The South Park neighborhood of Seattle, and other Duwamish Valley communities, will enjoy increased access to the Duwamish River thanks to a new collaboration connecting residents with Seattle’s only river.
The River Access Paddle Program (RAPP) invests in local expertise through a partnership among the Duwamish River Community Coalition, the Duwamish Tribe, Maritime High School, People of the Confluence, Puget Soundkeeper, and YETI. This multi-organizational collaboration removes barriers to community access on the Duwamish River by training local river guides.
Puget Soundkeeper (PSK) Communications Manager Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone spoke with program co-founders Cari Simson and Lee, along with PSK Stewardship Manager Aarin Wilde. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PSK: What’s the origin story for River Access Paddle Program?
Cari Simson: Lee and I have known each other for a really long time through tours on the Duwamish River. During the pandemic, we noticed that the usual community activities on the river, especially garbage cleanup, weren’t happening.
We organized three events ourselves last year, and then we found out about the Duwamish River Opportunity Fund grant, and Lee said they wanted to go for it. Lee is an experienced guide, and I’m a small business owner—together we had the skills to make it happen.
Lee: I have experience developing business plans for Duwamish Tribal Services to help encourage accurate curriculum and volunteering around the river, and educational materials about the impacts of pollution and industrialization. I’m also an American Canoe Association-certified canoe, kayak, and paddle board instructor, and have worked on the Salish Sea as a guide for over 12 years.
Aarin Wilde: Soundkeeper had a relationship with Heron’s Nest in the past, but we all came together as an entity in December, 2022, along with several other organizations including Duwamish River Community Coalition, YETI, Maritime High School, the Duwamish Tribe, and People of the Confluence.
Soundkeeper is able to bring its experience in kayak cleanups, and its experience leading tours on the water. We’re committed to deepening our relationships with Duwamish Valley communities.
PSK: When did you identify a need for increased river access, and why did you think that a paid training program would be the best way to meet that need?
L: Our community couldn’t access vessels for free or for an affordable rate, and that’s what really sparked our development. Now, through our partnerships and our funding through the Duwamish River Opportunity Fund, we’re able to host events, trainings, cleanups, and tours.
CS: Even getting to the water along the river is challenging. There are only a few safe places to put in a canoe or kayak between South Park and Harbor Island. Safety is part of accessibility, and we want to point people toward where it’s safe to participate.
L: One of the biggest things I’ve seen from guiding in the PNW is the lack of accessibility to marginalized communities and the barriers in place restricting access to water. When we talk about using kayaks, canoes, and SUPs—these have become affluent sports. As Cari mentioned, industrialization along the Duwamish puts up literal walls and barriers, preventing people from accessing the water.
Now that we’re able to host free and paid opportunities, community members who live along the river can get out on the water for the first time in their lives. They receive regular encouragement, free access to gear, and in some cases, paid work. We’re changing what it means and what it looks like to be a guide in the Northwest.
AW: That financial equity is critical. These are paid guide training courses. RAPP opens up employment to folks from the community.
CS: And, we only have one Lee! That’s why we need to train guides. There are so many groups that want to go out and experience the river. We need to have trained guides to make it a safe experience.
PSK: Is RAPP linked to the ongoing work at Heron’s Nest?
L: Heron’s Nest was a holding space for boat storage and some of our educational programming, but now it’s about building connections between water and land restoration. We had such a positive response from community members that we knew we needed a river program as its own separate entity.
PSK: What are some examples of how RAPP is helping to build connections between land and water restoration?
L: The Duwamish River Valley is one of the most heavily impacted areas in King County and Seattle, after 150 years of development. The aquifers, creeks, and rivers were paved over, dredged, or otherwise altered. Heron’s Nest is on a hill just above a Superfund site in the river.
We need to talk about land restoration within its historical context, and the future effect of all the industrial development in this area. The river is a convergence zone. The ecosystem relies on canopy, trees, and shade, which impact water quality, people’s quality of life, and wildlife habitat. It’s necessary to connect the river to its surrounding ecosystems, because land and water restoration are relative to one another.
PSK: What kind of impact has RAPP had so far?
AW: The first thing I think about is addressing people’s fears. The language we use to talk about polluted waterways can really drive people away. I noticed during the first day of guide training that people were concerned about getting sick and had fears about the water based on what they had heard. By the second day, everyone was getting in the water!
CS: There’s a whole world on the Duwamish River that few people in Seattle know about. When you’re out there you can see the positive impact of cleanup efforts and habitat restoration. It’s important to me that people understand the long-term change taking place, and that they know they’re allowed to be out on the river.
We’ve seen people meet as volunteers at Duwamish Alive! and then sign up for our guide training together. We helped people become friends in Seattle!
L: Coast Salish people have traveled these waterways for thousands of years, and now have severely limited access to return to the river. By hosting free and paid opportunities for BIPOC youth and other community members, we want diversify what a water person looks like out here in Coast Salish territory.
We know that when we support Canoe Journey families, Tribal members, BIPOC youth and adults, and surrounding community members, they will be able to invest their time into their neighborhood. They will take their lived experiences of being impacted by pollution and become advocates for the river. We have a responsibility to care for our surroundings and leave clean water for future generations.
AW: Two of Puget Soundkeeper’s Lost Urban Creeks interns were going to take their guide training on Lake Union with Northwest Outdoor Center, but that waterway isn’t really relevant to them. These youth live in Auburn, Renton, and Kent. It’s amazing to connect them with a waterway closer to home, that’s part of their watershed.
Cari: And eventually, they’ll be leaders equipped to bring their community out onto the river.
Are you a Duwamish Valley resident interested in becoming a guide? Click here to learn more.