From snowflake to sea swell, water has a cycle. A circulatory system whose seasonal heartbeats pump snowmelt into this green and gracious land so many of us have come to call home. Yet any appreciation I’ve had for Washington State, and this process, has been limited to the Cascade Mountains and their mantles of ice. Once those rivulets were spun from the glacier, it was out of sight out of mind, and what impact their accumulations had upon the fabric of our environment was ignored. Once I’d realized that, it became imperative for me to trace that story from summit to sea.
Left: An eagle on post in Bellingham Bay, with Mount Baker behind. Right: Looking at Bellingham Bay from Mount Baker in 2014
With the thesis for my project established, I needed a destination. I found it on Washington State’s northernmost volcano, Mount Baker (10,786). From it flows the Nooksack River, a free-flowing stream that is nearest to its pre-industrial state, headwaters to estuary, as any other river in this region. For that reason, among others, it became my path of least resistance.
Mount Baker with its winter coat on.
With a mountain and river in mind, a logistically feasible plan was my next obstacle. What usually follows is an ultimate plan, with variations that are progressively less ambitious. What I came up with was a transit over Mount Baker’s summit with skis. The ascent would be by the Easton Glacier (with a camp on the summit) and the descent would be by the Coleman-Deming route. For the transition to water, I would begin with a pack raft at Glacier Creek bridge (III-IV) and from its confluence with the Nooksack River (I-III), I’d continue to Bellingham Bay and the Salish Sea.
If completed, I’d reach wave-torn beaches full of drift wood and salt water spray. Only then would I have seen with my own eyes the path water takes once the snows melt.
The actual route was 84 miles, with ~65 river miles
June 30, 2023: Easton Glacier to Summit Ice Cap
The way toward Mount Baker’s upper slopes is flowers and viridescent forest, all bursting with life after another turn of winter. Murmuring in every low vale are streams and shouting from every high cliff are waterfalls. Fracturing the broad flanks are slopes riddled in crevasses. Piercing the sky are sub-peaks sharpened in time’s careful hand. Nothing of man except a path and tents mar the pristine parklands.
Together with my partner for this adventure, Sage Vogt, we entered that country at 1 PM with strides as wide as our smiles. Behind us, Delilah, Sage’s better half, drove off after shuttling us around the mountain. Before she left, we named her hero, goddess and angel. She shrugged these accolades off, and set out on her own adventure.
A stream crossing, and the Easton Glacier
Myself on the Railroad Grade below the Easton Glacier. Image: Sage Vogt
As for Sage and I, we raised our eyes toward the Easton glacier and the summit 7500 vertical feet above us. As eyes lowered to trail, the climbing began. As I walked, I thought of how this glacier was named. How in 1909 the Mazama Club asked Charles Easton (1858–1931) what he would call it. He suggested Twin Glacier, but after he departed for home, the Mazama members would christen it Easton Glacier.
Outside Easton’s work as a local historian, his greatest contribution to Mount Baker was a map he published in 1912 (shown below). What I love about maps are the stories hidden behind the names and symbols. For example, below the Bastille Glacier, barely discernible, is a cross. Written below it is “grave”. But whose grave? When and how did they die?
The story can be traced back to July, 1891. At that time three prospectors from Blaine, Washington were attempting to climb Mount Baker. Only they wouldn’t ever make it. As they reached a point above timberline, one member, Richard L. Smith, spotted mountain goats. In those days, so far from civilization, hunting was as much sustenance as sport, which is why getting off a fine shot was as much for bragging rights as filling the belly. Sadly, in Smith’s exuberance, he inadvertently shot himself through the arm, severing his brachial artery. Within seconds, he’d fallen to his knees and tumbled two hundred feet down the rocky, steep moraine walls that they were ascending. After his friends rushed to his side, it was already too late. Only with extreme difficulty would his body be carried back up the moraine. He’s there still, buried above the headwaters of what has long since been called Smith Creek.
Charles Easton's map, which was included in a small pamphlet called the Mount Baker Cartogram. This small publication was created by Easton Henry Engberg in the summer of 1912.
At the cusp of bedrock and glacier, we transitioned to skis. So many miles and years on these two planks, I sometimes wonder if evolution somewhere out there in the greater cosmos has created a creature with skis for feet. That on an ice world there is a powder hound to challenge even the frothiest of ski bums.
We soon climb by serac fields, tottering towers of ice, jumbled and spit by gravity. Chasing sunset, we swept by them, following cloud shadows that cooled us until they passed. Then, heat would blast us, feeling no less than a 100 degrees, and as fierce as any desert sun. Only as we made it to the final headwall, did the temperatures normalize.
