Ski to Sea draws from long, colorful history

January 29, 2008 

The Ski to Sea race traces its history back to 1911 when the first Mount Baker Marathon was held. The Mount Baker Club organized the early marathons to call attention to their scenic area.

Early sports enthusiasts could use any means of transportation available to get from Bellingham to the base of Mount Baker. They then ran 11 miles to the summit and then back down.

Race officials huddled at the summit to make sure everyone made it to the turnaround. Racers then raced back down the mountain and took their mode of transportation back to Bellingham.

Although Mount Baker is laced with deep crevasses, usually there was no new snow, so racers could see the dangerous fissures.

In 1911 contestant Joe Galbraith, a local logger, was chauffeured by Hugh Diehl to the foot of Mount Baker in 54 minutes. Galbraith ascended via the Deming Trail but reached the summit third behind two racers who had taken a different route.

After signing in with the judges and taking the mandatory four-minute rest, all three raced back down the mountain.

Galbraith rejoined Diehl at 9:40 a.m. but was so tired that he had to strap himself into the car so he wouldn’t fall out. With the throttle wide-open Diehl drove the rutted dirt road back to Bellingham. Covered with mud and exhausted, Diehl and Galbraith were the first back to Bellingham’s cheering crowds.

In 1912 and 1913 the racers were plagued with fog, snow and sleet on Mount Baker. Worried about the safety of racers, officials decided to discontinue the marathons after Victor Galbraith fell into a crevasse, emphasizing the folly of racing up the glacier covered mountain in midsummer.

Inaugurated in 1973 the current Ski to Sea race goes from the snowy, but safe slopes of the Mount Baker Ski Area to the beach in Fairhaven.

The early Ski to Sea races included six venues. The first five were similar to what we see today with alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, running, road biking and canoeing. The canoeists went all the way to the delta of the Nooksack River where the baton was handed to a sailor, who maneuvered a Hobie Cat across Bellingham Bay to Marine Park.

Some years there was little or no wind, so the time for the sailors to finish was sometimes quite long. In 1990 the canoe leg of the race was shortened to end at Hovander Park in Ferndale, where a mountain biker took the baton and rode to Squalicum Harbor and handed off to a sea kayaker, who could paddle the final leg of the race across Bellingham Bay.

Each year the race committee evaluates the course, allowable equipment and venues to see if other changes are needed.

The future of the Ski to Sea Race may include switching the running and mountain bike legs of the race, but that could not happened until the completion of the Baker to Bay Trail from the Mount Baker Ski Area down to the Department of Transportation station.

Just like in 1911, we want the race to be part of a healthy local lifestyle and highlight the recreational opportunities and geographical diversity of Whatcom County. But now in a much safer racing environment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of weekly stories leading up to the May 25 Ski to Sea race that will give a behind-the scenes look into the largest annual community sporting event in Whatcom County. Each story will be written by a member of the Ski to Sea Race Committee. Second-year race director Pete Coy, who has been involved with the race for more than 30 years as an athlete and a volunteer, wrote this week’s entry. For previous stories, please visit TheBellinghamHerald.com/skitosea.

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