A large greenbelt borders South Seattle College in West Seattle, separated from the back and east side of college buildings by a fence. The greenbelt is little known to students, faculty, and staff who take for granted the view of Mt. Rainier to the south foregrounded by the thin forest. The grinding sounds of port industries along the Duwamish Waterway below compete with a few birdsongs. Environmental Studies and Landscape Horticulture students use the greenbelt for field studies and fieldwork, but for some it was just a place to smoke.
In fact, the West Duwamish Greenbelt is the largest contiguous forest in Seattle, 500 acres of evergreen and hardwood trees, native plants from currant to Indian plum, streams, a pond with at least two ducks in season, moles, birds, bugs, and butterflies.
I taught Pacific Northwest History at South, which usually included a unit on Chief Seattle’s signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott–should he have signed? Part of the assignment for this unit was to visit a Duwamish site. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center and a village site on the Duwamish River sit below the college at the foot of the greenbelt, but getting there was always a challenge. There was no connecting trail.
Since retiring from teaching, I have been active in the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group. The group advocates for reforestation and for the creation and maintenance of trails that would connect the college, schools, and neighborhoods at the top of Puget Ridge through the greenbelt to the Longhouse. Forest steward and greenbelt activist Craig Rankin and I were interviewed by Keith Bacon on an AllWays West Seattle podcast. Check here for “Forging Connections in the West Duwamish Greenbelt” if this is an interest for you. The first part is a funny street interview introduction to the little-known greenbelt.
In 35 years of hiking all over the
Pacific Northwest, I have not feared those I meet on trails. Any one who hikes miles and climbs mountains is
probably not intent on crime. I trust
fellow hikers’ motives for being there.
We are all testing ourselves against nature, enjoying solitude and the
oxygen high that comes from pure air and rushing streams. In the decades of my 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, I
have ventured out alone as needed to research hikes for Hiking Washington’s History. Physically, I’m no match for a bigger,
stronger protagonist with a gun, but those are not the people I encounter on
trails. They’re more likely to be a
group of retirees enjoying relative hiking freedom and solitude on a
Tuesday. I have also hiked for eight
hours in southeastern Washington and encountered only foxes and elk. My biggest concern has been whether my car
would break down on a pot-holed Forest Service road.
The story is different in city and suburban parks. When I lived in Bellevue, a suburban city in Washington, my favorite trail was in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, near my house. My daughter and I regularly ran a one-mile or so loop through the park. We had moved here from New York City and thought the park was a truly wild land, a place with no houses in sight and trails going off in many directions. To run or hike there was to escape from any tensions a comfortable life created—
I learned that a teenage girl had chosen the park as the place to end her life,
near a waterfall. I could not run or
walk there again without thinking that to this girl it was a place she could be
away from people who might have tried to save her, a kind of solitude that is
We moved a few years later from Bellevue to Seattle where I have been active in the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, which promotes hiking in the largest contiguous forest in Seattle. The 500-acre greenbelt on a ridge above the Duwamish Waterway is bordered by houses, a community college, and an elementary school. Our goal as a group is to encourage people to use the maintained trails in the greenbelt. We want people to feel at home in the forest, within a few minutes of city life. Urban parks can be a haven—a place to get away from social pressures of congested living; a place to hear birds, find mushrooms, even watch ducks on a pond, a place to be alone without relating to others.
natural threats in the greenbelt are few. Cougars roamed the ridge above the
Duwamish River centuries ago but no more.
Strong winds may fell trees across the trail, but windy days can be
avoided. Human threats are a bit less predictable. Parks are rightly a common space, where
anyone can go. When I wanted to take my
young grand-daughters on a walk in the woods in north Seattle, I was warned to
expect illicit activity. The same is
true of Herring’s House Park on the Duwamish River, a place I would like to
send students in search of native history.
Students at South Seattle College “take a walk in the greenbelt” for a
pot break. Homeless people stake out
territory there, seeking refuge but also deterring others’ use of the trails by
their presence and sometime drug dealing.
summer, a young man ran to the greenbelt after he had tried to murder his
ex-girlfriend. The college went on lock-down, and a regular Friday group hike
was canceled. As police tracked him
down, the man shot himself. The violence tainted my hopes for the greenbelt as
a place of refuge and calm. For this young man, it was a place he could end his
angry life. The police wound yellow tape
around the scene.
Even as I write this, another person has ended
his or her life in the forested park just a block from where I live in Seattle.
These urban and suburban green spaces
attract both those seeking health and solitude and those who are
the human perils of the wilderness are rare: a woman and daughter were killed
near a popular trailhead in western Washington; a woman bending over to get
something out of her pack was shot by a young hunter who thought she was a
bear. Both were shocking but the only
trail deaths by human violence I know about in western Washington.
can we feel safe in both urban parks and the wilderness? I still feel safe in the wilderness and I
still hike urban trails—but not alone. Runners,
dog walkers, even mountain bikers—the more people using the parks at many hours
of the day, the better. Solitude may have
to be sacrificed to safety in the city, making the lure of the great outdoors
even stronger. I’m not willing to give
up either place.
its best, a forest–in the city or the mountains–connects us to a larger, more
enduring world. Great rocks and
mountains don’t move unless the whole earth shakes. The
Duwamish people say the spirit and the very dust of their ancestors is in the
soil, in the trees above the Duwamish River. We are small players; our heartbreaks and
defeats are fleeting in the company of elders, both human and natural.