If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Winter 2023 Newsroom

A roundup of outdoor news from around the Pacific Northwest


Mt. Baker Highway reopened to traffic – and salmon

After more than seven months of construction causing extensive delays for drivers headed from Bellingham to Artist Point and Mt. Baker Ski Area, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced the reopening of Mt. Baker Highway, just in time for winter.

Over the summer WSDOT closed off a 0.2-mile section of the highway that crossed Squalicum Creek, a tributary of the Nooksack River, between Britton Road and Noon Road to remove a fish barrier and replace it with a single-span bridge, allowing for an estimated habitat gain of 3 miles, according to WSDOT.

The $8.8 million project was part of an ongoing effort by the state to improve habitat conditions, and keep infrastructure from infringing and destroying fragile ecosystems. Squalicum Creek is a known spawning location supporting pink, chum and Coho salmon, as well as cutthroat trout.

“WSDOT has worked for nearly three decades to improve fish passage and reconnect streams to help keep our waterways healthy,” WSDOT’s website read. “WSDOT fish barrier correction is a priority.”

The state transportation agency surely caught a lot of flak on social media for adding nearly a half hour of commute time to those living in rural Whatcom County and those going to recreate in the popular Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and adjacent wild lands. But the project was much more labor intensive than the 0.2-mile footprint seems.

“We had to remove the existing road, dig down about 60 feet – and the bridge we are constructing is 105 feet long,” WSDOT North wrote in a September 22 press release. “That takes a lot of planning, coordination, and of course time.”

National Park Service considers grizzly bear reintroduction to North Cascades

The National Park Service closed its public commentary period on reintroducing grizzly bears into North Cascades National Park on November 13. In conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NPS remains in the environmental impact statement portion of the bureaucratic process, but locals remain split over what grizzly bears in Whatcom and Skagit counties would mean to them.

In its draft plan, the NPS shows three main options for how to deal with grizzly bears in North Cascades National Park. The first option would create a population of 200 grizzly bears by annually releasing anywhere from three to seven grizzly bears into the park for the next decade. A middle-of-the-road option would create an initial population of 25 bears and manage the population to grow slowly. The last option is a “no action” alternative that would continue current wildlife management practices of keeping grizzlies out of western Washington.

Once roaming continuously throughout western North America, the grizzly bear by 1970 remained in just two percent of its former range before being listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. As a part of the listing, six recovery zones were identified across the country where grizzly bears could be reintroduced without major threats to human development, the North Cascades being one of those zones.

According to the reviews conducted by the NPS, biologists, historians and park managers agree that while estimates of historic grizzly bear distribution in the North Cascades are uncertain, their numbers in Washington state declined precipitously during the North American fur trade and continued habitat destruction of the last hundred years of development.

Environmental groups such as the state Sierra Club have called for the species to be reintroduced to its historic habitat due to the environmental benefits it creates by dispersing seeds, cleaning up the forest floor by scavenging and aerating soil. However, farm and rancher advocacy groups and local tribes that depend on salmon populations have expressed concerns.

Nino Maltos II, tribal chairman of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, wrote to North Cascades National Park about the tribe’s concern on the grizzly bear’s impact on salmon runs.

“Given the fragility of wild salmon in headwater spawning areas, this resource could be decimated by the introduction of grizzly bears,” Maltos wrote.

Northwest Avalanche Center unveils new mobile app

Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) announced on November 20 a new mobile app, “Avy,” that will hold trip planning tools, weather and avalanche forecasts, weather station data and user observations all on your phone.

Avy offers all of the regular information you’d see on NWAC’s desktop website in an easy-to-navigate mobile app and allows saving all that data for offline use once you’re out in the backcountry with no cell service.

Not only does Avy allow for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers to stay up to date on avalanche and weather data in the North Cascades, it also allows compatibility with any avalanche center that connects to the National Avalanche Center.

For the upcoming 2023/24 season, Avy has access to NWAC’s data and data from the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, in Sun Valley, Idaho. In a statement, NWAC said they are working on including more and more avalanche centers to make backcountry journeys safer across the country.

Avy is available for download on Apple iOS and Android systems.

American Alpine Institute announces national accreditation renewal

The American Alpine Institute, a long-standing mountain guide service founded in Bellingham in 1975, announced on November 1 it received its accreditation renewal from the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), good for another three years of backcountry adventure.

AMGA accreditation is highly coveted by mountain guide companies for assuring a high quality of risk management, business practices, staff training, and compliance with local, state and federal regulations, according to a statement from American Alpine Institute read.

With just 31 guide services in the U.S. holding AMGA accreditation, American Alpine Institute is one of only four in Washington state who
are so certified.

