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Elliott Bay, Seattle, WA 12 Nov 2022


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Last weekend, I was walking my kids, Maya and Leon, to the Seattle Aquarium, when Maya noticed squares of thick glass embedded in the sidewalk along the waterfront. She asked what was down there. I told her it was the water of Elliott Bay, part of Puget Sound.

Beneath the docks and walkways of the waterfront is a maze of saltwater passages. Few Seattleites know what’s down there. The passages are too tight for a motorboat, but they’re just the right size for a kayak.

Maya’s question reminded me I hadn’t paddled beneath the waterfront for several years. The next morning, I rounded up Grandpa John and took him, Maya, and Leon for an underground tour of the waterfront.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. We launched from Cove 2 of Seacrest Park.

Wind was light, and motorboat traffic in Elliott Bay was almost non-existent. The only other vessels we had to worry about were the ferries, which run frequently from the Seattle waterfront to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton. One ferry gave a long toot on its horn to advise us of its imminent departure. We stayed our paddles and rafted up to signify that we wouldn’t attempt any unpredictable maneuvers in the vicinity of the ferry. When the ferry passed, it gave us a short “thank you” toot of the horn. Passengers lining the decks waved at us in delight.

Besides the ferry people, the other interesting folks on the water were the scuba divers. Our launch beach at Seacrest Park is also one of Seattle’s premier diving locales, and the divers were out in force on such a calm, sunny day. Leon, age two, was extremely interested in the divers, so Grandpa John paddled him out for a visit while Maya and I got ourselves organized to launch.

01 Alex and Maya kayaking Elliott Bay.JPG

01 Alex and Maya kayaking Elliott Bay. Maya brought her backpack full of stuffed dogs, just as she does on our camping trips.

02 Grandpa John and Leon kayaking Seattle waterfront.JPG

02 Grandpa John and Leon kayaking past divers. The container cranes at the port seemed to be inactive on this Saturday afternoon.

03 Maya Grandpa John and Leon kayaking Seattle waterfront.JPG

03 Maya and Grandpa John kayaking across Elliott Bay. Each year, more and more skyscrapers adorn the Seattle skyline.

04 Grandpa John and Olympic Mountains.JPG

04 Grandpa John and Leon kayaking past Olympic Mountains. The Olympics are Washington State’s most scenic mountain range.

05 Ferry passing kayak.JPG

05 Ferry passing kayak, Elliott Bay. The ferry captains showed admirable patience with us small, slow, recreational boaters.

06 Feeding gulls at Seattle Aquarium.JPG

06 Maya feeding gulls at Seattle Aquarium. Between the sea kayaks and the seagulls, we put on quite an authentic Seattle show for the tourists walking the waterfront.

Seattle’s massive waterfront restoration project was in full swing. Ancient seawalls and wooden piers were being torn out and replaced with concrete and steel; new piers were being extended over the water; and various parks and roads were being installed inland. It all added up to a flurry of construction.

It was certainly time for the old pilings to go. We paddled under the last remaining wooden pier and discovered pilings so rotten that many of them did not reach the seafloor or even the water’s surface. They just ended dangling in midair. I wondered what, exactly, was holding up the pier over our heads—a thought that encouraged me to paddle out of there quickly.

No matter how dangerous they had become, I was still sad to see the wooden piers and pilings being destroyed. Wooden over-water structures have defined the Seattle waterfront for a century and a half. The place won’t feel like home without our obsolete jumble of crumbling, creosote-coated docks, fighting their losing battle against time. I was happy Maya and Leon saw the last vestiges of the old waterfront. Most children in Seattle today never will.

07 Maya kayaking under Seattle Aquarium.JPG

07 Paddling beneath the Seattle Aquarium. Pipes and outfalls of various, mysterious purposes channeled water hither and yon beneath the pier.

08 Grandpa John paddling under Seattle Aquarium.JPG

08 Grandpa John kayaking beneath Pier 59. Skylights and open spaces in various places contributed to the maze-like environment.

09 Maya touching wooden piling.JPG

09 Maya touching remains of Pier 63. Though manifestly unsafe, these ancient pilings are part of Seattle’s heritage.

10 Barge with wooden debris.JPG

10 Barge loaded with debris from old pier. No doubt water and sediment quality will improve once these creosote-coated timbers are hauled away.

11 Maya and Grandpa John kayaking aquarium fish ladder.JPG

11 Fish ladder at Seattle Aquarium. One of my favorite things about the aquarium is the way it integrates the natural waters of Elliott Bay with the artificial waters of the tanks inside.

I was happy to show the kids this special perspective on the Seattle waterfront. I often think that you can’t understand a place like Seattle until you’ve explored it by water. Even at their young ages, they’ve already seen this city in a way few other Seattleites have.

Leon had the best day of any of us. Not only did he get to paddle under the aquarium, he also slept the entire way across the bay, lulled to sleep in Grandpa John’s lap.


[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]