Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Deschutes Estuary: The Tide Runs Again

A few days ago I was driving around Capitol lake in Olympia. For those unfamiliar with the area, this lake was formed in 1951 when a dam was put in to impound the Deschutes River at Fifth Avenue. Since this time, the river has backed up behind this dam, only flowing northward to discharge the overflow of fresh water. The impounded lake is a series of three basins, running north to south. You can drive south along these basins, on the Deschutes Parkway.

Before 1951, the Deschutes River met the salt waters of Puget Sound in a tidal estuary. Prior to the first American and European settlers, this estuary was a thanksgiving feast richly laid out for the Squaxin Indian bands who lived along these waters. Seafood, waterbirds and wetland plants all provided great sources of food year around. The Native Americans knew this well, which is why they had their year around longhouses near the lower falls of the Deschutes, at the beginning of the estuary.

By the 1840’s the first European American settlers showed up. In 1908, my grandfather Partlow left the snow-bound farmlands of Michigan and set up a medical practice in Olympia, settling in a house on the bluff above the estuary. A descendant of Scots & Irish emigrants, he planted roots in Olympia, right on the shores of the estuary. I often thought he chose a place that looked very much like the firths (estuary) of the family's roots in Scotland. His grandson my father Bud was born in 1918 in the “old” St. Peter’s Hospital on the grounds of the Capitol campus, near where the totem pole is today, and also, just above the estuary.

By 1925, my father was growing up around the estuary; he well remembers the stinking sewage, the garbage, the shanty houses of Little Hollywood that lined the edges of the estuary prior to the dam. (You can see Little Hollywood in this 1946 photo taken from the hill below the Capitol, looking north). Now in 2010 he thinks all estuaries are dirty, stinking, disgusting mudholes, and he wants Capitol lake to stay an impounded river forever.

In 1921 my mother Shirley was born in Maxwell Maternity home, on the western side of the estuary, where today the 5th avenue bridge becomes a roundabout. (Here is a picture of Maxwell, taken from the west side hill facing east. You can see the estuary at full tide - minus the dam and Fifth avenue.)

She too grew up on the mudflats, and for all the days of her life found them a source of joy, of wonder, of great seashells and fabulous agates. She would not at all agree with my father that estuaries are worthless mudholes. She dragged her children out for regular jaunts to the tidal mudflats and showed us sand dollars and moonsnails, seaweeds and seashells. I have never forgotten her lessons.

By the time I was born in the fifties, the Fifth avenue dam had been built and the river was blocked behind it. That was the end of the tidal estuary.

So when I was driving around the lake a few days ago, I saw an amazing thing. There had been a low tide and the dam had been opened up. The water was entirely drained from the lake, leaving only a thin ribbon of the Deschutes river, snaking its way over a thick muddy bottom.

( This was being done as part of a plan to eradicate invasive New Zealand Mudsnails. Somehow they have been introduced to the north basin of the impoundment and threaten not only that lake but all other local and regional lakes. So the plan is to drain Capitol lake and refill it with salt water, allowing the snails to pickle in a salty brine for a couple of days in hopes of killing them off).

I had some errands to do; it was several hours later when I came back around the impoundment. By this time, the tide was coming in through the open dam with a vengeance: two of the three basins were nearly full of saltwater, and the water was moving rapidly into the southern basin by Tumwater Historical Park. I went to the Fifth avenue dam and stood next to it. The rush and roar of water pouring southward was impressive; it was so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice.

I sat near the dam for a long time, watching the water flow south. I couldn’t quite believe it; it seemed weird to see the water flowing the “wrong” way. Yet, at another level, it felt profoundly right.

As I sat there, I was filled with a sense of an old mistake, an old wrong, being corrected. The vigor and energy with which the tidal waters flowed back into their old grounds spoke to me of a natural system that wants what it wants, and that is to be the estuary it has been for thousands of years.

As I watched by the river, I felt in the marrow of my bones: there are bigger forces in the Creation and they are at work. See the tidal waters, sweeping back into the place that for thousands of years has been theirs, reclaiming the tidal pull and tug that is generations old. Smell the salt water all the way up to the old Brewery. Watch the Cormorants on the lake, calling excitedly, flying up and down, basking on the new logs brought in with the tide.

There are Greater forces at work. Long may they run.


• Photo of Little Hollywood by Merle Junk/Shadowcatchers
• Photo of Maxwell Maternity House -undated photograph from History of Olympia website
• Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT): check their blog at

1 comment:

  1. Janet - This is a wonderful article. Thank you so much for writing it - so rich with family history and feelings. The newly formed Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT) has a blog at If you ever want to write something for it - just let me know. I welcome your participation. Sue Patnude