Brackett’s Landing driftwood Orca: Some questions resolved, others persist

Since its original 1994 installation, the Orca has been a magnet for generations of children for climbing, riding and playing on, as this circa 2000 photo shows. (Photo courtesy Bob Sears)

It’s been almost two months since a broken dorsal fin prompted the Edmonds Parks Department to remove the much-loved driftwood Orca sculpture from its home overlooking the beach at Brackett’s Landing North and take it to the maintenance shop for evaluation.

The original Orca was crafted onsite in 1994 from a piece of driftwood scavenged from an Edmonds beach by then-local artist John Hurley. Hurley dragged the piece of driftwood up on the beach and attached it to the uprights supporting a sign announcing the city’s intent to develop the area just south of the ferry landing into Brackett’s Landing South Park. He then went to work right on the beach, shaping, painting, and transforming the driftwood into the likeness of an orca.

Artist John Hurley created the Orca onsite from a piece of driftwood he dragged off the beach and attached to the posts of a sign announcing Brackett’s Landing South Park. Hurley says the paint was still wet when this photo was taken. He calls this the Orca’s baby photo. (Photo courtesy John Hurley)

“I hauled the driftwood off the beach, attached it to the sign and created it right there,” Hurley explained. “I didn’t have permission or anything like that. I just did it.”

After finishing, he approached the City of Edmonds Parks Department and offered it to the city as a gift. It was accepted gratefully, and shortly thereafter city crews installed it on a new set of uprights in Brackett’s Landing North, where it remained until recently.

Over the years the Orca has served as the backdrop for uncounted numbers of wedding photos, family pictures, and scenic shots of Mount Baker, Puget Sound, Whidbey Island and the Olympic peaks — and is among the most recognized and beloved landmarks in our community. But despite regular visits by Hurley to add fresh paint and make minor repairs, 28 years of time, tide, salt spray, wind and weather have taken their toll, and no piece of wood lasts forever. Like the song says, “everything put together sooner or later falls apart” – and the love of the community alone was not enough to overcome this.

In March 2015, the Orca suffered a major crisis when a windstorm tore it loose from its supports, sending it tumbling to the ground and revealing extensive deterioration. At first it appeared unrepairable due to the combination of waterlogged wood and widespread dry rot, and the city was poised to relegate it to the landfill — but in response to a flood of pleas from local citizens, the city contacted Hurley, who took on the three-month task of rebuilding and restoring. This involved replacing more than 30 pounds of rotten wood with an estimated 90 pounds of concrete mastic, repainting and remounting on supports. With repairs complete, parks crews returned the Orca to its familiar location in July.

John Hurley visits the Orca in 2018 to apply a fresh coat of paint. Over the years Hurley has made regular visits to personally maintain the Orca with paint and minor repairs. (Photo courtesy Bob Sears)

And now, seven years later, the rot has returned with a vengeance and the Orca’s fate again hangs in jeopardy. According to Parks Director Angie Feser, the piece is “pretty badly deteriorated,” leaving city officials and interested citizens scratching their heads about next steps toward a more lasting solution.

More rotten wood was revealed when the dorsal fin broke off in September. It turned out be very extensive, reaching down into the main body of the Orca sculpture.

Enter Jeff Barnett, who along with his wife and business partner Erika Barnett operate Edmonds’ Salish Sea Brewing Company. In addition to brewing and serving beer, the pair are dedicated Edmonds boosters who love the community and support it in a host of ways. A particular passion is preserving and honoring the local heritage, and with the Orca’s fate in question they jumped in to help rescue this unique piece of Edmonds.

“We’d love to see it preserved for the community,” said Jeff Barnett. “There’s no getting away from it that the sculpture is aged and fragile, and I don’t see how even the most heroic restoration efforts would end up with something that could go back in the original location and stand up to weather, salt spray, and kids climbing on it. But it’s been a piece of our community for so long.  It needs to be here. It can’t just go away.”

