Yes, You Can Swim in the Duwamish. And This Man’s Doing It.

Mark Powell may become the first person to swim the entire Green/Duwamish River, Superfund site and all.

It’s 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday just outside Flaming Geyser State Park in southern King County, and the sun is already making clear its intentions to turn the day into another hot, miserable slog. But for now, the mounting heat is abated by the shade of black birches and the cool rush of the Green River.

Mark Powell is standing in the water, doing the herky-jerky dance that is required to secure a wet suit to the body. He stretches to yank a zipper across his chest and pulls a hood tight over his head. Then his goggles are secured and he makes his way gingerly into the stream, using a walking stick affixed with a GoPro camera to balance on the slick river rock.

“You good?” he asks over the sound of the water. “OK. See ya later!”

And with that Powell is submerged in the Green River, which he plans to swim/snorkle/walk five miles of that day (the exact mode of transportation depending on the depth).

It is his intention to swim, for all intents and purposes, the entire length of the Green and Duwamish Rivers—these days, a single continuous stream. He’s taking the 85-mile-long river in chunks, and so far has swum about 19 miles of it. The trip has already taken him to the top of Blowout Mountain, just north of Mount Rainier, where the watershed begins as a trickle, and will eventually lead him through the brackish, polluted waters of the Lower Duwamish.

Powell, the Puget Sound program director at the Washington Environmental Council, believes he will be the first person to swim the rivers’ entire length—if he completes his task. His resume gives one hope that he will. In 2008 and 2009, he swam around Bainbridge Island, a 41-mile trek not aided by the gravitational tug of a river that descends from the Cascade Crest to Puget Sound.

Not that swimming downstream is necessarily easy. It comes with its own perils. But for Powell, a very fit 57, the adventure and challenge of the task are secondary to the message he hopes to send: The Duwamish is a living river that still pulses from the Cascade wilds.

“I’d like people to understand the connection between the Duwamish and here,” he says before he starts his swim that Thursday, “here” being the quiet solitude of the upper Green River. “Here it’s a gorgeous, flowing, healthy stream. People don’t understand the connection, that it’s a living river. . . . People want to write off the Duwamish—it’s a sacrifice zone, it’s industrial—but we can’t write off the Duwamish.”

That the Green and Duwamish rivers actually are a single river speaks to how written-off it has been over the years. The Duwamish once represented the confluence of several rivers that descended from the Cascades. But the White River was diverted to Tacoma, and the Black made extinct when the Montlake Cut was opened and Lake Washington was lowered. All that was left to feed into the Duwamish was the Green. With the river’s flow greatly reduced, industrialists were able to turn the Duwamish Valley into an economic powerhouse that helped Seattle become the city it is today. In the meantime, industry leached, dumped, and spilled pollutants by the ton into the river. To make matters worse, every year, millions of gallons of sewage continue to flow into the river via storm drains that become overloaded during heavy rainfall.

Local, state, and federal agencies—along with the private businesses considered responsible for the much of the pollution—are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the mess and prevent further pollution. But the Lower Duwamish is still an absolute mess. For years it’s been the goal of environmental groups to make people understand how polluted it was, as a way to ensure those responsible were held accountable.

I ask Powell whether swimming in the Lower Duwamish muddles that message. He responds by walking over to a chain-linked fence that runs along the shore of the Green River. “If we build a fence like this all along the river, that would be the wrong approach,” he says, giving the fence a rattling kick for effect. “We need to protect people and their health from the threats. But I’d hate for people to feel so disconnected from the river that they don’t care.”

For the record, it is OK to swim in the Duwamish. The worst of the pollution—at least when sewage isn’t actively spilling into the water during rainstorms—is contained to the sediment and the fish. So beach play and eating fish are discouraged, but swimming itself isn’t dangerous.

Still, the sight of someone voluntarily getting into Seattle’s only river—an active Superfund site—has a definite gross-out factor.

“People have perceptions that maybe he’s going to test out,” says Christie True, director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Given that the swim will be filmed on GoPro, True says she hopes Powell will help people understand how alive the Duwamish remains beneath its gray surface. “I’m hoping that his swim will draw out what is OK, what is not OK, about the Duwamish. . . . Getting up close and personal with it is a way to reveal some of that.”

True says she learned about Powell’s plan last fall as Seattle and King County were announcing the start of an effort to create a new management strategy for the Green/Duwamish River (—an effort that tacitly acknowledges that governments haven’t treated the two rivers as the single entity they are. “Mark walked up and said, ‘I’m going to swim the entire river.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ ”

Starting last fall, Powell has more or less has followed the river chronologically down, with a couple of exceptions: A reservoir that supplies Tacoma with drinking water is closed to the public (he’s working on getting permission to swim there), and one stretch of the Green River Gorge was too gnarly for him to do before discussing it with people who know the area well .

As he gets farther down the river, the obstacles will more often be man-made. A pink salmon run is coming up, which is sure to put a lot of hooks and nets in the water. And the Lower Duwamish still churns at a strong, industrial clip.

As True put it: “It is OK for him to swim there. But he really should be careful with the maritime traffic.”

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