As salmon return, Cool hopes to expand estuary

Gale Cool next to Schel-chelb estuary.  - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Gale Cool next to Schel-chelb estuary.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

The area is prime real estate for fish and waterfowl – and potentially, development.

Gale Cool reads his land like a book.

As soon as his rubber boots are snug, he hops onto the boggy soil and explains how Chief Kitsap and his family farmed camas here.

Cool points to the left where he’s dug holes to take geologic samples. He points right, where his son recently felled his first stag. Trudging up a slope, Cool swings around and faces southward across Rich Passage.

“This slope was made by a big uplift in about 930,” the Point White Drive resident says. “It sent a tidal wave to Olympia. Would have sunk the Capitol dome if it had been built yet.”

He also estimates that the Suquamish village that was once nestled on Rich Passage likely built longhouses on this gentle ridge.

After hopping a fence and weaving through a thick alder grove, Cool stops where a winding creek meets Schel-chelb estuary. He pulls out his pipe.

This is his favorite part of the story.

“Eight years ago this week, we had the first pairs of wild coho salmon to freely spawn here in more than 85 years,” Cool says. “Since 1997 the estuary has matured into a stable and successful system, which, for its area, hosts more wildlife than any other habitat on the island.”

Cool takes a draw from his pipe, holds it in and ponders how to express the next chapter.

“It will be very beautiful,” he says. “I’m fond of wetlands. I say connect them, make them function.”

That’s what Cool hopes to do, expanding the estuary by three acres and linking it with a nearby aquifer. The proposed expansion would create new brackish meadow west of Lynwood Center and add 15-20 more gallons of fresh water per minute to the estuary.

“This would help during the low-flow summer months and boost Schel-chelb exponentially,” he said.

Cool’s work eight years ago to resuscitate the estuary has significantly improved the island’s south shore ecosystem, said Bainbridge fisheries biologist Wayne Daley.

“It works beyond what I anticipated,” Daley said. “In a rapid way, it established its natural functions. It only took a matter of weeks before coho were using the system.”

Daley helped reengineer Schel-chelb’s creek to encourage salmon spawning and improve habitat for nearshore wildlife.

“I’ve seen substantial return every year and that’s really gratifying,” he said.

The estuary has been beneficial for other wildlife as well, according to local birder Brad Waggoner. His recent sighting of a Semipalmated sandpiper had avian enthusiasts from across the region flocking to Schel-chelb.

Cool also recalls another birding “first” when a Lesser Yellowlegs sandpiper appeared at the estuary two years ago.

Citing the property’s ecological value, the city purchased nearly one acre of Schel-chelb from Cool using open space bond funds. Cool hopes to continue protecting portions of the estuary with the sale of the second phase, 3-acre portion.

However, Cool knows his $3 million asking price may hover outside the range of the city’s budget. Instead, he hopes to sell the value of the land to a government agency or private company that seeks to “mitigate” past environmental damage elsewhere.

A similar scenario helped Cool with the estuary project’s first phase.

In 1997, the state Department of Transportation paid to rebuild Schel-chelb’s tidal pond and placed a culvert under Point White Drive to mitigate the Eagle Harbor ferry maintenance yard expansion.

Cool hopes the city will come aboard and also sell the value of its property on Schel-chelb. According to Cool, the city would remain stewards and owners of the property but could transfer the mitigation money toward other open space purchases.

But matching lands with a mitigation buyer isn’t easy, Cool said. While he searches, his property taxes continue to rise.

“I paid $20,000 in taxes last year” for a total of 17 acres, he said. “That’s not sustainable because we’re not rich. We have to make a choice here. We have to sell.”

With prime real estate overlooking Rich Passage, Cool could fetch a sizable sum building condos for doctors and lawyers rather than estuaries for salmon and sandpipers.

“And that’s the default use for this,” he said. “Real estate with a view and waterfront and suburban housing. But my first choice is a large, contiguous unit with wildlife, with salmon, with open space open to the public.”

Because Cool would still own the property after a mitigation deal, he could initiate a series of plans to make portions into a public park.

He also plans to reintroduce camas to the area, farming the plant as Native Americans did for hundreds of years.

Also known as Native American Lily, the bulb plant was a staple in the Northwest native diet and was cultivated in vast fields near estuaries.

Cool has purchased tens of thousands of camas bulbs and has begun experimental plantings over the last few years.

“I read in a journal by a Victorian pioneer that camas pie was the best thing he ever ate,” Cool said. “So I’ve started “Camas Pie Company LLC” for when we might produce and sell camas pie. It’s fun to contemplate.”

In his dining room, Cool looks out over a nearby bog, envisioning a lake of blue-flowering camas in an expanded estuary.

“That’s what I hope to see, that’s what’s next up for this place,” he said. “It’ll come right by my window here. We’ll open this channel, we’ll connect it with the water.

“The public will enjoy it, the salmon will like it, I’ll like it. It’s an attractive notion.”

* * * * *

The camas farmer

The Irish had potatoes, the Chinese had rice, the Italians had pasta and the Suquamish had camas.

Now much of this staple food has vanished. Camas, a blue-flowering relative of the lily (see photograph, page A1), has declined as its natural habitat – near shore meadows and estuaries – have disappeared around Puget Sound. But Point White Drive resident Gale Cool hopes to change that by reintroducing the bulb plant to an expanded Schel-chelb estuary.

“It was a highly valued, cultivated crop,” he said. “A lot of people, at least when I was a kid, were taught in school that Indians didn’t do agriculture. But that’s bunk.”

Northwest Natives would harvest camas bulbs in spring or early summer while the flowers were in bloom. They would often roast the root bulbs in pits, similar to the way Hawaiians prepare a pig for a luau. The pits were lined with stones, leaves, grass and hot coals. Camas was cooked for one or three days, which promotes the conversion of inulin to a more digestible fructose.

The cooked camas was formed into cakes and dried for year-round eating.

“It’s very sweet – like a cooked banana – and has a sugar that’s much more digestible by humans,” Cool said, adding that cooked camas is healthier for people who suffer from type two diabetes. “It doesn’t make your blood sugar yo-yo.”

This may explain why many Northwest Natives, after converting to a more European diet, suffer from this form of diabetes, Cool said.

There’s somewhat of a flip-side to that, he added, as explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark suffered a bit after their first taste of camas.

“They found themselves with a lot of intestinal distress because they tried to cook it like an onion,” Cool said. The plant can also be poisonous when eaten raw.

Lewis and Clark had other camas-related mishaps. Descending from a ridge after a long hike, the explorers cheered at the sight of vast blue lakes in a meadow below.

“They were 20 or 30 miles away,” Cool said. “When they got down there they found lakes of blue camas.”

Because camas is now relatively rare in Washington state, Cool had 32,000 bulbs shipped from the Netherlands.

“The Dutch have a thing for bulbs,” he said. “But I want to bring (camas) back here. I hadn’t been able to find camas on Bainbridge for 20 years.”

Cool has planted and harvested bulbs over the last few years with so-so results.

“They need lots of sunlight and need to be burned once a year, and its not easy to get a permit to burn your field,” he said.

With plans to preserve an additional three acres around Schel-chelb, Cool hopes to use this prime growing land for a bumper crop of camas. He even has plans to sell camas pies in an almost nonexistent “niche market.” Camas farming will also be a return to form for the south shore meadow.

“White farmers grew parsnips, rutabagas and parsnips for the log camps here,” Cool said. “But even before that, Chief Kitsap grew camas right here. It’s a cover crop with a lot of value added.

— Tristan Baurick

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