By Tyler Howard
For the past 43 years, thousands of athletes from across the Pacific Northwest, and around the world, come together in Whatcom County to compete in the annual Ski to Sea team relay.
Ski to Sea is the original adventure race held annually on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend every year, starting back in 1973. It combines seven different sports in the form of a relay for teams to compete against each other for time.
The relay includes cross country skiing, downhill skiing/snowboarding, running, road biking, canoeing, cyclocross biking, and sea kayaking, in that order. Teams consist of eight members whom each play their role in one of the sports; besides canoeing, which requires two paddlers.
The course itself starts at the Mt. Baker Ski Area and travels through the towns of Glacier, Maple Falls, Kendall, Everson, Lynden, and Ferndale. The race finishes at Marine Park in the historic Fairhaven district in Bellingham, which on the same day hosts the annual Historic Fairhaven Festival. These two events together make it the largest one-day event in Whatcom County.
The festival is an all-day multi-street party in the middle of Fairhaven. This year there were two stages with live music, including the bands Lost at Last, SpaceBand, Blind Fate, Silk Road dancers, and Divas & Dudes. There was also a beer and wine garden, several arts and crafts vendors, exhibits from nonprofit charities, food booths, and children’s activities.
People at the festival could spend their time among the multiple events held, or walk down Harris Avenue to Marine Park and watch the Ski to Sea teams finish as the kayakers crossed the bay.
There were 312 teams competing in the relay. This year’s winner was the “BEAVERS TREE SERVICE” team with an overall time of 6:22:32, improving from their fifth place position last year.
One of the veteran teams to Ski to Sea every year is “Nacho Average Team.” Hope Thompson, downhill skier on the team, said that their team has competed for the past five years. This year, however, due to the increase in number of people in their team, she said they had to split the team up. Thompson said they decided to make two teams named, “Nacho Average Ladies” and “Nacho Average Dudes.”
“The most amazing part was that we were so close,” said Thompson, comparing their teams finish times, “but it’s not about how we place, it’s about bringing people together.”
Nacho Average Ladies finished at 9:27:47, and Nacho Average Dudes finished at 9:11:57.
Thompson said that having a running-mate that was on the same course leg as her was the best part of the day. Since they were constantly passing one another, they would joke with each other by tickling them or, “giving them a slap on the ass.”
The start of the race is the cross country ski portion at Mt. Baker Ski Area. Their course is approximately four miles that winds up and around near Chair 2 and the bottom section of Chair 1. They go primarily through the trails Seven Hills Valley and Home Run.
When the cross country ski racers finish their leg, they hand off their timing chip to the downhill skiers/snowboarders. Thompson said this can be one of the more congested hand-offs in the whole course, since it is so early on in the race. The athletes at this time haven’t had a chance to gain distance from each other, making it difficult to find their teammate.
The downhill racers course is approximately 2.5 miles starting near the Heather Meadows Day Lodge. Racers will ride down to the bottom of Chair 2, where they will then hike up Lower North to North Face, and then continue to hike up to the top of Chair 1. Then they will start their downhill portion going down Gunner’s Ridge, Blueberry Cat Track, Home Run, and 7-Hills. They finish near the road by the Ski Shop where the running course begins.
“My leg was awful,” said Thompson, “it was the hardest rain I ever felt in Washington.”
Thompson said it was the hiking portion that was the most difficult in her leg of the course. Due to the rain, the snow became slushier, making it difficult to create a solid boot-pack to walk up. Thompson compared it to, “walking in quicksand.”
Since the runner’s course is down the only exit out of Mt. Baker Ski Area, Thompson said her team made a tailgate while they waited for the road to clear. She said they cooked breakfast and drank mimosas at, “Nacho Average Café,” as she called it.
After the downhill section, the runners begin their course. They run approximately eight miles with a 2,200 ft. elevation drop. The runners wind down Hwy. 542 to the Shuksan D.O.T. Station where they hand off to the road bikers.
The road bike course is roughly 41 miles continuing down the Mt. Baker Highway into Maple Falls. The course then heads north to Riverside Park where they will hand off their timing chip to the canoeists.
The canoe course heads 18.5 miles down the Nooksack River into Ferndale. Thompson said this leg is usually what determines a team’s outcome. Because this is the longest portion of the race and can take anywhere from two to three hours. The canoeists finish their leg at Hovander Park where the cyclocross bike course begins.
The cyclocross bikers leave the park and make their way South towards Bellingham International Airport and Marine Drive. They finish their leg at Squalicum Harbor where the sea kayakers start.
Sea kayak is the last leg of the relay, where they paddle five miles across Bellingham Bay to the finish line at Marine Park. When the kayakers finish, they disembark their vessel and run up to the finish line to turn in their timing chip and ring the ceremonial bell.
Last year the course was much different. Due to the lack of snow in the mountains, Ski to Sea officials had to change the legs of the course. To replace the cross country skiing and downhill skiing/snowboarding they added a trail run through Mt. Baker Ski Area and a mountain bike course at the end of the relay.
However, this year Mt. Baker received roughly 335 more inches of snow than last year, and was able to stay open for the whole season as well, bringing Ski to Sea back to its original roots and starting the race on the snow.
Ski to Sea is owned and operated by the volunteer-operated non-profit organization, Whatcom Events. This same organization hosts other events such as the Muds to Suds run and the Tour de Whatcom bicycle event. Their teams consist of over 1,000 volunteers who are able to make events like Ski to Sea possible.