“Get help,” someone on a paddleboard said to people onshore. Her words were hard to make out in the wind skimming over the water. My friend Reina and I looked up and across the lake where we’d agreed to a quick swim followed by a bike ride home.

This warm August day was the first time we’d ridden our bikes up an old railroad grade on a 7-mile trek from the valley to the lake. We’d trained for the ride after work. Despite our practice, traveling the full distance in one fell swoop was tougher than we imagined.

“Should we go back?” I’d said after we stopped partway to catch our breath. The light dipped lower.

Reina leaned over the handlebars. Her hair, like mine was tied in a ponytail. “I don’t think I drank enough water,” she said.

I broke out watermelon pieces, which tasted better than lukewarm water and revived us enough to move on. We stood in the shade to be sure. My face glowed in the heat.

“Let’s go for it,” Reina said. “We’re almost there.”

We put on our daypacks and slung ourselves onto our bikes again. The woods crowded near the trail and the light thinned in one of the most remote parts of the ride, meaning time was short and the lake was close. We found the energy to pedal faster now that the Rattlesnake Mountain and the water beneath it, Rattlesnake Lake, came into view. The lake shores were quiet and motor-free in what I thought of as a nod to the natural world but was likely a way to keep pollutants from seeping into Seattle’s water supply. We walked our bikes to a cove near the boat dock and eased into the water – the sooner we jumped in and cooled off, the faster we could find our way home.

When the paddleboarder called out for help, someone on shore called 9-1-1. Up to our shoulders in water, Reina and I stared across the lake with the other swimmers and boaters. At the far end, another paddleboarder and a kayaker clustered around a group of stumps. The sun rested closer to Rattlesnake Mountain. Once behind it, the sun would leave us all in shadow.

Before the early 1900s, prairielands and forest edges once covered the valley floor instead of water. The stumps lining the lake were old-growth trees. Native Peoples once used these open spaces for their plant and wildlife resources. As the population of European-American settlers in the Seattle area grew, so did the need for water and electricity. The region’s rivers and lakes, fed by snowmelt, supplied much of this demand. To secure its water needs for a growing population, the City of Seattle looked east to the mountains. On land acquired in 1899, the city completed Masonry Dam on the Cedar River in late 1914, creating Chester Morse Lake. Workers lived in city-provided housing located near the site. Residents who wanted their own homes opted for nearby prairielands on what was called Rainy Season Lake. This community, dubbed Moncton, at its height featured a saloon, a restaurant, a school, and a hotel.

Along with the other swimmers and boaters, Reina and I left the water and settled onto the shore. Neither of us said anything. The swimmer was too far up the lake for us to reach them, and too close for us to simply pack up and leave. It was if by staying, we hoped to somehow save them. In a collective motion, we shaded our faces with our hands to stare down the length of the lake and into the sun. What had started out as an after-work swim with a friend turned into a reminder of how deep and cold these waters reached.

A fire truck arrived and parked on the beach. After slamming doors and launching rescue boats into the water, EMTs headed toward the far end of the lake.

“They’re from the city,” Reina said in a murmur. From our shared workplace, we recognized the firefighters who said nothing while speeding toward the opposite shore. They disappeared in a fringe of old-growth stumps and a reminder of that long-ago prairie.

In 1915, the newly formed lake waters of Chester Morse, not content to stay within their boundaries, began oozing through the porous glacier moraine. Augmented by winter rains, water eased onto the community of Moncton. Residents hoped it was temporary. Puddles began appearing when there was no rain at all. In the spring of 1915, heavy rains came and stayed. By May of 1915, the water rose by a foot a day. Those still living in the community soon began floating boats to take their possessions away.

The firefighters clustered at the far end of the lake where the kayaker and the paddleboarder waited. A half-hour passed. The shoreline quieted. Later, we learned a man in his 30s had fallen off a raft and drowned. What had started as a rescue would turn into a recovery as EMTs searched for and retrieved a man’s body.

The sun lowered all the way behind Rattlesnake Mountain and the lake turned navy blue. The rest of us stayed onshore and squinted through sunglasses we no longer needed. The firefighters remained at the far end of the lake. Everyone, Reina and I included, started packing up to leave. We still had a ride through the woods ahead of us. No one said anything. The stumps faded until we lost sight of them.


Weeks later, during a late-afternoon escape to the lake and its foothills, I hunkered in a cove of alders on a sun-warmed rock. Its flatness, lined in grooves and time, made an apt, lake-side perch. As soon as John and I moved to the valley, Rattlesnake Lake became one of my favorite spots. Straight after work, I’d changed into a swimsuit and put distance between me and daytime duties.

Old-growth stumps poked from the shore and the wind brushed the water into sunlit waves. In the Northwest, we hoarded this sudden warmth like gold, like we wouldn’t see it again for a while, and we wouldn’t once the rain started. Coves along the shore provided perfect places to recharge for humans and wildlife like grazing deer. I was alone and not alone in the same breath. The lake kept its confidences.

