…at the start zone for the Mt. Baker Ski to Sea Race.
Thor, Bear dog, and I face the early-summer dilemma for our day trips to nearby Mt. Baker, since the snow is melting and rutted, not the best for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and the high-country hiking trails in this year of big snows won’t be open until later in July. Road crews have started to clear the last 2.7 miles to Artist Point past the closed ski area, but in places there’s still 40 feet of snow on the roadway.
But we were blessed with a midweek sunny day, and Thor is finished teaching for the summer, so we packed our gear and headed up to check things out. From the now-cleared parking lot at the upper ski lift, we strapped on our snowshoes and headed into the bowl where Bagley Lake is melting out and the creek emerging from its winter nap. As usual, Bear went into ecstatic whirling once he got onto the snow, then headed out to lead the way. (He’s the black speck below on the snow field.)
The steep, eroding snow field got a little tricky as we started sliding sideways down toward the creek ravine, so we moved up a bit higher.
Definitely not a good time to cross Bagley Lake. The glacier-blue highlights in the melting spots were lovely, though.
“A good spot for lunch!” says Bear dog.
He gets his own special tarp as he waits for leftovers.
As we gazed over the melting mountaintops to the north, we started musing, as we often do, about the privilege of visiting this beautiful wilderness area in an easy drive from our home near Bellingham Bay, only about 1.5 hours away.
It was a major quest for the early natives from the lowlands to visit the sacred mountain of Koma Kulshan (now renamed Mount Baker by the European colonists). And even a century ago, it was no easy trip.
Which got me thinking about the latest Ski to Sea Race, held on Memorial Day. It’s become a huge event, involving hundreds of teams for 7 legs of a relay race from the ski area to the bay. But its precursor, the Mt. Baker Marathon, was launched in 1911 as a wildly dangerous publicity stunt to draw tourists to the area. The race was 116 miles round-trip from Bellingham to the summit of Mt. Baker and back again, all done by a single person (no relay teams as they have today). The 14 contestants could either take a special train to the town of Glacier, then run up to the peak and back, or be driven via Model T car to a different trailhead. Either route involved 9700 feet of elevation gain.
After a weather delay, the racers were off, several dropping out at various points. The racer in the lead coming downhill was Harvey Haggard, who reached the train first and was thus the only one entitled to ride it to the finish in Bellingham. Seemingly assured of victory, Haggard took off his clothes for a massage to recover from his ordeal. Then disaster struck in the form of a bull that wandered onto the tracks. The train derailed, killing the bull and throwing Haggard out naked into the bushes.
The doughty racer scrambled out to find his clothes, took over a passing horse and buggy, and was transported to the village of Maple Falls, where he was lifted onto a saddle horse that he rode to a waiting car down the road. But the car spooked the horse, which threw Haggard onto the ground. Finally driven back to Bellingham, Haggard discovered that another runner had beaten him to the finish line to win the $100 dollar prize. The locals, cheering Haggard’s pluck, raised matching funds to reward him, too. The post-race celebration involved a big barbecue to feast on the freshly-killed bull.
The Marathon was short-lived, since the next year there were serious injuries, one involving a mountaintop rescue.
(previous 2 photos courtesy of the Whatcom Museum)
The current Ski to Sea race is a bit tamer, though still involving some feats of endurance and athletics. The course covers over 95 miles from the Mt. Baker ski area to Bellingham Bay.
It starts with a cross-country ski leg uphill, then a downhill leg with skis or snowboard.
Then comes what I think is the most grueling leg, a long run downhill on the highway. A friend who ran this said she avoided the common knee problems afterwards by immediately soaking her legs in the frigid Nooksack River.
The runners hand off to 2 canoeists, who run the Nooksack, avoiding snags and other hazards. Next is cross-country biking to the shores of Bellingham Way, where the final leg is in kayaks across the bay to ring the bell in historic Fairhaven.
Thor, Bear dog, and I are content to finish up our own circuit with a stop at the foot of the mountain at Hannegan Creek, for a cleansing dip in the Very brisk snowmelt waters.
I have to go in twice, as I can’t resist that flush of well-being when my whole body tingles. I throw out my arms to the sun and the mountain and call out, “I’m alive!”
You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.