PORT GAMBLE — Darlene Peters, an elder of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, remembers crossing the bay in a little skiff with her grandmother, watching the ships moored outside the mill, waiting to be loaded with freshly cut cedar logs.
“That was 60, 70 years ago,” she said. “We are guests of this water, guests of this land. And we need to treat it well.”
And that was exactly the reason for the celebration at the former Port Gamble mill site on June 8 — to honor and observe the completion of a nearly two-year clean-up of the mill site and nearshore.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe family paddled the short distance from Port Julia to the Port Gamble mill site, traveling the same waters their ancestors did, to a site their ancestors knew well.
The grandparents’ grandparents knew this place as Teekalet, and this was their home until Andrew Pope and William Talbot established a mill here in 1853, two years before the Treaty of Point No Point made the land available for non-Native settlement. The mill they established would be in operation until the 1990s.
And now, with a century and a half of mill waste removed from the nearshore, these waters are nearly as clean as they were when Pope and Talbot arrived.
As the canoe family arrived, the S’Klallam drumming circle sang the “Welcome Song” and the “Happy Song.”
Tribal members, state Ecology Director Maia Bellon, and Pope Resources officials spoke of what the clean-up means for future generations.
Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan has been a commercial geoduck harvester for 23 years. “I want to speak on behalf of the fish,” he said. “We need to do our part to make a better environment.”
Sullivan recalled one dive he made for geoduck. “The ocean floor was like a gray, fine sand and the water was very murky,” he said. “If you took a step, you would sink up to your shins. It just wasn’t right.”
And neither was the geoduck he found — the naturally flesh-colored clam was blackened.
“It was starving itself out,” Sullivan said. “The sea floor is often forgot about, and that’s how the Puget Sound gets broken.”
Referring to the negative effects of pollution on salmon and shellfish, he talked about the importance of seafood to Native culture and diet, and said of pollution, “That’s not right.”
“Clams and salmon are supposed to be good for you,” he said. “We’re trying to do our small part for the waters we hold so sacred. This is for everybody. Especially for future generations, so our kids can eat clean food.”
The two-year, in-water cleanup included the removal of 8,600 creosote-treated pilings, and more than 110,000 cubic yards of wood waste and contaminated sediment.
More than 55,000 square feet (or about one acre) of overwater and derelict structures were also removed, and replaced with more than 200,000 tons of clean sand and eelgrass.
Bellon, who was appointed to her cabinet-level position two years ago by Gov. Jay Inslee, thanked Sullivan, Pope Resources President Tom Ringo and their staffs for their efforts to accomplish the cleanup.
“My heart soars on this day,” she said. “This day shows me having strong partnerships can be the ticket to a successful restoration, such as this clean-up project. From the Tribe, Pope Resources and the state, it was an incredible effort to bring the best outcome for this bay. It’s a legacy project unlike many others I’ve seen in the State of Washington.”
Earlier, she said of the cleanup, “It’s not just about healing and mending our waters, it’s about healing hearts and communities.”
Ringo recalled when the Port Gamble mill dominated the view from Port Julia. “How different that looks today,” he said. “This was all done in two short years, and today this is about this special place.”
As for the future of the mill site, Ringo said, “This mill site is a part of the whole townsite. We’re working on current concepts to keep that historic feel and what makes the town special.”
Sullivan is unsure how long it will take for the bay to heal. “We will be monitoring it, for sure,” he said. “I’m just glad the process got started.”
He hopes that one day his children’s children will harvest geoduck, horse clams and butter clams — and enjoy the same water quality that their ancestors enjoyed.