Healing Hamm Creek- and People, Too

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Hamm Creek resides in the southern Duwamish Watershed, with many work and volunteer groups extending hands to save patches of nature along its banks. Today, the Hamm Creek Estuary looks like the historic Duwamish River habitat it’s meant to be, meandering through a brackish marsh lined with native plants.

But not long ago, Hamm Creek flowed through a ditch and culvert system, tamed by Seattle area development. The surrounding ground was choked with blackberry and ivy crawling over mounds of trash. Enter John Beal, a Vietnam War veteran haunted by PTSD, whose heart attacks earned him a death sentence by doctors in 1979.  At that point, the avid outdoorsman figured he had nothing to lose by spending his last days cleaning up Hamm Creek.

Beal told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “It was full of garbage, trucks tires, everything you can imagine. I decided that instead of laying down dead, I’d start picking up the garbage … And if I died in the process, so be it.”

John Beal lived for 27 more years, fighting for improvements in the Duwamish River Watershed. According to the Seattle Times, “Mr. Beal developed educational programs that have taught scores of local children about the environment. The Concord Elementary School in South Park planted the John Beal Memorial Garden several years ago in thanks.”

In 2016, the healing exchange between the creek and people continues. For two days, King County Wastewater Treatment Division’s education team worked with teenage boys (enrolled in the SeaMar Renacer program) on restoration projects at Hamm Creek.  Renacer, meaning “reborn” in Spanish, is an intensive in-patient drug and alcohol program that helps adolescents with substance abuse problems gain life skills and discover new ways to experience and enjoy the world.

Duwamish Infrastructure Restoration Training (DIRT) Corps hosted the teens at a site where ongoing projects are carried out to maintain the stream and surrounding forest area. The long-term goal is to increase the quality of the site by removing invasive species and improve the slope integrity around the site. DIRT Corps hopes that these efforts will make the site more accessible for people and better for wildlife.

On November 9 and 16, Renacer students worked shoulder to shoulder with students from the University of Washington Restoration Ecology program. UW students shared their experiences of studying environmental science and biology, while the Renacer students shared their experiences undergoing treatment at the SeaMar rehabilitation center.

Together, the students accomplished a lot in two days. DIRT Corps members provided a short history of the site and briefed all of the students on the projects for each day before turning students loose to work. Students developed a site map identifying trees with beaver damage. They removed a huge swath of English Ivy, sampled soil, marked high water points in the wetland, and laid burlap to control soil erosion.

The hard-working restoration crews were treated to the sight of coho salmon swimming up the creek on their return journey from the ocean to spawn. For many students, this was their first time observing the salmon life cycle in action. For Renacer students, the salmon symbolize hope and promise that comes with restoration of a more natural environment.

Working as a team, WTD’s education staff, UW and Renacer students, and DIRT Corps carried on John Beal’s legacy for two days, healing the environment while healing people.