I was afraid.
Standing on the bank at my usual crossing, my eyes were transfixed on the billowing torrent of water. Just two days before, I’d been able to cross with a hop, skip and a wobble (that one damn rock!) and now: a wall of watery cocoa greeted me in the dim January light. Sticks that were not there before jutted out of the water, pitch-black and jagged, menacing.
Getting as close as I dared to the rushing waters of the tributary, I knew that at most I’d get water in my boots or possibly lose my footing and drown my iPhone in the really quite miniature rapids (ah, the trials of the Millennial!). But I’d built up a tragic, romantic death at the hands of the New Zealand mud-snail-infested creek bed and dingy waters, with a bonus of possibly being swept out into the vast waters of Lake Washington, undiscovered for months. I think Anne of Green Gables would be proud of my unbounded imagination.
For two years I’ve been visiting the small creek at our local park, Matthews Beach. There is a larger creek, Thornton, that takes all the glory as it bashes its way through the middle of the park – it warrants a pedestrian bridge of its own. But it’s just deep and swift and well-known enough to put me off spending any real quality time with it.
The creek in question and I, however, were introduced by Thornton Creek. I first happened upon the creek at its tail end, while exploring the park that was to keep our new residence’s WalkScore from falling into the single digits. My usual crossing spot (when it’s not flooded) is about 20 feet before it spills into Thornton Creek which a few yards later, flows into Lake Washington. Just upstream of my crossing point is a small pond, inhabited by ducks and the occasional beaver, small salmon and myriad frogs, and who knows how many kinds of insects.
As one follows the creek south, things get a bit tangled. A forest of young willows and underbrush cover the area between the footpath and Lake Washington, and the creek squeezes through where it can. So do I. A few unofficial trails can be found throughout the area, but the only way to follow the creek is to walk right up the middle of it.
About 200 yards up, the creek bends westward and disappears into a culvert. It’s odd to describe the creek as “going into” the culvert, when in fact it is blasting out of the cement tube on its way “from” some mysterious place. Rejoicing in their freedom, its rapids leap out in great arcs, setting the clinging licorice ferns in constant motion, their heads forever bobbing in the spray.
For the longest time, that was where our friendship ended. Always the same – the end was the beginning, the beginning was the end. Recently I decided it was time to take my love affair with this creek to the next level. I’ve spent all my time with the last 200 yards of its journey. But, like some sort of Benjamin Button mystery, I was going to chart it back to the beginning – the real one. It seemed simple: all I had to do was find its name on a map and follow it.
As a Millennial, I expect everything to be fairly easily knowable, with a few well-phrased keywords on Google. I find myself equal parts frustrated and intrigued when I run into something that turns out not to be (ask me sometime just how long it took me to identify the movie “The Girl From the Limberlost” based on hazy plot fragments.) According to my first perusal, this creek did not exist. There wasn’t even a blue line to indicate its presence on my phone map, even when I was standing right in it. How could that be?
I remembered standing on its western bank during a good winter rain, its muddy, frothy waters sending wavelets to the toes of my boots, and wondering if I should chance it or go back home and order taller rainboots on Amazon (I did). I conjured up memories of reading “Bridge to Terabithia” and the particular brand of fear that has accompanied the rush of swollen creek banks for me ever since.
How could it be that a creek I didn’t venture to cross sometimes could not even be a blue line? Or have a name? The more time I spent searching for its name, the more it consumed me. Standing at the edge of the creek no more told me its name than perusing the internet told me about the creek itself.
In my favorite movie, Cold Mountain (which I’ve seen about 200 times), the main character, Inman, often wonders about places and names.
“Sometimes just reading the name of a place,” he says. “Near home: Sorrell Cove, Bishop’s Creek. Those places belonged to people before us, to the Cherokee – what did he call Cold Mountain?”
Sloshing my way up the creek, swatting away handsy willow branches, I wonder, too: who was here before? Who else stood on this very spot and made up their own name for this rushing rivulet?
Maybe no one, since “this very spot” has only been here since ‘98 when the Parks Department diverted the creek for a restoration project. And before that it went through many more dramatic changes. This very spot was underwater just over 100 years ago, before they built the Ballard Locks and merged Lake Washington with Puget’s Sound. The lake dropped 12 feet and the wetlands that now comprise the park and neighborhood of Matthews Beach/Sand Point dried up. The herons and redwing blackbirds ceased all their chirping and croaking and flew off to some other marshes, while the reeds and wapato shriveled up. The homesteaders got instant beachfront property. And the creek now had another 100 yards to travel.
Perhaps one of the Duwamish Tribe natives wondered about the creek’s origins as she rummaged around in its marshy effluvient on the shores of the lake, harvesting wapato to eat, or as she crossed the creek to venture south in search of game. Maybe an 1880’s homesteader got curious about the creek running through his new frontier property, and named it, himself – a vestige of American exploration and “discovery.” Maybe this creek has many names. Maybe I’ll add one of my own to its history before I’m finished. I aim to follow it to the end, but this is just the beginning.