When was the last time you got in the water around Tacoma? I don’t mean a ferry ride to Vashon Island, I mean leaving the shoreline with a paddle in your hand or, better yet, with nothing but your own body. For most of us, it’s either been a long time or it’s never actually happened.
If you’ve never done it, you’re missing out on a huge part of what this city has to offer. Some of the most amazing things happening in Tacoma are happening just off shore, beyond that invisible border that we so rarely cross.
Leaving the shore may not seem like a momentous occasion—until you actually do it. Floating on the water and looking back at the city is an experience that can’t accurately be described in words. The photos Dean Burke shares on his Instagram account, Tacoma and the Sea, are the next best thing.
Tacoma’s waterfront, as it exists today, is radically different than it was 20 years ago. As Dean puts it, the shoreline of Tacoma was seen as a tool box; it was there to pay the bills.
The first European settlers in Tacoma made their mark by building a sawmill on the shore and it only expanded from there for more than 100 years. In 1983, Commencement Bay was designated an EPA Superfund site. This was largely due to the fallout from the ASARCO smelter that stood on what is now known as Point Ruston.
When the ASARCO plant was in operation, Tacoma was actually a popular spot to moor boats. This was because nothing would grow on them. No seagrass, no anemones, not even barnacles on pier pilings could be found anywhere around here because the water was so polluted. As Dean points out though, “If you give life room, life will succeed.”
These photos are proof of that. The cleanup efforts from the Thea Foss Waterway to Point Ruston are commendable and it’s shown just how effective environmental stewardship can be.
It’s also worth pointing out that these photos aren’t from some far flung tourist destination. You don’t have to take a vacation to the San Juan Islands to experience life on the water. If you’re in Tacoma right now, everything you see here exists within a few miles of where you’re sitting.
Even if it’s an hour on a rental kayak from Owen beach, there’s really no wrong way to do it. Give it a try and you’ll see it’s more than just a fun thing to do. It affects your priorities and the way you interact with the community and the environment around you. All you have to do is cross the threshold.
And if you already have, take someone else with you. There are people in Tacoma who haven’t even been to the beach, let alone out on the water.
Once you’ve splashed your way back onto shore, check out Bleach on Pacific Ave to see more of Dean’s work on display. Then mark your calendar for June 11th at the Museum of Glass. That’s the starting day of the Seventy 48; a 48 hour, 70 mile race from the Thea Foss Waterway to Port Townsend. The race is human power only—no sails, no support crews.
The symbolism of this major event starting on what was once one of the nation’s most polluted waterways is not lost on the organizers. Tacoma’s connection to the sea is a great point of pride in an already awesome city and we should all be a part of it.
Photos by Dean Burke