David Whitley finds out how a great engineering project was altered in order to save a fish that the Pacific Northwest would be lost without.
In the hotel lobby stands my very unofficial tour guide. “Howdy,” she says. “I’m going to take you to see something I think you ought to see. It’s probably a bit off the PR agenda, but I don’t think you can grasp Seattle without it.”
Pam Mandel is someone I know through Twitter. We have never previously met, but she wants to take me to Ballard, a suburb that was originally settled by Scandinavians. We are about to descend on the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. This, on the surface of it, sounds like the sort of utterly rubbish attraction you’d be taken to by a well-meaning but clueless elderly relative in their tedious Northamptonshire village.
But these locks are something really quite wonderful. They date back to 1917, when it was decided that a water route was needed to transport timber and other resources to the Puget Sound and then to the Pacific Ocean. The route eventually decided on for the Lake Washington Ship Canal connected Lake Washington and Lake Union, eventually linking to Puget Sound via Puget Sound. There are some pretty big boats sat there waiting to go through, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise seeing as it was the biggest navigational facility in North America when it opened.
This isn’t Panama City, but it’s still a fairly impressive sight; man taming nature and making two very different water levels become one.
But the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks aren’t cuddly-wonderful because some quite big boats go through them. They’re cuddly-wonderful because… well, the clue’s in the name Salmon Bay.
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If Seattle and the Pacific Northwest could live on one foodstuff alone, it would probably be salmon. Salmon is important round here, and it always has been. In a surprisingly early twinge of environmentalism, the chaps in charge of the canal realised this too. Watercourses would be altered dramatically, and ecosystems would be changed. For the salmon, their access to the Cedar River would be cut off; eventually leading to a total wipeout.
As fish go, salmon are pretty ruddy amazing. When the time is right, they will fight their way back from the ocean to the river in which they were born. They’ll not eat during the journey up there, they’ll battle upstream, they’ll get jiggy, they’ll give birth and then they’ll die. It’s an extraordinary life cycle with a heroic end that’s also a beginning. But if the salmon can’t get to the river, the future is bleak. Gone within a generation bleak.
When the locks were built, therefore, something special was built alongside. It’s called a fish ladder, and it’s essentially a series of linked compartments at the canalside. They gradually creep higher, but each has a decent-sized hole in it that water can get through one way, and salmon can get through the other. By going through the chain, they can make it up to the lake, and eventually to the river.
We arrive out of season. Had we turned up a few weeks later, we could have gawped from inside the aquarium-like viewing area as the fish hurled themselves upstream; flinging themselves towards their final fling.
It’s not to be today. But some things you don’t need to see for yourself. It just makes you happy to know they exist.
PS – Pam Mandel is an excellent travel blogger. You can read her stuff at www.nerdseyeview.com.
For more things to do in the city, check out the Grumpy Traveller free city guide to Seattle.