At Sherman Crater we climbed frozen ash and pumice, and stared into the grumbling earth, blasting with steam and stale air. This place, some 1300 feet below the summit of Mount Baker, is a caldron of fire and ice. I’ve found that kind of power magnetizing. A sort of power my inner soul-fire leans out toward. The kind my body, in turn, follows. Only as rocks dance down the slope, and plop into greyed and pitted ice and snow, am I compelled to turn away. Life may not wilt in the presence of power, but it will respect it.
Sherman Crater, a Brocken Spectre (my shadow with is circular rainbow around it), and rising steam
Our goal of reaching the top at sunset was assured. The first rays of orange and yellow blushed the horizon. And yet, a scud of clouds was yanked right over the top of our heads. Mouths agape, we were left speechless and scrambling for our coats. Before I’d even taken in the view, my perception orbited my feet. Anything beyond was transformed into an icy moonscape with no definable end. No sky or horizon, nothing but void and vast nothingness.
At the summit, freezing fingers yanked my tent from my bag, and Sage helped me pitch it. An hour later, the most salient stars shone, bleeding through the blue hours bright facade. By then the clouds lost cohesion, their meddling complete. While we sat alone on this mountainous roof, I gazed upward, transfixed, soon lost in the night’s sky. Without conscious awareness of it, I unanchored myself. Between terrestrial and intergalactic planes, I paddled into that gulf that separated me from everything and fell asleep dreaming of star clusters and super massive blackholes.
July 1, 2023: Mount Baker Summit to Glacier (the town)
I awoke in Jupiter’s red eye, and like the gas giant’s storm, I felt like the wind had been raging for hundreds of years. Once free of the tent, I laughed. From within our night’s home, the winds pressing in on the walls of the tent had created another illusion. That instead of a storm on some distant world, we were instead within the gullet of some great and terrible beast.
A side trip to the true summit of Mount Baker at ~8 AM placed Sage on the top of his very first volcano! The view reveals half dozen ecological zones. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west, Canada to the north, the spine of the Cascade Mountains to the south and the dry scablands to the east.
From the crest of the summit dome, we cut our skis into ice-ribbed slopes, sun-cupped and pot-marked by old steps and rocks. The price of our night’s camp was an icy ski, we knew that. Hope was held that the snow would soften. Yet hope has as much currency with reality as abracadabra. Each turn clattered our teeth. Every stop strummed frayed nerves across shaky knees.
After a vertical mile of descent, we reached dry ground. Numerous streams catapulted from snow onto rock. Flowers wilted by the seasons early heat lay browned against grey stones. Lush grass and various bushes sprouted wherever they could take root. All of them newly arrived tenants to replace evicted glaciers. Glaciers I’d seen covering this very earth just two decades earlier.
Back to walking, we strode once more into forested canopies of sub alpine fir, hemlock and douglas fir, among others. In between grew salmon berries and devil’s club, blueberries and ferns. This way a waterfall. That way a glacial icefall. Birds sang and far off rivers roared.
At the trailhead, Sage and I continued another five miles to Glacier Creek bridge, a half mile past the current road washout. Once again, Delilah, our knight in shining armor, came to our aid. This time she had our fresh water stallions i.e., packrafts, on board.
It was an hour later, with an empty beer and a prepped boat, that I scouted Glacier Creek from the bridge. Nostalgia traced the rapids downstream. Twenty-one years ago, I paddled this creek, and in all those intervening years, I’d only read about a few other descents. Lo and behold, one of those was just two weeks earlier! Fortuitous for us, because conditions were touted as good enough, and good enough is all you can ask for.
Once within those accumulated waters from Mount Baker, my control was limited to paddle strokes. Even as I slid from a car-sized boulder into the swift current, hardwired instincts took over. In seconds, I slipped between a narrow channel, dove off a pour over and spun out into an eddy. Upstream, I watched Sage hit every mark he needed too, and knew we had 65 miles ahead and nothing more to stop us.
Of course, we spoke too soon of easy going. Smiles faded as we climbed around yet another logjam. Each time hopes would rise, another pile would appear. Below one such feature, while waiting, I remembered how my friend Ben passed away 20 years ago while kayaking the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. It was his PFD I wore right then. I wear it to remind me that fear and danger, thrill and challenge are currents all their own, and that we have to balance those base realities with our own skills and the conditions we find.
After several hours, we stashed our boats just outside the town of Glacier. Hopes had been hitched to its sole restaurant being opened, but it was closed up. With few options, we raided the local market and soon returned to camp.
Before sleep I wondered how far we could boat each day in packrafts, where we could legally camp and what if there are endless miles of flat water with strong headwinds threatening to blow us all the way back to Mount Baker? Small worries, because in the end, all rivers lead to the sea. All we had to do was paddle.
July 2-3, 2023: Glacier (the town) to Bellingham Bay
Mosquitoes and stinging nettles battled us as we packed bags and sorted gear. A side trip to Glacier’s Waken Bakery salved all wounds. Cold water from the Nooksack River, an hour later, further mended us. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic way to begin the day.
Good thing Mother Nature has a better imagination than I do. With morning air to our backs, eagles and hawks taking wing, salmon leaping and, bringing it all together, Mount Baker rising in the background, I was left speechless. For those that know me, this is a feat that ranks up there with the two thousand year glacier retreat from these valleys during the last great glacial surge.
Hours later, there’s yelling from shore. Crossing the current, I make out, “Beer?”
An emphatic “Yes” was my response! They dive into their cooler, and toss. Spun away by the current, I catch. With my prize is in hand, a crack breaks through the monotonous river sounds, followed by a satisfied “Ahhhh.” Sage had snagged his prize, too.
Could this morning get any better?
In a mid-river transfer of gear, we attempted to make it worse. After Sage left his boat and paddle atop logs, he pulled my boat up. Soon after he cried, “Where’s my paddle? Did you see my paddle?” Arms waving and fear beginning to spike, he said again with a growing suspicion, “Where’s my paddle?” We both looked downstream at the same time. Glinting in the waves, in far distance, was his paddle!
I leapt in my boat and Sage flung me from the logs. I paddled like a man possessed. Just before another logjam, breathless, I managed to snag it.
As I waited for Sage to come down, what I craved right then was another river beer. But even if I had one at hand, it couldn’t have competed with the thrill I got when I saw Sage. As he neared, he had a substitute paddle, an 8 foot log!
Sage an his substitute paddle
Tired and ready to be done, we pulled our boats up fist-sized rocks to a sandy patch just big enough for our tent. Sage’s watch told him we’d gone 30 miles! After camp was pitched, we rested our backs on a log. Radiant heat from river rocks warmed the cool evening, the shuffle of water accentuated silence rather than not, and birds swooped past a muted sky that blushed orange.
Thoughts of the day flowed back upriver. Few houses were seen. Diverse forests and natural shorelines reined throughout, a surprise to me. Besides that which I can’t see (such as farm water run off), the most unnatural things I saw was remedial work created for fish habitat. How 50 or more of these vertical riprap contraptions are useful, when half of them don’t even create logjams at all or are high and dry in former stream beds, is unclear to me. There are literally 100s of natural logjams! While there is certainly need for this work in places, how much is too much? How much is really needed in one of the healthiest watersheds in the state?
With an early rise, we set our goal to be in salt water before the sun set. Every trip has a turning point, when the momentum of the end pulls you toward the finish line. When 30 miles was done the day before, we saw no reason it couldn’t be done again.
With each paddle stroke we are drained through Cottonwoods and alders, pulled past frothing and boiling water into green and turbid pools. Miles melted into the horizon like any number of eagles that soared above us. So many times I thought the water would slow, but outside strong breezes around several bends, we found the going as good as we’d hoped for, and nothing short of another perfect day.
Bridges for railroads and cars were passed beneath, but none so thunderous as Interstate 5. The health of the river from here on out, from all appearances, was undeniably changed for the worse, but as the miles again gathered behind each paddle stroke, we found the river recovering.
Around 3 PM, we entered the Nooksack Wildlife area. It’s an estuary whose outlines are made up of muddy shores and stacks of driftwood. Through its watery center, we kept moving, afraid that we’d be fighting tides.
Then, like that, we were there. From Bellingham Bay, Mount Baker rose like a cloud cap, white and bulbous. Even without the thunder such clouds usually bring, the feeling of this incredible sight rang between our ears.
From the billions of accumulated snowflakes on Baker’s summit, to the billions of accumulated raindrops crashing onto the shores of the Salish Sea, I ask myself what I learned? What wisdom was spun out of the endless eddies? This is it: water will outlive us. The Earth will outlive us. How we live, and what balance humans strike with nature, that alone will determine if our story will move with the current or against it.
Thanks for tagging along on this adventure!