By Neva Knott
The Lake’s bottom has been exposed at low tide since the snow storm. Rocks, muck, and detritus are exposed about six feet out from from the shoreline. Today, Sunday, I saw a pair of Mallards pecking in the muck, duck behavior I’d not seen before. I’ve been watching Mallards since I was a little girl living on a different lake, here in Olympia. They were the first wild species I knew to recognize.
Today, Ted–my little black dog–and I are making our way around Capitol Lake. It’s a man-made lake that sits at the mouth of the Deschutes River as it meets Budd Inlet, part of Puget Sound. Before it was a lake, this waterway was tide flats, an ecosystem of river and brackish water. The path we take extends from the Capitol grounds on the south shore hill, weaves down switchbacks that open to a view of the Olympic Mountains far north, and then circles the lake for about a two-mile walk. We’ve been snowbound for over a week, so today I seem to be walking with renewed awareness of nature and place.
During the storm I pondered the importance of snow. I like how it forces quietude and a slowness of human busy-ness. I like the silent softness of a snowy night. I know the importance of snowpack in the water cycle and health of watersheds. This week, I pondered the importance of snow in the climate cycle and how it might work within the structure of global warming. I researched and learned that the snow’s reflection, its albedo, reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere, helping to keep the planet cool.
Capitol Lake was built in 1951 as a reflection pool for the grandeur of the Capitol building. The Lake has done its job well. Not only is it a spot of beauty at the city’s center, it has always been a gathering place. Each year, Lake Fair plays out in the shoreline park. As a teenager, I loved the carnival rides as they swung out over the water. When I was a little girl, we swam in the Lake, right from the shore down town. Boating was allowed then, too. Even on a winter’s day like today, walkers, runners, families, and people with dogs circle the water. I feel a part of my community each day we make the trek.
Today, the ducks whose species name I don’t know, those with the velvet black heads, white shoulders and grey side panels, floated in a battalion, in formation across the lake’s surface. Then, on a mysterious cue, they’d take turns diving down, synchronized like swimmers in a show.
Some days, as the tide turns, the ducks float in a cluster, the whole bunch of them moving in circular motion as the water moves.
I wonder what the cold does to them.
Some days, in the ticket just along the shore at the bottom of the switchbacks, I see a blue heron. Today, as we rounded the edge of the lake near the road, a heron flew by, low to the water, magnificent wing span flapping. I’d had a feeling we would see one today.
What creates the lake is an earthen dam and concrete spillway at the north end. This is also where a bridge crosses the waterway, connecting down town to the west side. In college, in the late 80s, my housemate and I fished the salmon run from the “legal” side of the bridge. We were poor and happy to fill our freezer for winter with each day’s limit.
Many days, I see river otter near the spillway. Just one was there today, having toddled out of the water to nudge around in the bramble along the shore. There’s a bridge on the south end of the lake, too, and almost daily I count on seeing three or four otters there, swimming, playing, and when they notice us, watching Ted.
The lake has served good purpose in blending the beauty human architecture and natural. Not only has it reflected the values of community here, it also stands to reflect the changes–and challenges–in environmental science from then to now. Several decades ago, the lake was closed to swimming because of fecal matter from storm water. Too-warm water in the summer months increases algae blooms and makes for poor fish habitat. In 2009, New Zealand mud snails were discovered in the lake and it was closed to boating. And, because the river cannot pulse and flow through as it would in an estuary, sediment–the muck my Mallards were pecking in–is taking over the contents of the lake. As environmental science, particularly wetlands science, as advanced, it has become clear that blocking off river flow is detrimental.
In 2016 the State Legislature began drafting a plan for better management of the Lake. One idea is to take apart the actual lake and let the river remake the land as estuary. There is talk of a “hybrid plan.” And there is the option to leave the Lake as it is. Until change comes, Ted and I will circle the shoreline, watching the ducks, heron, and otters and the ebb tide at sundown.