their focus to non-native invasive plants like blackberry and ivy. Organizers hope that as new people learn about the trail, more students, neighbors and area businesses will adopt sections to care for and make the trail their own.
"I've watched the amazing transformation of the creek as they rebuilt the streambed above the mill, creating the waterfall and riffles," says Bart Kale, a manager at Nucor Steel who volunteers his time to help on the trail. "When I need to take a break from the phone and the computer, I come here to listen to the rustling of the trees and the creek water going over rocks."
Businesses like Nucor have provided funding, volunteer help and other creative ways to "make trail." The management at Westwood Village worked with the community and the city to mark the trail route through the shopping center, and added a water feature that mimics a rocky stream.
"I see the creek as a ribbon of connection," says Sheryl Shapiro, who has helped spearhead the project for the city. "It links Delridge and Westwood neighborhoods, business communities and residents and gives people the opportunity to have an intimate connection with nature in the city."
Terri Griffith, who helped write the first grant for the trail in 2000, is gratified to see her dreams come to life. "There's a buzz about the trail. It surprises me how many people know about it," she says. "I love being involved in my community, and my work on the trail taught me what it means to be in a community. It changed my life."
For the ensatinas, vine maples, beavers, thimble berries, humans, ground beetles, great blue herons and cedar waxwings who call Longfellow Creek and its environs home, it's clearly a place of the heart.
"If I lived in any other neighborhood in Seattle, I think I would have sold and moved on by now," says Jay Mirro. "The creek is a wonderful neighbor."
Kathryn True, who lives on Vashon Island, is co-author of "Nature In the City: Seattle" (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company