Meanderings: Shinglemill Creek provides a look into Vashon’s history


For The Beachcomber

On Vashon’s west side, this hike up lower Shinglemill Creek sparks with autumn glories. Big-leaf maples turn yellow, Douglas squirrels chatter, and some years, cutthroat trout and coho salmon thrash in the creek’s shallows. Human history also colors this creek canyon — the odd, the tragic and the expected.

A gate is easily walked around, but the road is muddy. Be aware. The first sight is a lesson in mammal anatomy or hunting etiquette. A pile of intestines, hairy bits and stomach blend with the roadside.

About 100 feet up road, a faint path leads to the creek. A cobble beach allows gazing into the flow. The algae-coated cobbles attract water bugs called macroinvertebrates. Their presence indicates clean, oxygenated water. Caddis fly larva look like half-inch sticks but are cases camouflaged with nature’s minute litter (leaf, fir needle, rock chips). Some water bugs, like the flat Mayfly nymph, cling to a rock’s underside. Island naturalist and teacher Barbara Gustafson advises, “Pick up the rock, learn about the bug, respect it, and return the rock to the way it was.”

Back on the road, salmonberry dominates the understory. Adjacent to the creek, the wetland hosts skunk cabbage. In spring, the flower’s odor and brilliant yellow spike and cowl entertain the eye and nose equally. The steep rise on the road’s left is conservation property owned by King County.

The creek now braids through and cuts into sand layers, deposited in mass sheets from previous years’ big rains. Standing dead trees attest to the creek’s past shifts in flow direction and power. Eleven miles upstream, Shinglemill’s headwaters drain from two directions: the Fisher Pond area and Vashon town’s southwest side. The headwaters from Shinglemill and Judd Creek meet generally south of Bank Road. The watersheds’ adjacency creates a wildlife corridor from saltwater (Colvos Passage) to saltwater (Quartermaster Harbor). Wildlife does not thrive in small, isolated plots of habitat. Lower Shinglemill Creek Salmon Preserve, totaling 117 acres, is owned by the Vashon Park District and stewarded by the Vashon Maury Island Land Trust.

Farther up road, a huge cedar stump inhabits a dark nook downhill to the right. Five hemlocks grow from its top, rooted in the interior’s rich decay. To encircle it requires six lengths of outstretched arms. Side notches allowed two boards to be inserted, foot-stands for two loggers, each working ends of a 10-foot plus crosscut saw (or misery whip).

When Fern Cove settlers, the Dr. Belle Baldwin family, returned to the Island in 1908, poachers had cut the virgin cedar. A shingle mill processed the wood, giving the creek its name.

Years ago, when Rayna Holtz and I contemplated the Island’s big, notched stumps, we realized that they would decay and disappear. We mulled a plan to plasticize a stump so future generations could witness the preserved behemoth as a reminder of the forest’s early greatness.

Marking the next path, a big-leaf maple fills the sky with seemingly overextended branches. From liberally mossed limbs, licorice ferns grow from a lacework of rhizomes. Here the creek is crisscrossed with logs, donated by Islanders and placed by the land trust. The logs enhance the creek as salmon habitat by creating pools and riffles. The logs inhibit river-deposited sand from blanketing gravels, prime sites for redds (salmon-egg deposition sites). Unfortunately, salmon migrate up creek after November’s big rains increase creek flow. The heavy rains carry sand, eroded from the canyon’s steeper walls.

Salmon hide out in log shadows and under banks, but they may be heard more easily than sighted. Stream noise is incessant and has a pattern. However, when salmon migrate up creek, ambient stream noise varies. Sometimes the beat quickens or a thrashing is heard. Over and over, the salmon noisily whack over riffles, fling over falls, slide back downstream and rest. Settlers, boating in mid-Puget Sound, could hear the salmon migrate toward local rivers, so great were their numbers.

Soon the road sprouts with sticks. My oddest plant book, “Sticks In Winter,” helps me discern the plants as red osier, willow, alder and salmonberry.

Ahead is the main stream crossing. The bridge is gone, but stumps with fantastic root disks now bulwark the bank. In the canyon’s low light, they appear as squat, powerful beings, most surely female, guarding the stream. A jackstraw arrangement of logs allows easy fording.

The road goes briefly uphill, ending in the Oswalt clearing. The flat acres were formed most likely from sand being carried down Pit Bull Creek, which enters on the right. The land trust, upon acquisition, tore down two houses. A 1930s resident, Judge Brown dammed Pit Bull Creek, creating a pond. Tragically, his son drowned in it. Later, a caretaker, known to buy excessive amounts of corn to feed his pigs, was an Island bootlegger. Rumor contends that barrels of whiskey are buried here.

In 1949, Phyllis Cole and family built another home, the Gully House, hauling overland “every stick and stone.” They placed their own electricity poles. Mrs. Oswalt, the last owner, put her babies down for naps in the soft interiors of the big stumps. Why live in such a secluded niche? After many visits, I find the clearing’s light is unexpectedly and remarkably bright.

The path leads across the left edge of the clearing, enters the shrubs and drops to the creek. The downstream is cluttered with logs. However, scrambling brings sightings of red-legged frogs and winter wrens. A dipper feeds here, up to its “knees” in the riffle, bobbing like a frenetic windup toy.

Upstream, a waterfall erodes slowly up Pit Bull. Shinglemill bends, but if walking farther, be wary of treading in the stream. I walked upstream with geologists for years — big steps, mid-stream, making good time. Then came my days stewarding at Shinglemill with biologists and salmon stalkers. We did not walk mid-stream in order to avoid salmon redds. We hugged the bank, leapt sand bar to gravel mound, making slow, messy but salmon-savvy progress.

The next 200 feet are meditative, quiet, secluded. Here, I always fall in love again with Shinglemill and am thankful.

— Ann Spiers is an Island poet and naturalist.

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