Volunteers, forest service crews rebuilding trail linked to century-old Mount Baker Marathon

An overgrown trail with a link to the Mount Baker Marathon, a storied race that occurred a century ago, is being cleared out and rebuilt as part of a Bellingham ultra-runner’s dream of launching a new version of the competition.

Daniel Probst knows first-hand why the Ridley Creek Trail needs a makeover. He and other runners attempting an epic run, hike and climb from Bellingham Bay to Mount Baker and back had to crawl under logs and clamber over trees, more than 30 of them, that had fallen across the trail.

Also, about half of the trail had turned into a creek bed and was nearly unrecognizable, he said. No wonder, then, that it took the runners two hours to travel 2 1/2 miles.

Probst spent months planning the marathon attempt from the Bellingham waterfront to Baker and back, which included the Ridley Creek Trail. The 3 1/2-mile route enters the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker Wilderness, and links up to Mazama Park.

It took four attempts for him to complete the 108-mile feat, which he did with two others in August.

Bad mountain weather thwarted two of the attempts, and Probst managed to summit during one of the other attempts but couldn’t finish the return run.

The founder of running group Cascade Mountain Runners, he is busy these days with his project to launch a new 100-mile footrace called the Mount Baker Ultra Marathon — part of his tribute to the Mount Baker Marathon, a competition that lasted from 1911 to 1913 and was the forerunner of the annual Ski to Sea race.

Probst said the Ridley Creek Trail was all that remained of the historic trail used in the original Mount Baker Marathon. His goal is to have his race include the trail, but he needs Congressional approval to do so because part of it is in wilderness. Until then, that part of the route will be different for his proposed race.

In the original Mount Baker Marathon, competitors raced from Bellingham to either Glacier or east of Deming by car or by train, and then ran 14 to 16 miles to the summit of Mount Baker before retracing their steps to Bellingham.

Runner Joseph Galbraith, a 29-year-old homesteader from Acme, won the race in its first year.

His family supports the idea of rebuilding the trail and being able to follow in his footsteps.

“We grew up hearing stories of the Mount Baker Marathon, a high point in our father and grandfather’s life. We look forward to an early summer hike on the trail where he raced,” said Edmonds resident Gail Galbraith Everett.

Natalie Everett, Gail’s daughter and Joseph’s grand-daughter, noted there could be other benefits.

“Daniel said ultra-marathons draw people from all over the world. It is a modest financial outlay for an ongoing financial return to the community. I like that aspect of it,” Natalie Everett said.

“It would be nice for our family to walk along the trail that our grandfather ran during the Mount Baker Marathon, and it would be nice for the local business and fitness communities, too,” she added. “The project keeps to the wholesome character of the community. We will be happy to be part of the community conversation about this idea as it takes shape. Out of the starting gate, we like it.”

And while the Ridley Creek Trail has remained open to the public despite its poor condition, the going hasn’t been easy.

The trail work, which started this year, is a combined effort of the U.S. Forest Service, Cascade Mountain Runners and the Washington Trails Association.

It included forest service crews using crosscut saws and axes to help clear out logs and trees on the trail; they couldn’t use chainsaws because part of the trail goes through wilderness, where motorized and mechanized equipment is banned unless circumstances are exceptional. There were about 50 downed trees and logs and more than 30 of them were 30 inches and larger, according to Mark Rikard, a seasonal worker with the U.S. Forest Service who served as crew lead.

“We would not have been able to get it done if I didn’t have such a skilled crew,” Rikard said of the eight to nine days it took for the project.

Forest service crews also put a log across the middle fork of the Nooksack River so volunteers and crews could cross because the previous bridge washed out shortly after 2003 and wasn’t replaced.

WTA contributed more than 400 volunteer hours on the trail, helping to brush it out, getting water to drain to stop erosion and starting the rebuild.

“This trail has been on the verge of being lost due to lack of maintenance,” said Arlen Bogaards, northwest regional manager for Washington Trails Association.

Cascade Mountain Runners volunteers also helped, contributing 288 hours, and the group has committed to finishing the rebuild. Trail volunteers came from afar, including Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., which Probst said showed their excitement.

Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, said the agency has the resources to maintain just half of the forest’s trail system so volunteer help is essential.

“We really appreciate all the efforts of all our partners. Without their help, there’s a lot of trails that would not get maintained on the forest,” Paull said.

Rebuilding the trail benefits more than hikers.

“It is the closest access to summit Mount Baker from Bellingham,” Probst said, noting it will save mountaineers the longer drive over state Highway 20 up to Baker Lake to access the climbing route.

As for the Ridley Creek Trail, that easier access could happen next summer — provided the temporary log bridge is maintained.

“We’re much farther ahead than we thought,” said Probst, who works at Trail Insight, a Bellingham-based company that makes a packable trail tool called the Trail Boss.

For Probst, the effort is about more than starting a new race.

He wants to showcase the area’s natural beauty, draw competitors from all over the world, revive the spirit of the original Mount Baker Marathon, and pull together a long-desired trail connecting Bellingham to Mount Baker, pointing out the latter has been a wish going back to a 1911 article about the marathon in what was then the Bellingham Daily Herald.

What draws Probst is the history of the original trail that opened the way for the original marathon.

“The story is absolutely amazing,” he said of the history he’s dug up through the Whatcom Museum and in microfilm at the library.

Turns out that a mountaineering club from Portland, Ore., was the impetus for construction in 1909 of what was then known as the Deming-Mount Baker Trail.

Sixty members of the Mazamas wanted to spend their summer outing once again on Mount Baker to further explore its entire southern slope. They were a well-to-do bunch, as their members included doctors and lawyers.

The locals wanted those recreation and tourism dollars so they pushed for the trail. The Deming community helped by contributing money and the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce was active in the effort to build a trail with foot logs and bridges, according to an account written by Charles Easton that Probst found.

Two years later, the first Mount Baker Marathon was run. A century later, Probst and two others spent 48 hours and 17 minutes completing their round-trip trek from Bellingham to Baker.

“None of this would have happened if they hadn’t come up here in 1909,” Probst said.