Throughout the winter in Whatcom County, the Mt. Baker Ski Area gets blanketed in snow, oftentimes deeper than anywhere else in the country. Bellingham locals and visitors alike flock to the mountain for a variety of winter activities. From sledding and snowball fights in the parking lot to chasing friends at light speed in waist deep powder, the area provides a beautiful winter escape. Activities like alpine skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing seem ubiquitous up there, but what about Nordic skiing? Where can we go to learn the ways of human-powered ski exploration in the beautiful northwest corner of Washington State?
I recently sat down with Pete Tryon, the president of the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club to talk about the current state of cross-country skiing in our neck of the woods, near Mt. Baker. Pete hails from Anchorage, Alaska where you can ski right out of your backdoor, but as grandchildren came into his life in the lower 48, he moved down to Bellingham and didn’t let the change in climate stop him from getting into the mountains on skinny skis.
So what is Nordic skiing?
As Pete explains, “Nordic is essentially human-powered skiing that is not serviced with lifts. Whatever you do, you’re on your own for elevation gain and descent.” There’s a pretty wide range of skiing that fits into the Nordic category. From breaking trail on classic cross-country fish scale skis to Olympic speed skate skiing and even to alpine telemark, Nordic skiing fulfills a wide range of effective snow travel options. Pete likes it all. In the Olympics, you can watch for the best Nordic skiers in the world in events like the biathlon, Nordic combined, and even ski jumping. Cross-country skiing has been in the games since 1924 and most Nordic medals are won by countries like Norway and Sweden, though last year two Americans took home gold in the Team Sprint event, which was celebrated across the nation.
The Nooksack Nordic Ski Club was founded about 20 years ago with the specific goal of building groomed trails within driving range of Bellingham. It has old Bellingham roots like The Mt. Baker Club – the club has about 70 members, most of whom are retired. The volunteers are the lifeblood of the Nordic Club, without them nothing would be possible.
“Most of them are of a certain age…” Pete laughs as he tells me that one of their goals this season is to recruit younger members for the club. The volunteers help with the wide range of logistics that go into creating a Nordic Ski destination in the Mt. Baker Wilderness – from changing out the porta-potties to organizing trail grooming. Pete explains that most members involved in the club are people who learned to ski elsewhere, but moved to Bellingham for one reason or another, and want to keep skiing. The club has been improving over the years with more community involvement, expansion projects, and an increase in members – but Nordic skiing in an area with an unpredictable snow line provides challenges of its own.
“Nordic skiing doesn’t just happen on its own, it takes volunteers getting involved, going to meetings, writing grants, interacting with groomers, clearing trails, etc. Without that investment of people, Nordic skiing wouldn’t happen out here.”Pete Tryon
The Salmon Ridge Sno-Park Area
It seems like few people are aware of the extensive groomed trail system at the Salmon Ridge Sno-Park. It’s a place that many frequenters of Mt. Baker drive past every weekend. Yet the trails are nothing short of amazing – Salmon Ridge boasts 24 kilometers of cross-country ski trails with a full spectrum of difficulty levels. The network takes skiers through old growth trees and branches draped in moss, alongside the wild and scenic Nooksack River, on bridges that transport you over small creeks, and as you make your way up to higher elevations you’ll find some photo-worthy views of Mt. Shuksan and Baker.
The biggest struggle for Pete and others at the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club is weather. As long-time residents of Bellingham know, every winter is different, and the amount of snow up at Mt. Baker is too. The NNSC website features a Trails/Reports page, where Pete hopes to keep Nordic skiers in town updated on the most recent conditions at Salmon Ridge. People can also choose to stay updated via newsletter, by signing up on the website. Pete stresses that there is enormous potential for Nordic skiing in the Mt. Baker area, especially for families looking to spend time outside during the winter without having to pay for an expensive lift ticket. There’s also lots of potential for “on-snow camps” for the serious Nordic skiers to train during the off season as Mt. Baker holds its snow for most of the year.
“It was 40 degrees, it was raining, I had my raincoat on and my fishscale skis, water was dripping of the brim of my hat, and it was a nice day! It was great skiing, I was warm, and having a good time.”
The Ambassador Program
Bellingham is filled with outdoor recreationists. There are so many beginner athletes living here, but there are also seasoned veterans with loads of knowledge to offer. The Ambassador Program with the NNSC allows beginners to try out Nordic skiing without dropping money on a sport that they’ve never done before. “We set up a welcome table with hot chocolate, and introduce the experts to the beginners so that people can learn how the bindings work, the differences between skis, and more.” Usually REI or Yeagers Sporting Goods will make an appearance to provide demo gear for first-timers.
The Current State of Nordic for Bellingham
The trick to Nordic skiing near Bellingham is all about knowing how to have fun, and Pete is a perfect example of that. The weather is fickle, and it’s hard knowing what you’re going to get when you leave town. It can be beautiful, perfect ski conditions, or it can be a total mess. In describing a certain day on the trails, Pete says, “One time I skied up at White Salmon when it had been groomed. It was 40 degrees, it was raining, I had my raincoat on and my fishscale skis, water was dripping of the brim of my hat, and it was a nice day! It was great skiing, I was warm, and having a good time.”
I asked Pete if he had any tips or advice for aspiring Nordic skiers in Bellingham. Pete laughed again, “If you’re interested in Nordic and learning about it, contact the club, the club has resources readily available to beginners and people curious about Nordic skiing.”