When it comes to Whatcom County, nothing is more iconic than Mount Baker.
At 10,781 feet it’s the third tallest mountain in the state, a snowcapped dome visible from much of the county, a constant presence, and, for some people, a sacred one.
Mount Baker is part of a field of about 20 volcanoes that arose, erupted and were worn down by glaciers over some 4 million years, says Dave Tucker, a geology research associate at Western Washington University who helped start the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center. The largest eruption, about 1.1 million years ago in the vicinity of today’s Mt. Baker Ski Area, rivaled the blast that created the basin for Crater Lake in Oregon.
Today, a ridge of craggy peaks west of Baker is called the Black Buttes. Between 500,000 and 280,000 years ago, the Black Buttes volcano grew into a mountain considerably larger than Baker today. In geological time, Baker is a baby, perhaps 40,000 years old.
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Baker’s summit, called Carmelo Crater, grew quiet about 12,000 years ago, but the mountain has kept busy. About 6,500 years ago, a major blast created Sherman Crater, just south of the summit and still the site of escaping steam and gases.
A massive mudflow once poured down the middle fork of the Nooksack River, reaching beyond Nugent’s Corner, and magma nearly reached the surface at Sherman Crater in 1843 and a large steam eruption resulted. It happened again in 1975, when a large quantity of muddy steam rose high into the sky, turning much of the ice-filled Sherman Crater into a steaming lake. An eruption was feared, and the mountain and Baker Lake were closed for the summer. In other words, Baker is cooking below the surface.
That hasn’t kept Baker from being a magnet for outdoor recreation, including the zany and nearly fatal Mount Baker Marathon, held three times from 1911 to 1913. Today’s Mt. Baker Ski Area has hosted the internationally famous Legendary Banked Slalom for snowboarders since 1985, and claims the national record for snowfall, with 95 feet of it over the 1998-99 season.
It’s all enough to make Western Washington University the ninth best university for skiing, according to Freeskier Magazine.
The mountain’s English name, the story goes, was assigned by British explorer George Vancouver to honor Joseph Baker, an underling who first saw the mountain while they sailed into Dungeness Bay. Two years earlier, Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper named the peak La gran montaña del Carmelo.
Before Europeans arrived, Native American tribes in the area had different names for the mountain, and often different names for specific parts of the mountain. According to Allan Richardson, an expert on the Nooksack language, Kulshan was the Lummi name for the mountain, but Nooksacks applied the term to the mountain’s alpine slopes rich with berries and wild game.
Richardson questions some people’s assertion that the Indian name for the mountain was Koma Kulshan, saying confusion and the mixing of several Indian terms may be to blame.