Taking the proverbial bull by the horns, Barnett contacted both the Parks Department and John Hurley — now 96 years old, recovering from a stroke and living in a Tumwater mobile park where he’s close to family — to see what might be done. Both parties jumped at the idea.

“We’re really pleased that Jeff is willing to take this on,” said Feser. “It’s fantastic that he’s doing this.”

John Hurley works on the Orca in his Tumwater garage, which he converted into an Orca restoration workshop. (Photo courtesy Nancy Hurley-Madison)

Within a few days, Barnett had picked up the Orca from the parks maintenance shop and transported it to Hurley’s home ,where Hurley created a dedicated Orca workshop in his garage. He installed heaters and hung tarps to keep it warm, built special supports to hold the Orca steady, and is throwing himself into repairs and restoration with a passion that belies his 96 years.

“I love it. I dream about it. It’s always on my mind.Thinking about it sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night,” he confessed with a laugh. “I’m still removing old, rotted material. I’m guessing it will take a full month at least to complete the work.”

But Feser, Barnett and Hurley all agree that even with extensive repairs, the original Orca would still be too fragile and delicate to last very long if returned to the original site.

This led the Barnetts to propose providing the Orca a new permanent home at the new Boathouse Taproom in Harbor Square, where they have tecently expanded from their original Brewpub location in downtown Edmonds.

“It would still be in and part of the community,” explained Barnett. “Since the Boathouse is also a restaurant, kids can come in and see it — but they won’t be climbing on it. It will still be there as a photo backdrop, but more importantly as a one-of-a-kind piece of our community DNA, a reminder of when we were less complex, more innocent.”

But this is not the end of the story.

John Hurley at work drying out some of the waterlogged wood underneath the dorsal fin attachment point. (Photo courtesy Nancy Hurley-Madison)

While the fate of the original Orca seems secure, the question of if, how and with what to replace it on the original site remains very much undecided. Options range from constructing a durable replica mounted in the same location as the original to not replacing the Orca at all — but instead adding interpretive signage, part of which would tell the story of the Orca and the place it holds the hearts, minds and memories of our community.

“Coincidentally, we are currently reworking the Brackett’s Landing interpretive signage,” said Feser, “so this would be an ideal opportunity to incorporate the story of the Orca and honor Mr. Hurley in a place where park visitors will read, see and learn about the Orca.”

The parks department put up a temporary sign after the Orca was removed due to the broken dorsal fin.

But many in the community want to see a newly crafted replacement that would look just like the original but made of materials that would stand the tests of time and the elements.

According to Hurley’s daughter, Nancy Hurley-Madison, a local artisan suggested using the restored orca to make a mold for casting a bronze replica and opined that it could be done for “around $35,000.”

“Dad and I would be overjoyed if this could happen,” she remarked. “But Dad has to finish the restoration before a mold could be made.”

However, installing a replica raises other questions that need to be addressed.

“It was a simpler time back in 1994 when Hurley offered the Orca to the city,” observed Edmonds Arts and Cultural Services Manager Frances Chapin. “Today there are more regulations, more requirements and other factors that just didn’t exist then. In 1994, John Hurley just gave the Orca to the city. Today someone couldn’t just walk through the door with a bronze replica and say, ‘Here, I’m giving you this’ and expect the city to take it and install it in a park.

“There’s no question that in its original location the Orca became a piece of climbing equipment for children,” she continued. “Assuming a replica would not be behind a fence and off limits to kids, it would have to conform to all the safety standards and other requirements for playground equipment that have come along in the intervening years.”

This would include adding appropriate fall zones, ensuring that the design allows accessibility for all children over a range of abilities, and more.

In addition to safety concerns, there are the questions of installation costs and ongoing maintenance, who would be responsible and how these costs would be covered, she noted. Possibilities include city funds, a community-based fundraising effort, grants, donations or some combination of these.

All these questions and more would need to be answered and agreed upon before the path would be cleared for a replica Orca at Brackett’s Landing.

