Like the salmon that the Bellingham Traverse celebrates, race founder and director Todd Elsworth left his native Northwest two decades ago - but he returned home to Western Washington with a goal in mind: raise awareness about the iconic and endangered fish.
In 2002, he started the Traverse, a multi-sport endurance race that celebrates the life cycle of the salmon and demonstrates the natural and urban challenges that wild salmon face in their journey from native creeks and streams to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Entering its 13th year, the Traverse has grown into one of Whatcom County's most fun and challenging events, drawing hundreds of competitors and raising money for organizations that benefit salmon and their habitat such as the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the Whatcom Land Trust. With the addition of PeaceHealth as a major sponsor, the Traverse is expanding into other cities and now benefits Elsworth's other endeavor, Recreation Northwest, an organization that promotes exercise and environmental awareness. A Kids Traverse held every year at Civic Stadium is aimed at keeping the area's youth active and environmentally conscious.
"I wanted to continue to do what I enjoy, which is bringing people together and building community," Elsworth said in explaining how the idea for the Bellingham Traverse began to take shape. Elsworth said he was influenced in part by David James Duncan's 1983 novel "The River Why," about a young man's spiritual awakening and devotion to nature.
Elsworth graduated from Western Washington University in 1992, and for 10 years he was a self-described "ski bum," roving the country and teaching in middle schools and working in museums. In Portsmouth, N.H., he had been putting on events for bicyclists helping to raise money for a network of trails in that area.
"When I got back (to Bellingham), I wanted to put the race together," Elsworth said. "(Salmon) don't get the attention they deserve."
Much of the 37-mile Traverse route is along Bellingham's unique system of greenways. It can be run solo, in tandem, or as a relay with a team. The course includes running though Boulevard Park to Fairhaven, mountain biking at Lake Padden; road biking through the Lake Samish area and Chuckanut Drive; a trail run through the Chuckanut Community Forest; and kayaking in Bellingham Bay. Every race ends with a "team trek" so that teammates finish together at Boundary Bay Brewery, another major sponsor.
Contestants call themselves "spawners" in reference to the salmon's grueling upstream reproductive ritual.
"It's a metaphorical journey," Elsworth said. "We work to show off what great natural resources we have."
The team trek, Elsworth said, aims to foster community spirit.
"It's really fun to come across together; it makes for a good time," he said. "This has a great community feel. It's hard to keep people from being competitive - there is that element to it - but we often hear that this is the most fun event in Bellingham."
As the Traverse has grown in popularity and scope, expanding to Olympia and next year to Winthrop, Elsworth said the effort that it takes to operate every year has grown too.
Dozens of volunteers must be recruited and trained, permits must be obtained and contestants must be registered.
Elsworth said he sees it as six races in one, and "each event is in and of itself its own business." He offered praise for race volunteers and workers, singling out April Claxton, executive manager at Recreation Northwest. Funding provided by PeaceHealth allowed Elsworth to hire Tyler Mitchell as a race director for last September's race - a move that let Elsworth participate for the first time.
"Last year was the first time I got to do it," he said. "It took me 41/2 hours, but I finished with a smile on my face."
A new Bellingham Traverse logo, reminiscent of a canned salmon label from the 1930s - and using Coast Salish-style art - incorporates the salmon's historical importance to the Pacific Northwest and its relationship to people.
"The symbolism is the human hand feeding the fish," he said.
The spelling of Todd Elsworth's name was corrected Dec. 23, 2013.
Contact Robert Mittendorf at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-756-2805.
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The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for an organization we should salute next year, please email email@example.com.