With a thundering boom from an explosive charge that serves as a starting gun, hundreds of cross-country skiers sliced through the snow to kick off this year's Ski to Sea race Sunday morning, May 25.
About 450 teams each with eight racers are competing in the seven-leg race, which covers 93 miles from the snowy hills of the Mt. Baker Ski Area down to the beach at Marine Park in Fairhaven.
The first leg of the race is the cross-country skiing, which started at about 7:45 a.m. at the ski area, followed by downhill skiing and snowboarding and a pounding 8-mile run down Mount Baker Highway.
The Nooksack River was down about 2 feet from Saturday, so race organizers warned paddlers to watch out for snags. Those snags can divert a canoe or overturn it. Rescue crews already have been busy rescuing a few racers who have been dumped into the cold water.
The first finishers are expected to paddle their kayaks into Marine Park after 1 p.m. The conditions in Bellingham Bay, always a challenge this time of year, were good as of the pre-race meeting. Despite some wind, the water was fairly calm. Organizers were planning to keep the traditional zig-zag course but warned racers that it might have to change if the wind kicks up. If that happens, the race will be a straight shot from the start line to the finish at Marine Park.
As of the start of the cross-country biking leg (formerly mountain bike), the Boundary Bay men were in first place with a commanding lead. They were followed by Team Aeromech and then Beavers Tree Service in third. Beavers was leading the Whatcom County Open division. The Boundary Bay women were in 11th overall and leading all women's teams. GetSimpleBox.com was in fifth overall and leading the Masters division. Bank of the Pacific Veterans were sixth overall and leading the Veterans division.
After years of problems with the timing systems, everything appeared to be working smoothly Sunday.
"No snags at all," Race Director Pete Coy said as the first racers began the kayak leg. "Let's hope the day continues like this this."
While it was raining along the course at times, it was nothing like last year's downpours, which made conditions miserable in many spots. Those on the mountain had it much easier this year, with no rain at the start of the race. Last year the cross-country skiers struggled to stay on their skis as many slid out of control, while the runners tried to huddle together to stay warm; they had no shelter from the pounding rain.
The Boundary Bay men's team includes some members of the former Barron Heating dynasty. For the first time in 23 years, Barron Heating does not have a team in this year's race. Owner John Barron said he just felt it was time to pass the baton, so to speak, to another team.
Barron Heating had dominated recently, winning the past three years. During one stretch last decade, a Barron Heating Open or Masters team had won six out of seven years.
Members of the Barron Heating team did find a new sponsor, running under Boundary Bay.
John Barron said when they first started sponsoring a team, it involved little more than paying the entrance fee. Over the years landing high-caliber athletes and organizing the team has become more work, but it's a job he said he's enjoyed.
"It's become an extremely personal thing to do every year, and that's what I'll miss most about doing this," Barron said, adding that meeting the athletes and hearing their stories is something he cherishes.
As a reminder, Mount Baker Highway east of Glacier will be closed Sunday morning to make way for the racers. Expect other detours and temporary closures along the race course.
Viewpoints can be found at various race points. Check the leg information in the official Ski to Sea guide to find a spot.
For those who just want to celebrate with the racers, head down to the Fairhaven Festival, which runs 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the historic district. Live music starting at noon and the beer garden are among the festival's highlights.
Parking is nearly impossible, so it's recommended fairgoers take the shuttle run by Whatcom Transportation Authority. Park for free at Western Washington University C lot (by the Wade King Recreation Center) and take Route 14. Buses run every 15-30 minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Or hop the Route 401 bus, which starts at the downtown Bellingham Railroad Avenue station, goes along State Street and down to Fairhaven every 30 minutes from 7:40 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Cost is $1; all valid WTA passes accepted.