Locals know it: In September, Lake Washington casts its spell

Lake Washington is nearly inescapable. If you live in or visit the Seattle metropolitan area, you’re either crossing the lake or maneuvering around it: It’s 13 miles long and about 3 1/2 miles across at its widest. From it, you see the Cascade Mountains, the sharp skylines of Seattle and Bellevue, and, ringing the lake, forested slopes dotted with palatial residences ― among them the home of the world’s wealthiest man, Bill Gates. But for all its superlatives, it is, down to its muddy bottom, a people’s lake: beloved by locals, yet too often bypassed by visitors (a situation that suits residents just fine).

The first time I saw the lake, my wife and I were headed toward Seattle on Interstate 90. Newly married, we were eager to make a life in the Northwest. The road made its now-familiar rise up to Mercer Island, then down, and suddenly there it was, a glistening sliver of steel blue stretching north and south as far as we could see. We got halfway across the floating bridge, and Mt. Rainier rose up in the distance to the south.

I turned to my wife and said, “This is the last stop.” And it was.

That was long ago. Today we live in Madison Park, three blocks from the lake. Our family has spent every summer swimming there. I walk our dog along the lakeshore every morning. My son has rowed, twice a day, every day since he was 11, first as a single sculler, later in the varsity eight for the University of Washington crew. I love Lake Washington. It’s hard to imagine life without it.

To me, September is the best month to explore this lovely lake. With a month, maybe even 45 days of Indian summer ahead, it’s a perfect time to picnic, swim, boat, cheer the Huskies from floating tailgate parties, and savor the last of our outdoor season.

A lake for herons…

One of my tribe’s favorite spots is St. Edward State Park, on the northeast shore. Stand there for a moment, and odds are good that an armada of Canada geese may slide past, while coots vie for attention nearby and a bald eagle soars overhead. Deeper into the Douglas fir and cedar forest, you may spy owls, coyotes, and beavers. Formerly a seminary, this 316-acre state park ― the largest piece of undeveloped land left on the lake ― is 70 percent wilderness, with 8 miles of trails and extensive beachfront.

Park manager Joel Pillers lives with his family on the grounds. He says of the lake, “It’s a paradox. It physically divides this megalopolis and, at the same time, has the power to bring people together and back to nature.”

That it does. Early on, much of Lake Washington’s shoreline was privately acquired; today, less than 25 percent of it is open to the public. That said, more than two dozen sizable parks adjoin the lake, and some marvelous natural areas have been preserved and restored. You could fill a day meandering through the old-growth forest in Seward Park. On Foster Island, you can search for eagle nests; in the surrounding marshes, you can paddle past great blue herons poised to catch a meal, or observe a colony of turtles sunning themselves on a floating log.

…and for people

Still, for all the natural pleasures it offers, this is a lake shaped by and for people. Neighborhoods with beach-town atmosphere are scattered along the shoreline. Likely the two beachiest are Madison Park on the lake’s Seattle side and downtown Kirkland on the east.

Dead-ending into the lake, Madi- son Street is the spine of Madison Park’s chic shopping district, and it leads to one of the city’s best swimming beaches. Across the lake in Kirkland, you’ll find a sizable town core with a spirit comparable to that of Sausalito, California, with galleries, high-end restaurants, and designer shops.

The lake has indelibly shaped Seattle and its surrounding suburbs. As an economic geographer at the University of Washington, Bill Beyers has both a professional understanding of the lake and a lake lover’s familiarity with it. After all, the university itself is defined by the lake that serves as its backyard. “Certainly in terms of recreation, the lake’s economic importance to Seattle is profound,” Beyers says. “But to add that up and give it a value is to step into quicksand. Lake Washington contributes enormously to the quality of life in the city. It’s one of the defining images of Seattle and its lifestyle. That’s it.”

The bottom line is spiritual

Lake lovers like me have our secrets. At 6 a.m., Husky crew fans muster up on the lakeside benches in Madison Park, hoping for a glimpse of the rowers in their morning workout. Along the roughly 1 1/2-mile stretch from Colman Park to Seward Park on the Seattle side, sunrise walkers will be silently moving along the paved trail that flanks the lake and parallels Lake Washington Boulevard South. Waterfowl will be feeding at water’s edge, songbirds flitting among the reeds and cattails.

And the lake has a magical ability to forge friendships. Dog walkers stop to discuss merits of purebreds and mutts. Two people pause to watch a flock of mallards land and find out they both work downtown, a block apart.

One morning I spotted Mary Henry, famous in the city for both her long and brilliant career in the libraries of the Seattle Public Schools and for her published work on the history of the city’s African American community. I’d seen her at the opera the night before, an excuse to engage her in conversation.

Henry moved to Madison Park 22 years ago to live on the water, as my family and I had done. What was it that drew her to the lake, I asked. “In addition to its beauty, it’s the mystical, spiritual quality of the lake that draws me,” she said. “Ripply and blue, it’s happy. Gray, it’s reflective and sad. Sometimes it’s angry.

“I listen to the water and it lulls me to sleep at night. It’s my companion. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

And neither do I.

Best of the lake

Foster Island at Washington Park Arboretum. This bird-rich marsh is great for hiking and boating. Free. To reach the marsh from the arboretum (2300 Arboretum Dr. E., Seattle), go to E. Foster Island Rd., off Lake Washington Blvd., and follow the road until it ends at the Waterfront Trail, an easy 1/2-mile path that leads to the island; 206/543-8800.

Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park. A long boardwalk stretches out into the lake from this park. Free. 1201 Lake Washington Blvd. N., Renton; 425/430-6600.

Madison Park. Popular swimming beach. Free. End of E. Madison St. in Seattle; 206/684-4075.

Matthews Beach Park. Seattle’s largest freshwater bathing beach, this park is connected to the Burke-Gilman Trail. Free. 9300 51st Ave. N.E., Seattle; 206/684-4075.

Sand Point Magnuson Park. 350 acres and 1 mile of beachfront. Free. 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; 206/684-4946.

Seward Park. A densely forested peninsula with an environmental learning center. A 1 1/2-mile trail connects Seward to Colman Park. Free. 5902 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle; 206/684-4075.

St. Edward State Park. Excellent for hiking, mountain biking, and swimming. $5 per vehicle. 14445 Juanita Dr. N.E., Kenmore; 425/823-2992.

Lakeside dining

Anthony’s Homeport. Robust servings of seafood. $$$; dinner daily, brunch Sun. 135 Lake St. S., Kirkland; 425/822-0225.

BluWater Bistro. American fare. $$; dinner daily, brunch Sat-Sun. 102 Lakeside Ave., Seattle; 206/328-2233.

Daniel’s Broiler. A high-style steak and seafood house with an outdoor deck overlooking the lake. $$$$; dinner daily. 200 Lake Washington Blvd., Seattle; 206/329-4191.

The Third Floor Fish Café. Beautifully presented seafood. $$$$; dinner daily. Third floor of the Chaffey Building, 205 Lake St. S., Kirkland; 425/822-3553.

Out on the water

Argosy Cruises. The narrated cruise of Lake Washington lasts 90 minutes. Daily cruises through Sep 26, weekends after that; $25, $9 ages 5-12, ages 4 and under free. Boats leave from the Kirkland City Dock, at the foot of Kirkland Ave.; www.argosycruises.com or 206/ 623-4252.

University of Washington Waterfront Activities Center. Canoe and rowboat rentals ($7.50 per hour). 10-8 daily. 3900 Montlake Blvd. N.E. (directly behind Husky Stadium), Seattle; 206/543-9433.

Keep Reading: