Keywords: Water quality, Fishes, Freshwater habitat, Toxic contaminants, Salmonids, Species of concern, Contaminants of emerging concern, Salish Sea Currents magazine, Stormwater

Longfellow Creek near West Seattle's industrial district still draws spawning salmon despite a century of city development and an onslaught of toxic chemicals. A current exhibit by photographer Tom Reese explores this often-overlooked gem of urban nature.

This is a story about Longfellow Creek, one of the four major creeks in Seattle. When one reads a story about a physical entity — a person, an animal, a creek, whatever — there can be the not unreasonable expectation that the writer has actually made an effort to see that entity. That I have visited Longfellow Creek, in other words, and walked its banks, smelled its scents, listened to its murmuring waters. 

I have done none of those things. I cannot even say with any certainty that I have seen Longfellow Creek ever in my life, although I know I drove over it the other day, as I sped across the West Seattle Bridge. I was on my way to the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which lives in the Log House Museum, on Southwest 61st Street near the beach at Alki. The Log House Museum is a lovely brown house, made of logs. (Natch.) It is welcoming and warm, with pleasantly old creaky stairs, and these I duly climbed to the front door, where Tom Reese was waiting. 

“It’s amazing how responsive [salmon] are to even the most minor improvements. Whether it’s the Elwha or Longfellow Creek, if you give them a chance, they’ll come back.” — Tom Reese

Tom Reese is a photographer who lives in Seattle. After a long career on staff at the Seattle Times, where he won a host of awards, he has worked for the past several years as an independent photographer, editor, and teacher. I should at this point say loud and clear that where Tom Reese is concerned, I am not at all objective by journalistic standards. I have known Reese for several years, and we worked together on a book about the Duwamish River. When we were done, he mentioned he was thinking of doing something on Longfellow Creek. Hmm, I thought. Why the focus on progressively smaller bodies of water? Perhaps your next photo essay will be on a puddle? 

More fool me. 

The Log House right now is hosting Reese’s photo exhibit, tʔáwi: Creek of Hope, about Longfellow Creek. Named in English for John Longfellow, who logged and farmed the area in the late 1800s, the creek is 3.38 miles long. At nearly 2,700 acres, its watershed is one of the largest in Seattle. It has its headwaters at Roxhill Park, in a fen that is 10,000 years old, before it almost immediately passes under a parking lot near a Ross Dress for Less at Westwood Village. 

Dying before her time, a female coho salmon returning to this urban creek to spawn will instead die before having the chance to fulfill her life’s purpose.  She shows the effects from exposure to 6PPD-quinone, a toxic substance that derives from tires.

Dying before her time, a female coho salmon returning to this urban creek to spawn will instead die before having the chance to fulfill her life’s purpose.  She shows the effects from exposure to 6PPD-quinone, a toxic substance that derives from tires and washes into the creek through stormwater. Photo: Tom Reese

Thereafter the creek proceeds by or under residential homes, a school, the West Seattle Golf Course, a steel plant, all before emptying into the Duwamish Waterway through a grated culvert close to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5, near Harbor Island. Its last two-thirds of a mile or so run down through a large pipe. Reese once kayaked up that pipe as far as he could. “I got to a spot where I couldn’t go in any higher,” he says. But he could see a light at the bend of the first straight section — the illumination from a skylight, he thinks, that was added as an afterthought to appease calls to daylight the buried creek. He holds his fingers maybe an eighth of an inch apart, indicating the beam. “It was about this big.”

If there is someone who specializes in seeing pinpoints of light in long and especially dark tunnels, it is Tom Reese. His photography on the walls of the Log House Museum testifies the depths of his attentiveness and care. Enter, and one of the first images you see is of a fish floating above you in space. Slowly your mind makes sense of the image: the fish is a young salmon, it is hanging in shallow water, and behind it is some sort of structure that looks like a giant ribcage. “That’s the Salmon Bone Bridge,” Reese says.  