Rattlesnake Mountain towered over the lake. Hikers, which here looked like stick figures, moved in slow motion at the thousand-foot ledge at the top. From the summit on a clear day, the hills cascaded over themselves like the mountain range they were named for.

The name of both the lake and the mountain, Rattlesnake, was a more difficult puzzle to unravel, at least in temperate western Washington. In terms of danger, hikers were more apt to tumble from its sudden drop than to see a rattlesnake. The closest thing to a rattlesnake was the elongated shape of the mountain itself, which wound ten miles from east to west.

The lake, like me, was a recent addition. On original prairielands, the Snoqualmie Tribe grew and harvested the camas root and hunted. A party of European-American travelers attempting to find a route from the western side of the Cascades to the east camped on the prairie mid-journey. According to Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, one of the travelers heard seed pods rattle in the wind over the camas fields and mistook it for a rattlesnake. The site became known as the Rattlesnake Prairie, a name which spread to the mountain and the eventual lake.

Of all the local bodies of water I visited growing up here: Pine Lake, Lake Sammamish, Lake Washington – Rattlesnake Lake was just far enough east to not be among those we dove into. Because my mom had almost drowned as a child, she enrolled me and my brother in swimming lessons and drove us to neighborhood pools until we could swim the crawl stroke across the pool or float long enough to stay out of trouble. Lessons in the pool transitioned to lake swims just for fun on summer afternoons.

The imprint of outdoor swims as a reset held fast, following me everywhere I lived. As an adult, swimming under the sky created a cool renewal in body and mind where troubles disappeared once I was in. Smooth rocks rested near the shore and fish darted like glints of sun. From a warm rock, a contentious workplace faded and worries about my aging dad could wait, at least until after I swam.

I eased into the water for one last dip, one toe at a time. Gravity, the angle of the rock, and the lake took over. I slid, ready for the shock of the cold and to breathe again, the water pulling me the rest of the way.


The first summer John and I moved back to the Northwest, I sat on a shaded towel at Gene Coulon Beach Park. It was a place I’d frequented growing up here. My friend Gretchen and I, both in our twenties, would lounge by the small outdoor pool at my apartment complex or head for the lake. During one visit, I swam at the lake while Gretchen learned to windsurf. Favoring water over wind, I watched the colored sail she piloted billow and empty on top of the water, a precursor to the sailing she’d perfect.

After graduate school and years in Central Texas, John and I came home and moved in with Dad. I searched for jobs while John worked. On sunny days, I took breaks along the south shore of Lake Washington to revisit the park where I’d left off twenty-some years ago. Starting from the Pacific Ocean, these glacier-carved bodies of water – Puget Sound, Lake Washington, and Lake Sammamish – left marks across the region like fingernails. Which lake is this? John would ask, trying to keep track as we drove on I-90 and crossed one body of water after another.

These linked waters created an important passageway to the Duwamish Tribe, who traveled and hunted on Lake Washington. The Snoqualmie Tribe journeyed from the mountains to Lake Sammamish on foot and by water. Once European-American settlement began in the 1850s, the shores of Lake Washington endured substantial change and were soon lined with housing and industry.

By the 1940s and ‘50s, the lake faced heavy pollution from local sewage. Beneath the surface, damaging phosphorus began growing in the lake. Following a public call to action in the early 1960s, the state introduced two water treatment plants to divert the sewage. With greater scrutiny on what lay beneath the surface, the lake waters began regenerating.

Abandoning my towel for the lake, I lingered on the sand and eased into comfortable, sun-warmed water. I floated on my back for a view of gulls trolling for fries near a dockside restaurant and motorboats murmuring farther up the lake. The Boeing plant where Dad worked for a while rested just past the south shore. Site of his first engineering job, it was the same vast parking lot where I’d learn to drive on Sundays when no one was there. A lake I saw so often I didn’t see it, not really. How the waves that lifted me up contained both past and present.

Finished with my float, I walked toward my towel, still in the shade, on the narrow, sandy shore, and picked up the short story collection I was reading. The sun fluttered across the grass. The group nearby laughed at something for them alone. It reminded me of the relationships I was rebuilding with people and home, of connections that would grow through sun and time. My body temperature cooled in a familiar way. Neither returning nor recovery were without their complications.


Dad, John, and I walked on the dock at Coulon Beach Park. The sun was out but the park wasn’t crowded, not like it would be on a weekend. We were celebrating Dad’s birthday on a Monday, the day off John and I shared. While Dad didn’t let us pay for meals often, he agreed to let us treat him to Ivar’s Fish and Chips, a seafood chain with clam chowder sold in stores. It was the same soup Dad doctored with potatoes and pepper to use as a main dish for himself and an appetizer for his guests.

After the fall that broke his hip, Dad was beating the odds by living at home following a stint in a recovery facility that seemed to motivate him even more, if only to be away from it. Being at home presented a familiar environment, smooth on the surface and precarious underneath. Worrisome as the indoor stairs he’d fallen headfirst down and somehow emerged unscathed from, troubling as the food lingering in the refrigerator a few days too long.

“I’ll get a picture of you,” I said to him and John after lunch. Taking a picture was the kind of thing other families did all the time. My relatives had always been harder to pin down. The sun glowed through the leaves. A statue of people walking like stick figures strode nearby, unencumbered, for inspiration. I almost caught Dad and John together. They were linked in their attention to detail, like the outdoor stairs Dad had just rebuilt to take him from the driveway to the woods. Or the wiring and fuse boxes John and Dad talked about. By the time I had both of them in the frame, they realized it, smiled, and turned away. “Hey,” I said, but it was too late. The best I could do was a picture of them looking at the trees or the lake instead of me.

Those lake waters, like Dad, had also regenerated. Treatment plants created a dramatic turnaround to the compromised lake, with visibility levels in the water increasing from a dismal 30 inches to 25 feet in the early 1990s. Scientist W.T. Edmonson of the University of Washington conducted a long-term study that helped rescue the lake, treat its waters, and provide a roadmap for other scientists.

Despite its sparkling surface, this prominent waterway still needed continued care. State advisories cautioned about mercury levels of fish and advised not to eat Northern Pikeminnow at all. Salmon populations struggled with rising water temperatures on their journey through the rivers and eventual lakes. A few beaches closed in summer due to algae blooms.

After watching the water, John, Dad, and I walked to the car. Full and warmed in crisp air, I half-listened to their conversation from the backseat. John took the smaller, slower roads east until we left the daytime traffic and eased our way back up the mountain, which shared the lake’s restorative powers.


A bear, shining and black, ran across the road. Reina slowed the jeep. “Look,” she said.

The young, teenage bear galloped across the pavement and into the trees. Fit and fast, she wasted no time in transitioning from the sunshine of the road to the shadows and cover of the forest in this shared landscape.

Reina stared at the bike path where the bear had slipped away. “That’s where we’re going,” she said, and laughed. She was right – the bear headed straight toward the valley trail, once a railroad grade, and our route between town and the lake.

A few weeks after the August drowning, we’d brought our bikes up to Rattlesnake Lake with her jeep for both a swim and a downhill bike ride through the woods and into the valley. This time, mitigating uphill effort and the now-changing light, we skipped the climbing part altogether.

The bear disappeared in the same direction we’d be heading in a half-hour or so. “The bear will be gone by then,” I said without knowing, any more than I could take care of everything at work or for my dad. This young bear, who foraged in the late summer light, would face her own preparations for a long winter and a new start the following year.

Canada geese glided by in pairs toward their favorite lake cove near the ledge trailhead. Other people swam, paddled, splashed. The water, which would grow too cold for swimming in a few weeks, for now offered a summer respite for us, the geese, the bears, the deer that took over the lakeside coves in the evening.

By the end of 1915, the City of Seattle, fearing housing debris would pollute the nearby water source, declared the disappearing town of Moncton a disaster. The following year, the waters had receded enough to clear the remaining households. The City of Seattle moved some of the structures and demolished the rest. They bought out the property of any remaining residents. The town of Moncton now remained far beneath the surface.

For years following the flooding, residents of nearby Cedar Falls weren’t allowed to swim in the lake for fear of contaminating Chester Morse Lake, the neighboring water source. Now that Moncton was submerged, and households were gone except for a few foundations, this became less of a concern.

Reina and I slipped into the water before we lost our nerve from the cold. Lingering in the lake, we reasoned, would also give the bear time to reach wherever she might be headed. Whether because summer was further along or we’d grown used to its temperature, the water didn’t feel as cool. The bear and other worries drifted away. Hikers lined the mountain ledge above us in miniature and waves lapped the stumps closer to the beach.

A half-hour later, we put on t-shirts and shorts over our swimsuits so we could ride back to town. The former railway trestle slipped downhill as discreetly as it had sloped upward and swept us down the trail. At first, we didn’t notice how much ground we were covering. After the thickest part of the woods, and with no bears in sight, the trees cleared and a red-tailed hawk dipped above us.

Once scientists discovered the glacial moraine’s filtering properties, which protected the water source from impurities, local officials okayed Rattlesnake Lake for swimming. In 1970, King County created a park for humans and wildlife. Today, the lake, mountain, and trails serve as a buffer to development in the Chester Morse Lake Watershed, which provides power and water to the City of Seattle.

Former meadows and occasional wetland now ebbed and flowed from winter snowmelt and weather patterns alternating between hot and cold. In our lifetime, it would never go back to the prairieland, nor the town of Moncton, nor old-growth forest. Evident over the past few decades, the landscape kept renewing into something else altogether.

On a bridge overlooking the valley below, trees opened again for a view of the Snoqualmie River’s South Fork. Reina stopped near the edge of the bridge. “Look,” she said like she had with the bear. A young elk bull crossed the river in slow, careful steps.

“You’re a wildlife spotter,” I said after the bear, the hawk, and now the elk. In a sunny spotlight, the water rumbled down the mountain and disappeared in the trees until it met the rest of the river. It was easy to get lost in this place wrestled by geography, humans, time. To hold onto stillness in the face of change. To return to ourselves a while.