Puget Gulch: Reclaiming the park

On a sunny Thursday morning, two women walk a dog and toddlers down the steep switchback from Puget Park into the gulch below.

Framed by native shrubs and cleared understory, they laugh and chat, the dog sprinting ahead in canine heaven. The trickle of a clear stream 100 feet below mingles with birdsong 50 feet up in the canopy of thick evergreens.

It’s a picture of park perfection, the ending to a story of a gulch that fell into ivied disrepair, became the neighborhood dump, and was the scene of a child’s rape and murder.

It’s a tale of how a partnership among the city, parks and citizens created a safe and beautiful public place.

It’s also an ongoing story of the delicate balance between park and habitat, between the safe and the wild, and of how much Tacoma wants of one or the other.

Leah Walker moved with her family 30 years ago to a house directly overlooking Puget Gulch.

“We’d been in the house one year when the murder happened,” Walker recalls.

Half a block from the Walkers’ home, 12-year-old Michella Welch was abducted one March morning in 1986 and killed in the gulch.

Walker had kids of her own, and she started a local children’s safety group, working with Metro Parks.

“There was no fence, just a drop-off,” Walker said of the upper park.

The murder was just one of Puget Gulch’s problems 30 years ago.

Once a salmon stream fished by local tribes, it was donated to the city in 1888 by early developer Allen Mason, who also built the lamp-posted Proctor bridge for his streetcar line.

At the time, the gulch was prized for its woods and fresh springs.

But like many of Tacoma’s other gulches, settlement wasn’t kind to Puget.

Ivy and blackberry crept down out of yards on the lip above and strangled trees and undergrowth. Transients found the hidden, dry recesses under the bridge perfect for camping. (They still do: Police recently routed an eight-person camp.)

Locals used the bridge to toss off old appliances and junk. College students used the depths for parties and hazing rituals. The stream stank like sewage.

And while Walker used the gulch to walk her dog and take a shortcut to the waterfront — otherwise a long trek down winding, narrow North 36th Street — she never let her younger kids play down there.

What turned Puget Gulch around was a public-private partnership that many see as the way to tame Tacoma’s other wild gulches.

“I’ve been working down here since 1997,” said Scott Hansen, acting executive director of Puget Creek Restoration Society. “It was really hammered with invasives and trash.”

Hansen, an ecologist who grew up playing in similar gulches in Federal Way and Des Moines, founded the society in 2000 after meetings with the community.

Now the nonprofit group partners with Metro Parks (most of the gulch is city property) to take out invasive plants, put in native vegetation, clear the stream bed and paths, take out trash, and generally care for the gulch.

Hansen’s down there almost daily; his pool of volunteers and interns works there every weekend.

Metro Parks does the heavy lifting, and Hansen occasionally brings in Eagle Scouts to install hardware such as the switchback’s benches and log steps.

This summer, they’re planning a boardwalk project, giving park users more access across the stream in the lower reaches.

Hansen has approached private property owners — collectively making up 25 percent of the upper gulch — to restore their land also.

The result is tangible. From the foot of the bridge, a wide gravel trail cuts between a hillside green with lush fern brakes and shaded with conifers.

Ivy is rare — though old, dead vines still lash trunks — and colored ribbons flutter where Hansen’s team replaced blackberry slopes with saplings of Indian plum, flowering red currant and salmonberry.

Little paths wind off across the bubbling stream like invitations to explore; fallen trees make tightrope bridges; banana slugs creep along the muddy undergrowth.

At the waterfront end, where Puget Creek gets deeper and feeds into the sound via a pipe with a fish ladder, Hansen has recorded salmon returns in eight of the last 16 years, as well as beavers and otters.

For those who use it, Puget Gulch is a gift.

“I get a sense of peace and relaxation (in the woods), especially down here,” said Sal Greenberger, who walks the gulch regularly with his dog, Cedar. “It’s nice to be a little separated from the roads. It usually feels pretty safe, though I never walk late at night.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Julie Vindivich, who’s lived just west of the bridge for 15 years and remembers when it was still a “neighborhood dumping ground.”

She frequently uses the gulch as a shortcut to the waterfront, and loves that her kids have a playground like this.

“I grew up on South Hill, where … we’d just explore and explore as kids,” Vindivich said. “It was a magical way to be as a kid that I don’t think they have now. There are parks, but that’s different.”

That difference between a park and something wilder keeps Puget Gulch in a state of flux.

At the top end, the gravel trail gets narrower and less maintained. Huge graffiti faces stare down from the bridge’s supports like menacing guardians, and local teenagers have put up some long rope swings to play on.

“It’s a pretty good place for artists to come; no one bothers you,” said one teenage graffiti artist.

Some graffitists also leave a healthy scattering of trash, which Hansen said he no longer bothers to pick up — vandals just push the bins over or set them on fire.

Police regularly rout transient camps, he adds.

Further up, another group engineered a mountain bike course that — before the city leveled it — was complete with 6-foot jump pits, ramps and jumps.

Two paths that lead to Monroe Street at the upper end feel secret, hidden from the street. A maple grows across the path at head-height —perfect for climbing up and bouncing on.

Someone has swung a sign 30 feet up into a tree, just off the trail east of the bridge. One side says “Bill’s (Semper Vivum) Trail;” the other “60 Fysh.”

Hansen still hasn’t figured out how to get it down.

The waterfront end has its own wild areas, such as the ruins of the Skupen residence, donated 30 years ago to Metro Parks.

The historic house was demolished, but the laurel and box hedges remain, with stone garden edgings and red azaleas gradually fading into the natural wetland. A salmon sculpture stares through the trees, bizarre in the forest surroundings.

You can have a picnic here in the meadow, though it’s pretty boggy under the tables.

Some neighbors don’t want a wilderness.

Leah Walker pointed out pine trees Hansen planted a few feet from where the embankment encroaches onto the road. If the trees don’t die from lack of watering, they’ll cut off all views of Puget Sound and darken the already dim, cool gulch, she said.

More undergrowth also will encourage wildlife such as deer, coyotes, raccoons and even great blue herons — critters blamed for eating up gardens and pets.

Plus, teens already smoke enough marijuana down in the gulch that Walker keeps her windows closed.

“It’s a fine line,” she said. “It’s an urban area. Maybe it’s nice to have a nature preserve in the middle of the city, but how does that impact the neighbors?”

For Hansen, it’s still too much of a park.

“We do studies, and there’s low diversity on frogs,” he said. “We’re missing half the bat and half the salamanders that should live here. …

“We don’t have many natural areas left in the city. So we have to restore them and protect them for what wildlife we do have left, versus the manicured parks which are for people. (It’s about) keeping it wild.”

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune