Monday, February 10th, 2014
Kayaking the Calm Waters of the Nooksack River Delta
Todd Elsworth

The mouth of the Nooksack River  is a colorful landscape. From the air (or Google) it presents an interesting perspective that looks like the roots of a tree reaching into the earth below. Located west of Bellingham, the mouth of the river is a set of fingerling smaller channels. As a tidal area, the landscape and seascape are constantly in flux so there is not consistently a way to navigate its waters- especially during lower tides. The entry points are mysterious when you are approaching from the low angle viewpoint of a kayak.

On a sunny, but cold February Saturday, my buddy Al and I wanted to get out on the water and explore the river delta. We had an idea where we wanted to enter and exit- it would just be a matter of finding our way when we got there. Our hopes were to make a big loop of the excursion. We set out from Little Squalicum Beach and paddled across the shallow water of the tidal delta.


Fun outdoors begins with planning (and safety) in order to have a good time. When preparing for our water adventure, I started the process by looking at a Bellingham Tides chart. We were fortunate to have a 4′ low predicted for when we’d be heading out- with it rising so we wouldn’t have to worry about our return trip.  I enjoy the maps, charts, graphs and other visual resources that help provide me guidance before even getting OUT THERE and experiencing the landscape.


We finally got out on the water by 2pm, so you can see where we were in relation to the incoming tide above. This was going to be a calm day, simply exploring the entry points to the mouth of the mighty Nooksack River. We did bundle up to try to keep our fingers and toes toasty (stay dry = stay warm).


Each outdoor exploration leads to more knowledge of the area and enables longer journeys to take place in the future. Since we had lollygagged so much around town (and admittedly forgot a “couple things” so we had to turn around once enroute- my bad) we didn’t get out on the bay until 2pm. This was going to be a relatively short paddle, but we knew it would be full of wonderment and engagement. Oh, The Places We’ll Go and the things we would see. My picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but we witnessed an odd brown scum floating on the surface while in the lower reaches of the delta. I believe that it is part of the “hog fuel” problem we have.

“In the mills they called it “hog fuel”, that countless tonnage of waste wood ground into small bits, from sawdust sized to an inch or two. For decades it’s been coming ashore near the northwest corner of Bellingham Bay” from the article Hog Fuel Hidden in Plain Sight – No One Knows Just Where it Goes or What it’s Doing to Bellingham Bay – Cascadia Weekly. It is a phenomenon that Todd Eastman has been looking into for some years. As you travel over the shallow delta, you can see the hog fuel on the seafloor, making its way to the beach.


Getting across the Delta is a fun adventure in and of itself. We had timed it right (through our delays) in order to get across the shallow part of the bay. Paddling in this shallow water is a great beginner experience- you can see the bottom and even touch it with your paddle. Timing is everything and we were fortunate to be able to cross this wide expanse with relative ease. Occasionally, we would have to use our paddles to push ourselves across some of the small sandbars that would impede our forward progress.

The banks of the Nooksack River Delta are deceiving and finding the entry way was a good challenge. But we made the right guesses and found our entry point. We paddled up river, continuing to count the Bald Eagles we would pass along the way. The trees that were falling in from the banks on either side make it feel as if the land was a fortress and entry would be difficult.


As we made our way upriver, we knew our time was limited and we would have to turn around and head for home. Along the way, we did venture off into one of the smaller channels to see if there was a smaller version of the Northwest Passage that would get us to another channel to provide a different perspective as we made our departure.  It would also prove to be a chance to get a bit closer to one of the eagles on our tally.


Needless to say, we didn’t make it very far in the small side-channel as it quickly ended at the south end of the large log dam that has rerouted much of the passable routes at the mouth of the river. The resident eagle awaited our arrival and gave us his infamous eye as we passed underneath his perch. Seeing an eagle in the wild never gets old.


Bald Eagles weren’t the only birds we encountered on our trip. There were 3 herons that were circling us while we paddled the river. Numerous other birds, both too many to count and unidentifiable were part of our Bellingham Experience for the day.


As we came back out to the bay, there was very little wind, absolutely no people and a sense of calm, like you have after a long massage, filled the air. We dipped our paddles quietly into the water and took some time to soak in the sights. The sun was setting and we were still a couple miles from home.


As we crossed the Nooksack Delta and ventured out into the more open waters of the bay, the wind picked up a little bit out of the north- bringing with it a refreshing taste of cool Canadian air (is that considered imported?). The views to the south of Samish Island, the Skagit Flats, and Mt. Eire provided a scenic backdrop as we chatted it up on our way back home.


It’s all about timing. We arrived back at our put in spot, loaded the boats on the truck and grabbed a space on the beach to watch the sun descend between the break in the clouds and eventually the horizon. As the colors cast their glow across the bay, we planned our next adventure back up into the labyrinth of channels and plotted how we’d be able to make a big loop out of our journey. We’ll let you know how that goes!


If you want to join us- just let me know. The more the merrier.


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About the Author:

As the co-Executive Director of Recreation Northwest and the founder of the Bellingham Traverse, Todd promotes outdoor recreation and brings people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. He enjoys biking, hiking, paddling, skiing and will try anything twice. Get connected at


  1. Have you ever kayaked the Nooksack River from Ferndale to Bellingham Bay? There doesn’t seem to be any internet info on whether there are nasty log jams or 10ft ledge drops as you get closer to the bay. I never see any tubers or boats on the river whenever I’m driving by.

    Comment by Renee — August 4, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

  2. I have paddled that stretch, but it was years ago. We had to haul our boats over and around the log jam. Looking at satellite maps (Google or Bing) it looks clear. Get OUT THERE and explore for yourself!

    Comment by Todd Elsworth — August 7, 2014 @ 10:35 am

  3. 4 of us did that Ferndale down the Nooksack across Bellingham Bay jaunt this past Monday, visiting from north of the border. We kept to the right, got held up a bit by low tides (misread the tide charts) at the mouth of the bay but once forging across the sand (which was enjoyable in itself) paddled across the bay in medium winds to the Fairhaven area of Bellingham. We really enjoyed it.

    Comment by Bruce — May 21, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

  4. Thanks Bruce for the update. Great to see others enjoy the experience!

    Comment by Todd Elsworth — May 21, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

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