Photo by Laura K. Cooper
Ballard's ship canal is a hard-working waterfront

At Large in Ballard: My Missing Link

For almost as long as I have lived in Ballard there’s been reference to “the missing link.” This refers to the gap in the Burke-Gilman Trail that completes a dedicated path from Redmond’s Marymoor Park to Ballard’s Golden Gardens. But I’m not talking about that missing link.

My own gap runs parallel to the controversial stretch of roadway through the heart of Ballard’s marine industrial corridor. It is the waterway itself, the Ship Canal. I have crossed the Ballard Bridge by car, bus, bicycle, and by foot but until last week I had never passed underneath it by boat. Ballard’s oldest and truest corridor was known to me only by sounds, smells and glimpses from above.

In hindsight, I think anyone who wants to become part of the community, or attempt to speak for it, should be obligated to arrive by water. It seems criminal I had never seen from the water a corridor that is as lively and commercial as Ballard Avenue during the Farmer’s Market, and even more symbiotic.

I finally had my water tour thanks to the public affairs office of the Port of Seattle. Along with other venues, such as the Duwamish, they offer an annual tour aboard an Argosy vessel they call “Ship Canal 101.” This year Rob Mattson of the Department of Neighborhoods requested 25 spots for Ballard District Council members. There was a waitlist within two days. (I had to beg and then gained some legitimacy when Zachariah Bryan had a conflict).

The Lady Mary left Fisherman’s Terminal about 4 p.m. with nearly 300 passengers from local businesses and community groups, a table stacked high with box lunches made by Cameron Catering and another table with Port of Seattle tote bags and literature. The cruise was narrated by a group of men who were introduced by Fishermen’s Terminal manager Kenny Lyles as “Captains of Industry.”

A major part of the Port’s mission is to invest public resources for trade and economic growth. The cruise was part infomercial with each participant impressing upon the passengers their industry’s contribution to the local and national economy through jobs and revenue. (Some facts stuck better than others, salmon oil comes primarily from the head of the fish, unlike the rightly named cod liver oil). The numbers were impressive, a 20-year-old commercial maritime graduate could be earning $100,000 within a year; the commercial fishing fleet based at the terminal generates more than $37 million in state and local taxes.

“We spend a lot of money here,” Kris Mullan with Alaska Longline said, referring in part to $1.5 million a year his company spends for repairs and maintenance of their four boats.

I could have read the statistics from their fact sheets, but even photographs wouldn’t have done justice to the varied relationships within the maritime industry and their hidden-in-plain-sight community along the Ship Canal, between Fremont and the east entrance to the Locks.

The men, and yes, in this case they were all men, clearly knew each other well, from past years’ narration and everyday encounters. Warren Aarkevik, with 50 years in the family business at Ballard Oil, was particularly knowledgeable. Along with Brian Thomas from Kvichak Marine, Jim Peschel from Foss Maritime, John Van Amerongen from Trident Seafoods, and Mark Rarig from Coastal Transportation they could cite the history of almost every vessel and structure. They are neighbors, and unlike the one next door who puts away your garbage can when you’re out town their neighborliness runs to the use lending tugs, storage space, or in the case Foss Maritime, the use of their 1943 steam crane.

Van Amerongen from Trident, who later regaled the Lady Mary passengers with a ballad about the Bering Sea, referred to the businesses along the Ship Canal as a “string of economic pearls.” It seemed less romantic and more accurate when Thomas called it a “house of cards.” However they shared Van Amerongen’s point, “If others go down, we go down. We need everybody on the waterfront.” If there weren’t dry docks or shipyards for building and repairs, the fleet would move, every supply/demand relationship would fall like dominoes. Each narrator gave their own example of how the fortunes of the entire Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, would suffer if any of the integral businesses along the Ship Canal were to fail or leave, especially due to transportation issues on land.

For all its sights and statistics the main lesson of “Ship Canal 101” was that Seattle grew because of its value as a port and gateway to Alaska. In turn, Ballard’s history, before and after annexation, started with the ability to export natural resources by water, was enhanced by building the Ship Canal, which in turn, offered a home for the fleet and a major commercial maritime support system.

As the boat tied up at Fishermen’s Terminal I asked Shannon Dunn, East Ballard Community Association, for her impression. “I loved seeing Ballard’s maritime industry from the water,” she said, but would like to learn how to negotiate peace between residents, such as new condo owners upset by noise for example, and the industry. Someone who could craft the right compromise on the Burke-Gilman Trail could probably win a peace prize.

So could the boat cruises be mandatory, like field trips for students so they can learn milk comes from a cow and not a carton? So folks like me, who have loved living in Ballard for 25 years, can finally realize my fish is thanks to the fleet and Coastal Transportation, my gravel thanks to barges and tugs, and that Ballard’s past and its future depends on that not yet missing link.

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