The Duwamish River, a Superfund site in South Seattle with ongoing pollution cleanup, is increasingly being used for recreation, including rowing.
Pushing and pulling in unison, straining against their oars, teenagers James Suggs and Becca Stern skimmed across a sparkling span of water in their white rowing shell.
The scene was familiar — crew practice on a sunny Seattle afternoon in March.
But there were no seaplanes in sight, so this wasn’t Lake Union. No waterfront mansions, so it wasn’t Lake Washington. No joggers in Spandex, so not Green Lake.
The youngsters muscled past a scrap yard, a barge, a warehouse. They rowed under the South Park Bridge. This was the polluted Duwamish River, Seattle’s working waterway.
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James, 14, and Becca, 16, are members of the startup Duwamish Rowing Club, which connects people of blue-collar South Park and nearby neighborhoods to the natural resource flowing through the area’s backyard.
“I was pretty shy the first time,” said James, who lives a few blocks away from Duwamish Waterway Park, where the club puts in. “Then I got out on the water.”
The park, 1½ acres of grass and muddy beach tucked behind industrial buildings, is where club founder Mike Merta discovered that rowing the Duwamish was possible.
“I’ve been a rower since I was a kid, and I happened to move to South Seattle,” said Merta, 45, a case manager at Pacific Medical Center. “I was driving to Green Lake one morning to row and I was crossing the First Avenue Bridge. I looked down at the Duwamish and saw perfect, calm water. I thought, ‘Why am I driving across town?’ ”
That was in 2010. Merta initially rowed on his own, exploring the waterway in a single-person shell.
The lower Duwamish, straightened starting in 1913 to better accommodate shipping, was designated a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001. North of the club’s launch site, the waterway still buzzes with business activity.
But directly across from the park, on Boeing property, Superfund cleanup and habitat-restoration work has been under way. Just two miles south, the waterway begins to meander and trees crowd the banks.
That was the direction Duwamish Rowing Club members — a dozen adults in the morning, six teenagers in the afternoon — rowed Saturday. Though the Washington State Department of Health warns against eating resident fish from the lower Duwamish due to contamination, the waterway isn’t a wildlife wasteland.
Some salmon caught on their way to Elliott Bay are OK to eat. Harbor seals bob above water to watch the shells slice by, and the rowers have made osprey and heron sightings.
“Everybody responds the same way — “Don’t stick your feet in the water!” said Patrick Lamb, 37, a former University of Washington rower just returning to the sport.
“There’s that stigma. But a mile or two upstream, it opens up and gets really scenic.”
What started as Merta’s solitary hobby became a club in 2011, when he and some other adults launched a four-person shell for the first time.
The club got a boost from The Plumb, Level and Square Fund, a charity set up by longtime South Park resident and property owner Robert McNeil. The fund honors McNeil’s wife, Dorothy, who died in 2006, and his son, Tim, who passed in 2007.
McNeil, who died last year, gave the club $20,000 and allowed it to use the driveway of a rental house on South Elmgrove Street. He named a shell after Dorothy, and when he died the club named one after him. The names are stamped on the hulls.
The club operates out of a shed on the Elmgrove Street property and an old shipping container plunked down in the driveway. The shed is an office with framed snapshots on the wall and a wooden desk. The container holds the club’s shells and equipment.
It looks nothing like some of Seattle’s more moneyed crew houses — waterfront castles with weight rooms, banquet rooms, kitchens and ample dock space.
“We’re a rowing club in a shipping container,” Merta chuckled. “They told me it couldn’t be done.”
Sometimes overlooked by the rest of the city, South Park is a pocket of low-slung workshops, modest bungalows and some unpaved streets. It and Delridge to the west are less wealthy and more racially diverse than other Seattle neighborhoods.
Duwamish rowers carry their shells overhead a block to Duwamish Waterway Park, then wade through the muck of the beach to reach the water. They have no dock.
Merta, currently a volunteer, would like one someday. The club has been eyeing a publicly owned patch of open space at the end of Elmgrove Street, and other sites.
For now, it’ll make do with a new motorboat and a second shipping container, purchased with a $10,000 grant from the city’s Duwamish River Opportunity Fund.
James Rasmussen, a Duwamish tribal member who directs the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC) Technical Advisory Group, says Native people paddled the river like motorists drive Highway 99 today. It was an important thoroughfare.
“We at DRCC try to get people down to the river,” Rasmussen said. “The Duwamish is a hidden river. You don’t really see it when you’re driving past it. With something like the rowing club, you’re giving people a better connection to the place and its history.”
The club operates under the auspices of the South Park Area Redevelopment Committee, a nonprofit, and its annual fundraiser is March 27 at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center. Members row three times a week from March to November.
The youngsters had their first competitive races last year, in a Green Lake regatta and on Orcas Island. They numbered 15, including participants in the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, which coordinates activities for at-risk teenagers.
Adults pay $250 a year and are asked to volunteer with the club, while teenagers donate as much as they can afford, Merta said. Some pay nothing.
Hilario Nevarez, 37, brought his son to try rowing Saturday. He and 16-year-old Lalo previously used the club’s indoor rowing machines at South Park Community Center.
“I made him sign up,” Nevarez said. “Who doesn’t want to be on the water? It’s a good workout, too.”
Seated with three other teenagers in a four-person shell, Lalo struggled to pull his oars through the water at first. But Merta, trailing in the motorboat with a megaphone, patiently coached him through the movements until Lalo got the hang of it.
“There you go,” Merta shouted, in his usual matter-of-fact tone. “That’s rowing.”