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Venturing down the Nooksack: Rafting expedition offers unique experience

The town of Glacier sits in the shadow of Mount Baker on the west edge of North Cascades National Park.

The North Fork Nooksack River flows through the trees at a quick pace, fueled by the continuous snow melt from the mountains.

Rocks and boulders dragged down by the water rise up to form obstructions and narrow channels, churning the water into a froth to create rapids.

It is the only white water rafting opportunity in Whatcom County, a summer activity waiting to be conquered just an hour east of Bellingham along the Mount Baker Highway.

Don Martin, operations manager and river guide for River Recreation, said rafting in Washington is special because each river offers its own microclimate, from the deserts of central and eastern Washington to the lush forested locales of western Washington.

Martin, who has been navigating Washington rivers for 22 years, said the Nooksack River offers rafters sights of some of most beautiful scenery in Washington.

"Short of renting a helicopter, the river is the best way to view Mount Baker," he said.

Martin said awareness of rafting opportunities in Washington has dwindled since the closure of the Washington Tourism Bureau in 2011.

"I attribute it to the fact that Washington hasn't marketed itself as an adventure state," Martin said. "It's frustrating to try to buck the public perspective that we're all about the Space Needle and coffee."

River Recreation operates out of Monitor, Washington, just west of Wenatchee, and makes trips to the Nooksack every weekend and on weekdays when there are enough people registered. It runs from July to Aug. 15, when the salmon return for spawning.

Martin has had to market aggressively to keep revenue flowing and is puzzled by the lack of rafting awareness from Washington locals.

"There is so much of Washington you haven't seen if you aren't on the river," he said.

Paul Engel, owner and guide for Wild and Scenic River Tours, said most people think of Nooksack River as the canoe leg for the annual Ski-to-Sea race, but the river offers much more boating opportunities people aren't aware of.

The Nooksack is divided into three main sections: the North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork. The only section for rafting is the North Fork.

The 8-mile run starts with class three intermediate rapids (out of six classes) and settles into class-two rapids after 2 miles, opening up to the views of Baker.

Not just a rafting location, the Nooksack is also one of the few rivers that supports all five types of native salmon species - Chum, Coho, Chinook, Sockeye and Pink. Conservation efforts for salmon runs prevent any rafting after Aug. 15.

Martin partners with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association to educate rafters at the start of each trip.

Engel said a crowd pleasing section comes early in the trip at a series of rapids called the "nozzle," a constricted channel of fast-flowing water that drops riders deeper into the forested canyon.

"The Nooksack has a steep gradient and moves really fast," Engel said. "As a guide you have to be on your toes."

Engel leads expeditions down the Nooksack from May through August, though even as the weather starts to warm, the water stays cold. Engel said the snow melt is on a 12-hour cycle, meaning the water flowing through the river was fresh snow 12 hours previously.

Engel and Martin are required by the US Forest Service to proved wet suites, booties, life preserves and helmets to patrons as a part of their rafting permits. The glacial water makes the wet suits necessary where they might not be on other rivers.

The Nooksack is also common to flow changes made by new log formations in the river, Martin said. Both Martin and Engel send scout trips down the river at the beginning of the season to determine safety concerns.

At a section called Turtle Rock, Martin said logs tend to collect on the right side of the river. This creates "strainers," or places where subsurface debris can catch swimmers, trapping them underwater.

"The Nooksack is one of the most challenging to maneuver. There are big boulders and then a high log concentration," Martin said. "It's a technical river and we put our best guides on those trips."

Reach Jeffrey Graham at Jeffrey.graham@bellinghamherald.com.

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