AMGA accreditation is sought after in the outdoor guide community because it assures clients that a specific guide service meets high standards of compliance with federal and state law, and assures rigorous training for guides.

Chanterelle connector trail completed in Lake Whatcom Park

On November 18, Whatcom County Parks & Recreation announced the completion of a trail connecting the bridges Chanterelle and Hertz Trail, overlooking Lake Whatcom.

The hiking-only trail offers a unique journey over just four miles of trails. Hikers can expect a hardy elevation gain of 2,100 feet with an average grade of 10 percent, with a stair section that has an 80 percent maximum grade over 300 individual steps. If you were looking for an outdoor stair climb workout, the Chanterelle connector trail would surely be a challenge.

The Hertz Trail is defined as an easy hike by the county website and features mostly flat trails adjoining Lake Whatcom’s shore on the former Bellingham & Eastern railway. The 3.1-mile trail is very popular for all abilities and ages, but it was just a straight shot trail until the connector was completed.

On the other side of the connecting trail, the Chanterelle Trail ascends 2,200 feet over five miles, with the scenic Chanterelle Overlook located right at the midway point, 2.4 miles from the trailhead.

For more information on local trails around Whatcom County, visit www.whatcomcounty.us/1787/Parks-Recreation

Washington State Parks reveals 2024 Discover Pass-free days

With only one day left in 2023 for local outdoor enjoyers to utilize Washington’s over 140 state parks without a day-use fee – Friday, November 24 – Washington State Parks announced a slate of upcoming pass-free days for 2024.

January 1, January 15, March 9, March 19, April 22, June 8 and 9, June 19, September 28, October 10, November 11 and November 29 will be free for all day-use visitors.

SnoParks are not a part of the free days and will still require a daily permit for use from November 1 to March 31. Any overnight fees are also still required on those days, Washington State Parks wrote in its November press release.

Normally, a one-day pass is $10, and is only valid for one vehicle at a given time. Washington State Parks encourages visitors who plan on going to multiple state parks over a season to invest in an annual pass for $30. The pass can be assigned to two vehicles, but only one vehicle may use the pass at a time.

Businesses impacted by Sourdough Fire eligible for disaster loans

In the aftermath of the Sourdough Mountain wildfire that scorched thousands of acres of land just north of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced that local businesses are eligible for 4 percent interest, 30-year loans if they suffered financially due to the fire.

The blaze and subsequent wildfire smoke forced the closure of many businesses during the summer of 2023, notably the North Cascades Institutes’ Environmental Learning Center, on the shores of Diablo Lake, and Diablo Lake Boat Tours, which take tourists on a cruise around the famous lake.

“SBA’s mission-driven team stands ready to help Washington’s small businesses impacted by the Sourdough Wildfire,” SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman announced in a November 2 statement. “We’re committed to providing federal disaster loans swiftly and efficiently, with a customer-centric approach to help these businesses.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee requested the SBA to declare a disaster on October 30, after the fire had mostly subsided and businesses were able to return to the area and assess damage.

If you own a business in Chelan, Island, King, Kitsap, Okanogan, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish or Whatcom County that you believe was adversely impacted by the Sourdough wildfire, contact the SBA at disastercustomerservice@sba.gov

After Sourdough Wildfire forces closure of learning center, NCI is bouncing back

When the Sourdough Mountain wildfire was sparked by a lightning strike on July 29, the North Cascades Institute was just beginning its summer of instruction after the pandemic forced it closed in 2020 and 2021.

NCI’s Environmental Learning Center is a unique outdoor campus in the middle of North Cascades National Park that offers educational opportunities to elementary and middle school students from across western Washington.

But in the summer of 2023, none of that was happening when smoke blocked out the sun and fire crews were preparing the campus for the worst.

The campus was spared from fire, but classes were cancelled for the remainder of 2023.

Since that fateful summer, NCI has been busy.

Since the beginning of the school year, NCI has been engaging with local high school students through their Youth for the Environment and People program, educating them in the field with local experts and learning about climate action projects. In October, a group of high school students met with Jen Willup of the Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection to see how areas around the reservation have responded to flooding, and the positive impacts floods can have on an ecosystem.

NCI has also continued its Nature of Writing Speaker series, holding events at Village Books in Bellingham, featuring NCI historian John C. Miles and his new book Teaching in the Rain: The Story of the North Cascades Institute.

Although the Sourdough Mountain wildfire may have knocked the Environmental Learning Center out for the rest of 2023, NCI knows how to adapt, and will keep holding events and spaces for conservationists and nature lovers. For more information on what NCI is up to, visit www.blog.northcascades.org    X