SEATAC, WA - Walk due west from the small skateboard park behind the SeaTac Community Center and you'll find a narrow trail that cuts through the dark woods. After a few twists and turns, through a swamp of English ivy, the trail spits you out onto an abandoned road.
Look to your left and to your right. You're standing in what used to be a neighborhood. The roadways are plain to see, but look a little closer and you'll find old sidewalks, telephone poles hidden among the trees, and even old foundations buried beneath blackberry thickets.
This is one piece of a haunting, perplexing complex of public lands called North SeaTac Park. Over the decades, it's been the stomping ground for serial killers, regular killers, dog walkers, disc golf-lovers, drug dealers, rugby teams, Japanese internees, graffiti artists, BMX racers, and horticulturalists.
North SeaTac Park is a slice of old Puget Sound, a preserve of the sort of seedy place that existed before Amazon and $2,000 rents, before Nirvana even. It's also a great place to hang out if you like RC cars, urban archeology, or mountain biking.
Let's take a tour.
Before you step inside North SeaTac Park, it's important to know it's made up of multiple connected pieces.
At the far south end, near SR 518, there are the little league fields. North of that you'll find Pat Ryan Memorial Field, home of the Valley Kangaroos rugby club. The field's seating section is built into the side of a sandy hill held fast with wooden beams covered in graffiti.
Keep heading north and you'll find yourself in the "55-Acre Parcel." This is heart of the park, the part that was cleared of houses beginning in the 1970s due to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions. Most of the terrain is covered in thick forests and blackberries. But if you hack through the brush, you'll find the foundations of old homes. Look up in the trees, you might spot a makeshift platform, used by the homeless to store belongings, park visitors suspect.
The 55-Acre Parcel is popular among local mountain and BMX bikers. Countless trails snake through the woods, and some end up at the western edge of the parcel. There, you'll find a chain link fence and signs that warn, "Extremely Dangerous, No Trespassing."
This is Tub Lake, which is not actually a lake, but one of the last remaining urban bogs in the Seattle area. It's contaminated by a variety of chemicals, according to state records. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum, lead, polychlorinated biPhenyls (PCBs).
At the moment, you can't get to Tub Lake unless you hop the chain link fence and bushwhack through thick blackberries and creeping English ivy. There are sections of fence that have clearly been recently replaced, so perhaps there are some gaining access to the bog.
North of Tub Lake is Sunset Park, once the site of Sunset Junior High School. After being open for only about 15 years, the school closed in 1975 when a second runway was built at Sea-Tac and the school became "no longer tenable," according to Highline Schools. To this day, jets of all sizes float over the park just a few hundred feet up in the air on their way to Sea-Tac.
North from Sunset Park across South 136th Street you get to North SeaTac Park, proper. Much of the park - which was also once a neighborhood - is used as a disc golf course, and there's a large softball complex in the middle. Wide paved pathways cut through this part of the park, which feels like the most conventional - and safe - part of the complex.
The 55-Acre Parcel
It's a cool, foggy morning in the 55-Acre Parcel. Off in the distance, a dog barks and a rooster crows. Near the abandoned equestrian area, Kurt Gould emerges from the woods accompanied by two friends and a group of curious dogs.
Gould has lived in the neighborhood near the park since 1990. One of his friends calls him the unofficial historian of the park, a title he backs up with a long memory of this strange part of the park.
Take the equestrian area. He hasn't seen a horse here recently, but remembers a time in the 1990s when the place was packed. The first people to start using the land, he remembers, were BMX racers in the early 90s. The BMXers built a course in the center of the 55-Acre Parcel. They have since moved to the edge of the park along 136th, but still hold regular events today.
"It's really fun - it's like an archeological dig going through here," Gould says. If you look closely, you can see old fruit trees off in the woods, which were likely planted by the people who used to live here.
The Park's Dead
Gould remembers a time in the 1990s when the 55-Acre Parcel was open to cars. You'd get a lot of miscreant teens, ditched stolen cars, and the occasional body.
Cheryl Lee Wims disappeared on her 18th birthday on May 23, 1983. It's not clear what happened to her that spring night, but somewhere along Pacific Highway South, she met Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.
One year later, Wims' skeleton was found near the little league fields at the south end of the park complex. The remains of two other Ridgway victims, Shawnda Lee Summers and a woman known only as Jane Doe B10, were found in that same area.
With the excpetion of Ted Bundy, Ridgway might be the most notorious killer to ever stalk the area. He picked up many of his victims along Pacific Highway between Tukwila and Kent. When Ridgway dumped his victims here, there wasn't a park, just abandoned lots where houses had been cleared.
Other people have died closer to the heart of the 55-Acre Parcel.
In August 2015, a man was found dead in a thin strip of forest on the west side of Sunset Park. Almost exactly one year before that, police fished a body out of polluted Tub Lake.
"It has probably been there for a bit," former King County Sheriff spokeswoman Sgt. DB Gates said in 2014 of the Tub Lake body.
In 2006, Nicole Theresa Pietz, 32, was found in some bushes near at the southwest edge of the 55-Acre Parcel, according to the Seattle P-I. She had disappeared from Lynnwood a few days before she was found. Her husband, David, was later convicted of second-degree murder in her death.
Hidden Japanese, botanical gardens
Save the most beautiful part of the park for last. Just northeast of that abandoned equestrian area you'll find the Seike Japanese Garden and the Highline-SeaTac Botanical Garden. Both are wonderful areas on par with Seattle's Kubota Garden, although smaller.
But the Seike garden does have a sad history. Shinichi Seike owned 13 acres in the vicinity of the park, which he operated as a farm with his wife, Kameno, their daughter Ruth, and sons Ben, Toll, and Hal. The family was sent to an internment camp during World War II, although the three boys fought in the war - and Toll died.
After the war, Shinichi Seike returned to the property to find that his neighbors, a German-American family, had kept up his farm. Ben and Hal opened a nursery on the site in 1953, and years later hired Shintaro Okada to come over from Hiroshima to help them design a garden in memory of Toll.
During the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, spectators paid 25 cents to see the garden. It fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but reopened in 1983 as a public attraction, according to the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden Foundation.
The gardens at the park are home to multiple gardening clubs, and is available for weddings and other events.
Future Of The Park
Unlike other old Puget Sound landmarks, North SeaTac Park will probably be here in its current state for a while. The Port of Seattle has a lease with SeaTac for the land until 2045. Although Gould does worry that the land - at least the 55-Acre Parcel - might be turned into warehouse space (a massive new warehouse was recently built just west of Tub Lake along Des Moines Memorial Drive).
Lawrence Ellis, director of the SeaTac parks department, says the city would like to revitalize parts of the park, including the Tub Lake area. Someday, he said, people might be able to access the shoreline of the bog if cleanup ever finishes.
But at the moment, there's so much to do at the park, even if every nook and cranny isn't groomed like a normal park. The park is a place you can go to see a rugby game, race RC cars, join the Puget Sound Daylily Club, get married (indoors at the community center if it's raining), play disc golf, or rip through the forest on a mountain bike.
For now, Ellis hopes people from around Puget Sound can enjoy the diverse alternative recration opportunities available here, and maybe discovere a bit of Puget Sound history along the way.