Todd Elsworth | 11/12/2012 | Bird Watching, Fall, Insider Blogs, Seasonal Travel |   

In Search of Eagles and Salmon below Racehorse Falls

It was a classic fall Saturday morning in the Northwest. The weekend forecast called for rain so my daughter and I planned on staying inside and just hanging out for the day. I think we may have peeked outside, but didn't really want to know how bad it might be out there. So after breakfast, I was doing what EVERYBODY else in the region seemed to be doing- checking in on Facebook. I was cruising through and it was a photo of a "bunch of birds" that caught my eye. The photo had received thousands of likes and now some of my “facebook friends” had liked and shared it with their circles- including me.

WOW- 55 Bald Eagles Standing Watch in one tree along the Nooksack River. It was one of the many photos that Chuck Hilliard had in an album titled Photos of Everything Washington. Digging deeper into his digital world afforded views of an album titled Bald Eagles in Winter 2011/2012. Well, Chuck thanks for ruining our plans to be homebodies for the day!

“Violet, we’re going out to look for Bald Eagles and hopefully we’ll see some salmon.” She replied, “Are we going to eat them?”. “No honey, we’re going to go watch the salmon spawning in the river,” I replied. So began my first “sex talk” with a 4 year old.  Fortunately for her, I stuck to the broader story of the journey of salmon and how they miraculously make it back to where they were born- returning to die and create new life. We didn’t spend much time on the fertilization methods of these amazing aquatic athletes- that could have gotten messy.

It seemed a little early in the year to see spawning salmon (November 3rd, 2012) but what the heck we’d give it a try. My hidden agenda was to scope out some new kid-friendly hikes in the area so we’d know where we were going when the Salmon Spawning season was in full-swing and salmon start filling the creek beds and eagles line the riverbanks.

We’d start our search at Deming Homestead Eagle Park. We headed out the Mount Baker Highway (East 542) and near Milepost 15 turned right onto Truck Road. At 0.7 miles, we found ample parking and two walking trails that parallel the Nooksack River Floodplain. There are small shelters and picnic areas along the wide path that offer plenty of opportunities to rest and take it all in.

Violet enjoys being out in the weather. She regularly says without prompting, “I love the rain daddy!” She was introduced to the philosophy early: Stay Dry = Stay Warm. The foundation of our family mantra for outdoor recreation is borrowed from English Adventurer, Ranulph Fiennes  “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” So out we went into the miserable drizzle that we are so accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest. Nothing a hood can’t handle.

As we walked a short ways on the open path, we looked up in the trees that line the riverbanks to see if we could spot our national symbol looking for some lunch. No such luck. "We will come back in a month or so and have better luck," I explained. What I didn’t outline was our upcoming reconnaissance mission for future adventures.

I was anxious to explore a trail that my friend Ken Wilcox, author of Hiking Whatcom County, had written about – Racehorse Falls. The lines, “Watch for bald eagles along the river in winter” and “Below the falls, Racehorse Creek is an important salmon stream,” had stuck long ago. The hike to Racehorse Falls - with a distance of 1 mile round trip and an elevation gain of only 100 feet - also sounded like a fair alternative for a kid who had notions of staying inside and relaxing for the day.

On with our adventure! From the park, we continued out Truck Road until it intersected with Mosquito Lake Road. Then following Ken’s guidebook, “turn right on the Mosquito Lake Road (542 milepost 16.8), then a left in a mile (or less if you’re coming up Truck Road) on the North Fork Road. Turn right in 4.1 miles (just before the creek) and park at a road bend in 0.1 mile. The slightly hidden trail is on the left.” We were the only people in the parking lot and the trailhead was easy to find.

It is a very interesting trail. Ken directs, “Follow it (the trail) through quiet forest to a flood channel; stay right”. With that in mind, we did our best to follow the trail hidden by the layer of maple leaves that cloaked the entire forest floor. It was a remarkably windy day and the leaves were continuously falling like a battalion of paratroopers descending into enemy territory. Over the years there have obviously been some events that have modified the landscape. The blown down trees and washout of logs in two key areas made for a fun challenge of navigating stacked wet logs covered in slime.

We made it through the two natural obstacle courses and had our eyes set on the falls. Again, referring to our guidebook, it read, “Ten yards before the creek, a rough path goes right and hugs the steep hillside. A few logs are crossed before the falls come into view. Clamber over rocks to a tiny beach just below the falls.” He then proceeds to say “Use Caution” in so many words.

We decided we’d give it a shot. After some bushwhacking and carrying Violet like a running back trying to get into the end zone on 4th and goal- we trudged through. I could see that there was some beach at the river’s edge, but the trail that existed 12 years ago when the copy of the book I have went to publication (Third Edition 2000) had been washed away. While I’d like to say, “We turned back” it wasn’t quite the case. Holding hands, we navigated the slope and came to the moment of truth. Just how fresh was the landslide we were about to cross? One way to find out- take a step.

“Uh-oh!  Violet go back and stay right there. Daddy is in quicksand!” At least that’s what it felt like. I handed her my phone so she could take a picture of my predicament and preserve it for posterity. Luckily, there was a thick branch in reach that I broke in half to create a lever to get my foot and shoe out of the mud that was up to my shin. We had made it out alive. Whew.

As we sat safely on the beach beyond the base of the falls, we enjoyed our snack and the soothing symphony of sound- the tiny trickle near our feet; the rushing of the swift creek a stone’s throw away; and the distant thunderous crashing of the waterfall which created the pounding bass line - demonstrating the powers of the glacial melt rushing by.

The rain picked back up as we waded through the creek to wash the “quicksand” off our feet before we made the trek back to the car. The simple pleasure of splashing in the water knowing that dry clothes await brought us comfort. We know that we’ll be back to Racehorse Falls in December or January following the eagles and chasing the salmon. There are plenty of other places in Whatcom County to go searching for salmon. Usually where there’s salmon there are eagles perched waiting.

For viewing locations in Whatcom County, visit Salmon – See Them Run. Please follow the Salmon-watching Etiquette guidelines to ensure their “privacy”- put yourself in their shoes.

For Ken Wilcox's book, Hiking Whatcom County, visit Village Books in Fairhaven (200 11th Street Bellingham, WA 98225) or Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism (904 Potter Street Bellingham, WA 98229)

.............. To see more posts by Todd Elsworth, check out the Bellingham Traverse blog.

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