Northern Water

Late January, 2016

Rain streaked the window of our sleeper car, as the Empire Builder slowly wound its way through the Cascades. The tracks followed alongside a wide, fast-flowing river that was full of rocks, and had water that was milky with silt. Low hanging clouds obscured the mountaintops. The train ride reminded me of when Karin and I went through the Alps many years ago. We came out of the mountains near Everett, and then the Amtrak hugged the cliff along the coast, heading south toward Seattle. Looking out the right window, we could see Puget Sound, at least for a little way. Our vision ended a few hundred meters beyond the shoreline, where the rain and mist hid everything beyond. The train stopped a few miles north of Seattle because of a rock slide that blocked the tracks. Heavy rains had caused the slide, and it was several minutes before the train could move again.

 

Senji met us at King Street Station. Stefan, Karin, and I got off the train. He looked just like the Japanese Buddhist monk that he is; he had a shaved head, and was wearing grey pants and jacket, with a saffron-colored sash going from his shoulder to his hip. He had a shoulder bag with him and his umbrella. We gathered our belongings and he got us a taxi. We drove a few blocks to the entrance of the dock for boarding the ferry to Bainbridge Island, Senji’s home. From where we were, the island wasn’t visible. We knew it was across the water, but we couldn’t see it. Then Senji took us to Ivar’s, a local seafood place, to eat fish and chips while we waited on the ferry.

 

We rode the ferry across the sound to Bainbridge Island. Riding the ferry was one of the first things that we did when we arrived in Seattle. Riding the ferry was also one of the last things we did while we were there. The ferries are shown on many of the postcards and photos of the Seattle area, and for good reason. The waterways both divide and connect the various towns and cities of the region. It is impossible for anyone to go far without taking a ferry or crossing a bridge. A person is never more than a few miles from the sea.

 

Our last ferry ride was across the sound from Kingston to Edmonds. On our last night in Seattle, Mira had taken us to free film showing at a small theater in Kingston. The film was called “The Unknown Sea”, and it was about some young researchers who were sailing through the inland waters. Joe Gaydos, the chief scientist from the Seadoc Society, gave a short talk after the movie. He explained that Puget Sound wasn’t really Puget Sound any more. The whole inland water world that extends from Vancouver in the north to Olympia in the south had been renamed the Salish Sea. It is one enormous ecosystem, full of fish and crabs and clams and sea lions and orcas. None of these creatures recognize the U.S./Canada border. The inland sea is also home to eight million humans. I stood at the bow of ferry as it took us home to the Seattle side of the sound. It was night. I could see thousands of lights on the far shore, and lights reflected in the water.

Water surrounded us. It embraced us. The Salish Sea was ever present in our minds, and the minds of those around us. The light rail system is called “ORCA” for god sake. The graffiti on the building walls often shows pictures of whales or octopi. People told us about going clamming or crabbing when the tides were right. Mira took us on her favorite walk in Seattle, to Carkeek Park. It’s a park that extends down the hills to the shore of the sound, where the brown sand is covered with driftwood, shells, and bits of red seaweed. Even on the one sunny day, when the sky cleared and we could finally see Mount Rainier in the distance, we saw it all from the end of the pier in Indianola, with the waters of the sea lapping at the posts below us.

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