A public art installation features phone-in tour-guide recordings for users of the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop trail.

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The Cheshiahud Loop trail, which circumnavigates Lake Union, is named after an enigmatic Duwamish Indian who spent most of his life living on the shores of the lake. Aside from the fact that he and his wife were some of the last native residents in the area, little is known about Cheshiahud (say “Chesh-ee-AH-hood”) — who the vagaries of history also call Indian Lake John Cheshiahud, John Shiahud, John Cheslahud, and Chudups.

His namesake trail, however, is easily detailed. It’s six miles long, traverses six Seattle neighborhoods and links three major city parks — the new Lake Union Park to the south, secluded Fairview Park to the east, and iconic Gas Works Park to the north — plus innumerable pocket parks formed where city streets meet the lake.

Since its dedication in late 2008, the Cheshiahud Loop has been a valuable and chronically underused blacktop playground for strollers, dog walkers and cyclists. And now history buffs, naturalists and fans of Seattle ephemera, thanks to a public art project tied into phone-in recordings called “Field Notes: Observing Lake Union.”

Watch for the flags

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“Field Notes” is both impetus and reward. It puts the walker on the trail, looping the lake on foot, and leads to dozens of points of interest at the aforementioned parks, each designated by a knee-high flag stuck in the ground.

Printed on each flag are a number to call and an extension to dial. Call the number from your cellphone, dial the extension and a local historian or naturalist will tell you about the natural and human history of the place you’re standing. Dial as many or as few as you like; linger as long or as little as you please.

“Field Notes” was developed over the course of 2010 by the San Francisco-based Studio for Urban Projects (SUP), which won a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs to provide public “new media” art for the trail. The group — whose members’ professional experience spans architecture, design, digital media and curatorial practice — completed a similar project in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, according to Marina McDougall and Alison Sant, two of the group’s principals.

“We showed (the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs) our past work and talked with them about how a vision for contemporary public art might include works that invite the public to think about the natural and cultural landscape around us and how it has been shaped and reshaped by different eras of technology and cultural imagination,” the pair said in an e-mail.

The project channels history, ecology and old-fashioned footwork into a six-mile-long educational/recreational experience meant to bring Seattleites deeper into their city.

Ever peek into the hidden houseboat enclave along Fairview Avenue? Watched a floatplane take off up close from the Westlake Avenue terminal? Shared a sandwich and bottle of white from Pete’s Wine Shop while sitting at the mosaic-inlaid lakeside picnic table at Terry Pettus Park?

Or a different spin: Did you know that Lake Union used to be 200 acres bigger, before industry and population expanded on the shoreline? That natives migrated to different sides of the lake depending on the season, foraging edible plants and catching wild salmon that coursed through the lake by the thousands?

A test walk

An early-winter day offered cool sunshine and clear skies, perfect conditions for a long walk. I began at Lake Union Park, the recently christened green space at the south end of the lake. I spent an easy hour tracking down the dozen or so flags around the park (maps are available from the Center for Wooden Boats and the Northwest Outdoor Center; some of the flags may be missing) and listening on my cellphone to experts like Muckleshoot oral historian Warren Kinggeorge, geologist David Williams and horticulturist Ray Larson share wisdom and anecdotes about the place I was standing.

The walk along the eastern shore of the lake is emblematic of Seattle: priceless yachts parked outside Hooters; Moss Bay Rowing Club and the Seattle Seaplane Terminal; biotech company ZymoGenetics’ impressive offices in the old City Light steam plant across the street from a functioning industrial shipyard.

The trail merges with Fairview Avenue and takes on a quiet, enclave-neighborhood feel, especially along the promenade of houseboat communities there. Further along, the funky, tumbledown air gives way to expensive Mallard Bay condos, but not before passing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Center. A small shoreline park offers views of the Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge and a tree with a swing for two.

The sun was setting as I reached Fairview Park, roughly a midway point on the trail. Here I encountered a local expert in the flesh: a gentleman named Robbie Rudine out walking his chow, Misha, in the crisp evening air. A resident of the Fairview neighborhood for 20 years, he gladly shared his layman’s insight about the area — as informative, in fact, as the “Field Notes” recordings. His take was similar to the one stated by SUP’s MacDougall and Sant.

“It was stunning to learn about the level of human intervention that transformed this natural body of water and how quickly, in just 200 years, it was altered,” they wrote. “We were also compelled by the history of the Native American people, how the lake and the land surrounding it sustained them for thousands of years, and their adaptations to a changing environment.”

Jonathan Zwickel is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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