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Thursday, August 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Shady park: You can't beat Dead Horse on a hot day
By Kathryn True
In a series of searing summer days, it's another cooker and the sun-weary are looking for escape from the pavement. But at high noon in Dead Horse Canyon, a mysteriously well-kept secret in Southeast Seattle, people with hints of Cheshire grins are walking their dogs along Taylor Creek in shady comfort.
"It's always at least 10 degrees cooler than in the surrounding areas, and the trail takes you very close to the creek," said Tim Gannon, program manager with Seattle Public Utilities' Urban Creek Program. He has worked on this restoration project for five years.
The water and trees conspire here to create a breeze when there is only stagnant, pressing air on nearby streets. Orb webs catch filtered sunlight like shining eyes as vine-maple leaves do slow shadow dances. A satyr anglewing butterfly, such a captivating shade of orange that it must have just emerged from its chrysalis, collects heat on a sword fern. And the unmistakable smell of water, like the melding of earth and sky, relieves heat-worn senses.
When summer heat gets oppressive, remember that shady refuges such as this are never far away in the Puget Sound region.
A horse with two tales
A 29-acre cool corridor, Dead Horse Canyon is part of Lakeridge Park and is home to Taylor Creek, Seattle's fourth largest. A half-mile trail weaves along and over the stream on a series of bridges, while passing under a 50-foot-tall tree canopy.
The name Dead Horse has two origin stories.
The first has to do with the ravine's past as the home of a logging operation. In the late 1800s, the Taylor family built a sawmill where the creek meets Lake Washington. The ravine was logged at least twice before the mill closed in 1916. Trees that could not easily be removed from the site were left where they fell and dubbed "dead horses" by loggers.
Another legend tells of a free-roaming horse a favorite of area pioneer children that made the canyon home until she died there.
"In Dead Horse you can transport yourself back a century or more and that's hard to do in Seattle," said John Dixon, a volunteer native-plant steward. "You can reconnect with our past and with nature. You can feel lost in there without having to drive over to the Olympic Peninsula or Mount Rainier."
Today's shady retreat wasn't preserved without some effort, though. More than 5,000 trees and untold native plants have been added since 1996, largely by a small, dedicated community group that grew into Friends of Dead Horse Canyon. After being called to a public meeting about a leaky sewage pipe, a few curious neighbors bushwhacked into the ravine and were astonished by the natural treasure in their own back yards. But though the foundation was there remnant old-growth, hillsides spilling sword ferns, healthy trillium patches, mature nurse logs the canyon was slowly being choked by invasive plants and stressed by pollution from illegal dumping. Tons of trash, including refrigerators and beer kegs, clogged Taylor's sullied waterway.
Known as Mr. Dead Horse Canyon by those who admire his commitment to the canyon's renewal, area resident Darrell Dobson's first step was creating a restoration plan with a city arborist. "We knew that if we didn't get to work this would be just another blackberry and ivy patch in a few years," he said. Joining with school groups, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Parks and Recreation and area volunteer organizations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the community took on the task. Nearly 10 years later, Western tiger swallowtails, ensatina salamanders, osprey, pileated woodpeckers, screech owls, raccoons and little brown bats are taking advantage of the restored habitat.
"It's amazing the work that's gone on here. I think we're just one culvert away from a stream that's gone from a little more than a drainage ditch to something that's going to viably support salmon runs," said Gannon. "There is already a healthy population of cutthroat trout, and the habitat is healthy and improving."
As invasive plants were removed, volunteers led by Dobson planted in their place Douglas fir, hemlock, Western red cedar, vine maple, Indian plum, hazelnut, fern, salal, thimbleberry, salmonberry, and red osier dogwood. In addition to the creek's cooling presence, these plants are largely responsible for making Dead Horse a heat-defying destination. During photosynthesis, fluids from leaves return to the air as vapor through a process called transpiration. This is how a plant makes room in its leaves to draw up new moisture, and as a lucky byproduct for heat-worn humans, it cools the air at the same time.
One of Dobson's favorite places along the trail is on the third large wooden bridge where two sections of the creek converge. Just below the railing is an ancient cedar stump sprouting ferns, red huckleberries and a young hemlock tree. "It's a very peaceful, cool spot," says Dobson, who as a native-plant steward also appreciates this example of natural forest succession. Other things to look for along the trail are old-growth firs and cedars, ripe huckleberries (full of vitamin C), cedars tattooed with sapsucker holes, and a nurse log nurturing a line of sturdy saplings along its spine.
Because the canyon changes all the time, Dobson finds it difficult to pick a favorite time of day to visit. "Mornings are crazy with bird song, and evenings are peaceful," he said. Adding with a smile, "The absolute best time is when we're having a work party."
Any time is the right time, according to John Dixon: "It's magical if you like trees ... if you love forest."
Kathryn True of Vashon Island is co-author with Maria Dolan of "Nature in the City: Seattle" (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).
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