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Kea Krause
Kea Krause is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly and Catapult, among other media outlets.

The Curious Tale of the Salish Sea Feet

Unsplash / Collage by Katie Kosma

Kea Krause | LongreadsApril 2019| 16 minutes (3,905 words)

They come by way of similar discovery: A beachcomber, perhaps gathering shells or out for some exercise, spots a flashy, nonpelagic lump that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a human foot still nestled in its shoe. The feet, both lefts and rights, come in all sizes — sometimes wearing New Balance or Nike, occasionally a hiking boot, and sometimes still attached to leg bones, a tibia sticking out like a stake in the ground.

To the intrigue and often horror of Pacific Northwesterners, in 2007 feet began washing up along the shores of the Salish Sea, an inland ocean spanning nearly 500 miles from Olympia, Washington, the state’s capitol, to Desolation Sound, in British Columbia, Canada. Today the tally is 21 feet and counting (15 in BC, six in Washington). So prevalent are the gruesome discoveries that the BC coroner’s office has a map marked up with each new find: Foot #1 — a right — found in August 2007 floated up to Jedediah Island in a generic white sneaker with navy blue accents; Foot #5 in a muddy Nike; Foot #13 wore black with Velcro. New Year’s Day 2019 delivered the most recent foot, number 21, to a beach in Everett. It tumbled ashore in an aging boot, its condition indicating it had been out to sea for “some time,” according to local police.

A pattern of body parts washing ashore has all the trappings of a serial killer scenario or a horror movie or, in the very least, of an otherworldly phenomenon. Earned or not, the Pacific Northwest has a haunting prestige — the home of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, and Ted Bundy, and now also the land of Twilight’s Hollywood vampires in Forks, out on the peninsula. Some morbid element of the region has arrested our imaginations. It could be the skies: So gray and responsible for all the rain that keeps everything perennially damp. Or perhaps it’s the abundance of old-growth timber — plenty of dense and protected woods for stashing bodies. Rivers, branching across the state are another nature-made means of evidence disposal. It is rumored that Ridgway discarded the bodies of as many as 70 women around the Green River, 65 miles long descending from the Cascades and entering the Puget Sound just west of Seattle. In Washington State, geography and meteorology conspire to creep us out. But perhaps most lurid is the ocean itself, not just because it continues to spew body parts to its surface but also because of its infinite and perplexing nature. Its unknowability, though alluring to those in the script-writing business, has puzzled scientists and casual observers of the Sound for generations.

The southern portion of the Salish Sea is more familiarly known as Puget Sound, a body of water servicing the Seattle metropolitan area, home to about 3.8 million residents and plenty of industry — Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, among others — all luxuriously settled in one of America’s most beautiful and diverse oceanic ecosystems. Seattle is rainy and weird, a place for artists and musicians to brood beneath weather-pregnant clouds, an offbeat city for both the creative and outdoorsy, resting in a hammock between two mountain ranges. But recently the area has seen changes out of its control: The tech industry is expected to expand the population of the Salish Sea region to 9 million people in the coming decades and has wiped away many of the city’s distinctive traits. The former home of Kurt Cobain and birthplace of grunge now has a median home value of more than $700,000 and mostly functions to accommodate well-compensated tech workers. It’s still weird though — after all, feet keep floating ashore.

A pattern of body parts washing ashore has all the trappings of a serial killer scenario or a horror movie or, in the very least, of an otherworldly phenomenon.

Last fall, I went looking for a foot. More specifically, I went to Crane’s Landing on Whidbey Island — a refuge in Puget Sound just north of Seattle — where a foot had been found, looking to see if the beach would tell me anything about why the sea had dropped the foot there. Off the ferry, I drove a narrow roadway so starved of sunshine that moss grew along its centerline. It wound through a collection of homes that petered out down by the water in a dead end. The pebble beach comprised of mostly smooth skipping stones, was lined with a row of ragged pilings, head-high with rotted bases, the remnants of the landing that had been the beach’s namesake.

When you’re from Seattle, it’s almost routine to be dazzled by the macabre sagas of the sea. As a child, my favorite story was one my uncle told about a body floating up behind his live-aboard sailboat on Lake Union. The idea of that bloated body floated into my imagination and from there on out, when visiting my family on their sailboat, I would keep my eyes glued to the water in the event another poor soul should bob up to the surface for my discovery. Read more…