Near that is an image of a female hummingbird incubating her jelly-bean-sized eggs in her cotton-ball-sized nest. But even those are not the most delicate details: Reese has caught her in the midst of sticking her tongue out. He has an eye for the ironic as well. In another photo of a more natural-seeming stretch of creek, the viewer is immediately drawn to the saturated dirty tote bag discarded on the rocks. Stamped across the bag is the word LOVE. 

A discarded shopping bag litters a channel and waterfall on a portion of the creek that is reconstructed spawning habitat. Photo: Tom Reese

A discarded shopping bag litters a channel and waterfall on a portion of the creek that is reconstructed spawning habitat. Photo: Tom Reese

One of Reese’s largest photos shows a female coho salmon in midleap over a cascade created by a beaver dam. Save for a splash of green in the upper right, the dominant hues are brown: silver-brown water, a reddish brown fish, a wide-ranging palette of big leaf maple leaves brown in the fall. The creek’s older name, tʔáwi, is the Lushootseed word for smelt, a small forage fish that once spawned in the creek. These days, however, it is the cohos like the female that are getting more and more attention. 

That salmon spawn at all in Longfellow Creek, or, as Reese puts it, “in Seattle just four miles from the Space Needle” is itself a huge victory of a sort. For more than sixty years, there were no salmon at all; the steel plant near the port was diverting the creek for its own purposes, blocking the fishes’ passage. Then those diversions were removed, and salmon were quick to return. Go down to the creek mouth when they are returning, and several dozen might be swimming in slow circles around the pipe that is Longfellow Creek. Some continue up the Duwamish; but some head up the pipe. One year after some community restoration work, volunteers counted about five hundred salmon; in another year, there were eighteen. This year, Reese thinks the numbers are around one hundred or so. “It’s amazing how responsive they are to even the most minor improvements,” he says. “Whether it’s the Elwha or Longfellow Creek, if you give them a chance, they’ll come back.”  

In this, Longfellow has benefited from a salmon’s occasional inclination to stray. Biologists suspect that when coho are returning to Elliott Bay, some small number are called by the freshwater of Longfellow Creek, rather than the Duwamish River where they are probably from. This is especially true after huge rain events, when the creek floods—a sign to coho that there is sufficient water for them to swim up it. Now, fish can make it past the steel plant and as far as the golf course before their passage is again blocked, first by a culvert and then a small dam that was erected in the 1940s as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. But even without those barriers, the coho of Longfellow Creek face lethal challenges, and it is in that way that the creek becomes part of a larger conversation about the effects of industrial chemicals on fish, and especially one: 6PPD-quinone. 

6PPD is the shorthand for N-(1,3-dimethylbutyl)-N'-phenyl-p-phenylenediamine. It is a component of rubber tires, in that it prevents them from breaking down so quickly from wear-and-tear. But break down the tires do, and when that happens, little bits of them settle onto the road. When those heavy rains come—or even lighter rains—the little bits of tire and all the chemicals they contain rise with the stormwater and flow from the road down into the nearest waterbody. All of this contamination has devastating effects on returning coho. According to Ed Kolodziej, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington [Kolodziej is affiliated with our organization the Puget Sound Institute], and one of the first scientists to draw attention to 6PPD-quinone, up to 90% of them might die before they have a chance to spawn. 

The city of Seattle is attempting to remedy some of these toxic ills, building natural drainage systems at three sites in the Longfellow Creek drainage basin that should help clean polluted stormwater before it can reach the urban streams. Work on them is scheduled to be completed in 2024. In the meantime, Reese will continue to watch Longfellow Creek and its longsuffering coho for whatever hope it and they can provide. “I keep wondering if this will be the year when no salmon come back,” he says. “But it hasn’t happened yet.” 

About the author: Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of "Penguins in the Desert" and co-author of "Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish." His most recent book is "After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens," published in 2022 by University of Washington Press. He holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington.

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