Whatcom Magazine

Iconic Whatcom: By any name, Birch Bay appeals to fun- and nature-lovers

The lure of Birch Bay has been a constant through the centuries, from the days when Semiahmah, Lummi and Nooksack tribal members enjoyed the bay’s natural bounty, to recent years of rapid growth, with plans for a new park and a walkway in the offing.

The expansive bay stands about two and half miles wide, with some 19 miles of marine shoreline. That’s a lot of room for wading, walking, bird-watching, sunset gazing, kite flying and sandcastle building.

Lummis and the Semiahmah, who had villages on the bay, called the area “Ts’awex,” pronounced “Ts-a-wuk” and meaning “raft.” Spanish explorers named it “Ensenada de Garzon” in the late 1700s, but the British soon followed and claimed the land as their own.

Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, a member of Capt. George Vancouver’s exploration that stopped at Birch Bay in 1792, gave the bay its current name for the many black birch trees along shore. Menzies’ name, by the way, lives on in several other species, notably the Douglas fir ( Pseudotsuga menziesii).

Settlers began filtering through the area in the 1870s. Birch Bay grew slowly; its first post office opened in 1881, but lasted only a decade. Logging and farming held sway, and tourism got a boost in the 1920s with the rise of better roads and more automobiles. Summer cottages, primitive resorts and a requisite dance hall sprang up to better serve visitors.

Growth quickened after World War II, with more cottages, restaurants and such tourist-haven attractions as a small amusement park, a merry-go-round, miniature golf and a funhouse. Meanwhile, Birch Bay State Park provided traditional seaside fun, with a camping park, more than a mile of salwater beach, and views of the Cascade Mountains and the Canadian Gulf Islands.

The opening of Interstate 5 made it easier for motorists to quickly travel elsewhere, so tourism dwindled at Birch Bay. But residential growth a few decades later brought new life to Birch Bay, which grew faster than any other part of Whatcom County during the 1990s.

With growth has come change. An $11 million project in the works will install a raised berm along Birch Bay Drive to protect the road from flooding, to improve drainage, and to serve as a pedestrian walkway. Also, the county agreed last year to purchase four acres at 7954 Birch Bay Drive, along the shoreline, for a new regional park and community center.

Meanwhile, a steady drumbeat of community events attracts people to Birch Bay. Upcoming events include a kite festival June 20-21, a sandcastle competition July 18-19, a “roll back weekend” with vintage cars and classic rock ’n’ roll Aug. 1-2, a music festival Aug. 15-16, the annual Discovery Days parade and festival Aug. 29-30, the Ring of Fire Hope on the beach next New Year’s Eve, and the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day, so people can start 2016 with a brisk dunk in the bay.