It’s easy in the hustle of urban living to forget that we do, in fact, live in a natural world — not one completely made up of asphalt, fiberglass and symmetrical landscaping.
That might be one reason the city of Bellevue’s guided canoe trips through Mercer Slough Nature Park remain so popular after more than 20 years.
“People like kind of forgetting that they’re in the middle of the city,” park ranger Curtis Kukal said. “It’s a very thick willow- and alder-dominated forest. So when you’re in there it feels very wild. … They’ll come around the corner and see the buildings of downtown Bellevue, and it will kind of jolt them back into the urban life.”
At 320 acres, Mercer Slough is the largest remaining wetland on Lake Washington, according to Geoffrey Bradley, environmental programs supervisor for Bellevue Parks &Community Services.
Along with protecting vital habitat for wildlife, the nature park also meets human needs, such as flood control and pollution reduction. “Urban open space needs to be managed like any other community asset,” Bradley said.
Education is a big part of the goal, too. And the guided canoe trips give a unique perspective of an ecosystem in action.
The tour starts with a launch from Enatai Beach Park on Lake Washington and then into the slough waterways.
Paddlers may catch glimpses of beavers, otters, herons, turtles and other wildlife on the tour.
Guides also use the surroundings to talk about human influence on water resources — how what we do in our own back yards affects what happens down in the slough. “Most of this water is coming from people’s yards or apartment complexes,” Kukal said.
History offers its own lessons; much of the park used to be under water, for example, until the water level dropped because of human development, Kukal noted. Restoration efforts are pointed out along the way. The Kelsey Creek fish ladder is the tour’s last stop.
“But the No. 1 thing is giving people an excitement that there’s actually nature where they live,” Kukal said.
Roughly 600 people each year take part in the tours, which are offered weekends, from May to September.
This is no on-a-whim activity. At four miles and three hours, the trips come with some specific guidelines.
Canoeing experience is strongly recommended.
“If someone’s canoeing in circles and we’re having to teach them how to paddle — first of all, it’s dangerous because we start in the lake, but we also want to keep them moving,” Kukal said.
Weather also changes, often starting chilly and ending up warm. So prepare for anything with a fleece, rain gear and lighter summer fare.
Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, snacks and water. Children must be at least 5 years old, and one adult must be present for every two kids or teens. Parents must provide life jackets for children weighing less than 35 pounds.
Oh, and there is no potty break.
For those who prefer to stay on dry land, the nature park also includes a U-pick blueberry farm, produce stand, environmental education center, more than seven miles of trails and places to picnic.