In summary, as of today it appears quite certain the restored Orca will return to Edmonds and reside in the Salish Sea Brewery Boathouse Taproom. But the question of what will happen at the original site is far from resolved. Will it include a replica that kids can climb on? Will the Orca disappear entirely and be replaced with interpretive signage telling its story along with the history of the park? Will it be some combination of these? Will it be something else entirely?

“While there is no question that interpretive signage would be the simplest, most direct approach, we recognize that many in the community would like to see a replica, and we remain open to that idea,” concluded Feser. “But we need to recognize that there’s a host of questions to be answered and hurdles to be overcome — and likely more to be revealed as we investigate — before we go down that path.”

— By Larry Vogel

    1. I think what has happened is that almost all of us have evolved intellectually and scientifically. We’ve gathered and analyzed injury statistics/data that lets us prioritize our health and safety as we take advantage of utilizing things like vehicles, appliances, workplaces, homes, public-spaces, infrastructure, food, medicine etc. Plus, getting sued is no fun.

        1. Sand is certainly a logical material for safe play. I was addressing the question “what has happened to us”

        1. Why in the world would anyone allow their child to climb all over public property that is not meant to be climbed on? Maybe people ought to be taught respect and consideration for the property of others.

  1. Personally, I think a replica would be a great option for all members of the community. We should consider drawing inspiration from the San Diego Zoo (or other zoos). The San Diego Zoo has multiple bronze statues of animals around the park that encourage people to touch, take pictures, and of course climb on. They are low to the ground/on the ground and offer fun options for everyone. Consider a replica that is inspired by the original orca but may be altered in a way that makes it work for the people and the city.

  2. Some party (ies?) should investigate replicating via cast molding by utilizing the ‘restored original’ as a ‘core’ for producing molds (could be fiberglass, and then casting a 2-halved replica of the original piece in lightweight concrete or such, internally reinforced, coated, painted, etc. and permanently mounted at the original location– and yes, along with fall-surface surround, proper signage, etc.

    Alternatively, an awful lot of ‘sculpturing’ work can be readily replicated in solid material via computer/laser scanning/tracking/shaping over the original piece. This way, a solid piece of a fresh log or some other hardwood could be created/’carved’, and then coated with resins and paint to create a more permanent, readily-mounted and easier maintained piece for all to enjoy– again, at its original location.
    Gotta cost less than $35,000!!

    I would be happy to assist in any way some leading party (ies?) come forward.

  3. re: the fall zone

    We see old pilings in many places – holding the spot so that a new structure could replace the old without going through all the bureaucratic red tape

    Couldn’t a replace Orca be put in place under the old regulations?

    If not just fill in more sand to create the “fall zone? or is sand not eligible?

    re: Brackett’s symbols

    The entrance archway has been taken down for repair quite a while ago – I understand it is very low on the list for repairs

    Anyone else want to see our entrance arch back? Please speak up for it

  4. Bravo to Jeff and Erika! That could easily be incorporated into a tourism brochure!

    What a wonderful story, Larry.

    It would be great to get volunteers like Phil Lovell (who sat on Planning Board for years) and other volunteers to help us sort this out as one could always put the Orca around a wave base so no fall factor?

  5. It is amazing we don’t dress our children in helmets and pads for their daily wear. It shouldn’t be the government’s job to protect us from ourselves. A replica would be great but don’t forget to make it handicap accessible, government makes it so difficult to do anything these days it is a wonder anything gets done at all and what does get done costs 3 times what it should.

  6. While I appreciate the offer of The Salish Sea Brewery Boathouse Taproom to host the Orca, it would basically be out of sight for everyone other than their clientelle

    My initial thought would be the newly opened Graphite to host the Orca

    Graphite is all about local artists and their work.

    Perhaps the Orca could “play” right there with the cow where it would enjoy much more visibility???

  7. Thank you, John Hurley and thank you to the owners of Salish Sea Brewing! We look forward to visiting and also seeing what the city will do as a replacement.

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