When asking a local Washingtonian what images come to mind when thinking of skiing at Mt. Baker, the first thing is usually some lunatic dropping down dozens of feet into endless powdery nothingness.
But that doesn’t have to be the only option, says Pete Tryon, president of Nooksack Nordic Ski Club. For those who aren’t interested in the heart-pounding adrenaline of backcountry skiing, don’t want to shell out for increasingly expensive lift tickets, or just don’t have the knees they used to have for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing can be a viable option.
Nooksack Nordic Ski Club has been organizing like-minded skiers to get out on groomed trails around its namesake river since the 1990s, Tryon said. What started as a small group of dedicated winter recreationists has slowly grown into a yearly institution in the Mt. Baker foothills.
The club works alongside the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to keep dozens of miles of trails groomed, maintained and usable. Tryon said that while the club receives yearly grants from the parks commission and from federal institutions, it still needs hundreds of hours of labor from its team of volunteers to get everything ready for winter.
“We have a number of backcountry trails that are ungroomed,” Tryon said. “Those require more or less yearly maintenance for trees falling down on them and brush growing up. We use brush cutters and chainsaws to clear that, and that’s totally the club volunteers’ responsibility.”
That might sound like grueling work to some, but Tryon said many of the club’s volunteers relish the opportunity to get out in nature and break a sweat.
“There’s a number of us who think it’s real fun to go clear brush,” said Tryon, who hails from the cross-country ski Mecca of Alaska. “It’s a chance to meet up with your friends, it’s a chance to get out in the woods.”
Before those terrified of yard work go running for the hills, Tryon said trail clearing is not a requirement of members. Membership costs $20 annually for an individual, or $35 for a family or household, and grants access to monthly, weekly and daily updates on conditions, a contact list to find groups to go out with, and overnight trips to high-quality ski areas around Washington and British Columbia.
The club uses two main trail systems alongside SR542: the lower Salmon Ridge SnoPark, featuring multiple groomed and backcountry trails of varying length and difficulty, and the upper-elevation White Salmon trail, which is more difficult to access and features mostly ungroomed trails.
Those two trail systems offer more than a dozen different adventurous paths to take, some of which are about a mile round trip, while other trails like the Salmon Ridge parking lot to “Big Tree Meetup” loop can reach 7.8 miles, with a mix of groomed and backcountry features.
Just recently, the club was given a permit by the U.S. Forest Service to create a backcountry connection between the
Salmon Ridge trails to the higher-ground White Salmon trails. The recent connecting trail allows for the hardiest cross-country skiers to make an entire day of meandering through dozens of miles of forested, snow-covered trails.
For those just trying out cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, Tryon recommends the River Trail Loop. The route offers passage for both backcountry skiers and snowshoers and is just 1.4 miles round-trip. The trail begins right off the Salmon Ridge SnoPark parking lot and features views of the Nooksack River along an almost entirely level gradient that twists in and out of thick forest and onto river overlooks.
Like any winter sport, cross-country skiing is weather dependent, and needs good snow to have prime moving conditions, Tryon said. With an upcoming El Niño winter predicted by meteorologists, Tryon worries that this season may not have enough cold weather to offer good snow conditions in the lower foothills of Mt. Baker.
Tryon assures that even if snow conditions aren’t great, there’s still plenty to do.
Just across SR542 from Salmon Ridge SnoPark is the Silver Fir Campground, which Tryon says is closed for overnight camping during the winter but can still be a great resource for a family looking to recreate in the mountains, with or without snowfall.
“Even if there’s no snow, it's a great family and small kid hike.” Tryon said. “The campground has big trees right up next to the river, and you could take a baby stroller through the rain, through the trees and have a pretty neat afternoon.”
Most Pacific Northwest recreationalists know how to enjoy themselves while drenched and freezing cold, but what the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club uniquely offers is a chance for folks who spent their whole lives skiing, or someone who just got fitted for their first pair of snowshoes, to interact and enjoy the boundless beauty that the North Cascades and its wilderness provides.
“Some of us are downhill skiers that have gotten older and don’t want to spend so much money on downhill skiing, or they’re not quite the gonzo-style backcountry skier anymore,” Tryon said. “One of the things I’m actually quite proud of is that the club really support snowshoers as well as skiers. We have snowshoers that have joined the club specifically saying, ‘we appreciate what you’re doing, and we’d like to join to support it.’”
Those that want to support or join the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club can find more information on their website: www.nooksacknordicskiclub.org X