NPR Story
8:59 am
Mon August 18, 2014

History Pollutes The Bottom Of Lake Washington

For KUOW Public Radio’s Local Wonder project, I embarked on a strange journey that took me to the heart of this vast lake that separates Seattle from the Eastside. What I learned was astonishing, often gross and, on occasion, heartbreaking.

On a recent evening, I hopped a boat with five scuba divers who have mapped the whole lake floor with sonar. We shoved off from the Magnuson Park boat launch.

Mike Racine, our captain, pointed to a map of the lake on a computer screen. It was covered with hundreds of markers, called targets. Each one represented an object of interest detected by their sonar. We headed out to check out target 590, a spot they’ve never explored before.

“When I’m out here, sometimes I imagine what it would be like if there was no water in Lake Washington,” Racine said. “What would you see?”

You would see an underwater museum, a place where you can’t go more than a few feet without discovering something. And the thing you’d discover out here, just off the boat launch, is big.

Really big.

“The PB4Y is just off to our left,” Racine said, referring to a huge World War II-era bomber.

“It’s got a big ball turret on the nose with two 50-calibre machine guns sticking out of the ball turret,” he continued. “Four giant radial engines with big propellers. The bomb bay doors are open.”

It crashed here in 1956. Now it rests at the bottom – 140 feet beneath the toes of that water skier.

Lake Washington is like a treasure trove for old plane wrecks. There are at least seven at the bottom of the Lake. They’re a frozen piece of our wartime history, a time when mock air battles raged over these waters. Midair collisions would send airplanes crashing into the lake.

Racine then pointed to the middle of the lake, where about a dozen coal cars are submerged – the oldest wreck in the lake.

The coal cars were on a barge heading from Newcastle to Seattle when they sank in a storm. That was 139 years ago. Many remain upright and still fully loaded with coal.

Racine flicked on his depth sounder to start hunting for our target.

Dan Warter, a diver with the Maritime Documentation Society, hopes they find a boat. But he said missions can be disappointing.

“There’s been so many times where we’ll find something on the sonar, we’re like ‘Oh, that looks like a plane wing or that looks like something very interesting,’” he said. “And you get down there and it’s the handle of a lawn mower sticking out of the mud.”

Warter said there are about 400 boats beneath the surface: ferries, barges, three Navy minesweepers, mostly in the shallower waters off Kirkland, where the Lake Washington Shipyards used to be. Now, it’s a graveyard for wrecked boats.

“These are full-on, full-sized ferries on the bottom, right underneath all the yachts that are parked there now,” said diver Ben Griner, also aboard.

As for the minesweepers, one day they were docked, the next they were gone.

It wasn’t until years later that Griner’s dive team discovered the minesweepers at the bottom of the lake. They’re so big you can swim right through the old corridors.

Some of these boats sank in fires. Some in storms. Griner said many met a more dubious end. When a boat got old "the standard practice was just to go sink it,” he said.

The tradition of scuttling unwanted boats is still going on. Even newer yachts have met an untimely fate.

“You’ll see very, very large concrete blocks in the back of these boats where people have tried to force them down underwater until they’ll sink,” Griner said. “Anything that people wanted to hide is on the bottom of Lake Washington.”

It’s been that way for centuries. Lake Washington is a dumping ground for things that people want to disappear. Garbage, boats, but also other things.

Two underwater forests.

A baby in a bag from a medical research facility.

The body of a dog found last month tied to concrete.

Possibly, a submerged village.

The lake’s deep, inky black water hides things from the casual swimmer or boater. They sink into the sludge of silt and mud at the bottom. The cold water – just 10 degrees above freezing at the bottom – preserves them.

Which means they’re only forgotten until someone finds them.

“Nobody takes the trash out on the bottom of Lake Washington,” Captain Racine said.

“There are trash bags all over the lake,” Griner said. “They’re on the wrecks. They’re next to the wrecks. You’ll be swimming around and just bump into one. And that’s something that creeps me out. I just don’t open them.”

We homed in on the dive target. Our position had to be perfect. Visibility is so poor that divers can be a foot from a target at the bottom and miss it. Finally, Racine nailed the spot.

“Whoooaaa!” he yelled. “Right here.”

The divers jump out of the boat and disappear into the lake.

As much as these guys know about the bottom of Lake Washington, mysteries remain. Of the 800 targets on their sonar map, they’ve only explored about 200. That’s after diving almost every week for the past eight years.

About 10 minutes later, two heads covered in black neoprene pop up from the waves.

It was a big concrete block that looked like an anchor, they said. Also, a fire extinguisher, burlap bags, wiring, lights, beer cans and beer bottles.

They hope the search will get easier soon. Griner recently purchased new sonar equipment, which means the divers can spend less time diving to lawn chairs and more time exploring things with deeper historical significance, like a World War I airplane that they hope to locate.

As I returned to shore, it occurred to me: The question isn’t, “What is at the bottom of Lake Washington?” It’s, what isn’t?

This story was first reported by KUOW's Sarah Waller. Local Wonder is an experiment in a new method of storytelling at KUOW. Listeners submit questions about the Puget Sound region and then vote to decide which we answer.

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