Canoeists readying for the Ski to Sea race Sunday, May 24, had better prepare their paddling muscles.
Unless there’s a downpour on Saturday, the Nooksack River is expected to run low and slow this year. Little snowpack in the mountains this past winter has meant little spring snowmelt to feed the Nooksack.
How slow has the river been flowing, according to race organizers who have been keeping an eye on conditions for racers?
“It’s almost like being in a lake. There’s not a lot of current pulling them,” said Dave Schwab, one of the chairs of the canoe exchange.
Race Director Pete Coy added: “That’s called the Nooksack Creek.”
Ski to Sea is a seven-leg relay race that starts at Mt. Baker Ski Area and covers roughly 99 1/2 miles.
Little snow in the mountains didn’t affect just the Nooksack River portion of the race this year. Organizers had to scramble to replace the cross-country and downhill ski legs — the first two links in the relay — with an alpine run to start the race and a mountain bike leg to end the competition.
About 350 eight-person teams are expected to race this year, which is notably fewer than the usual 500.
Crews are readying the courses, and racers will be able to practice on them Saturday afternoon.
“They’re all well-prepared,” Coy said. “They’re going to be pretty exciting courses, especially the two new ones.”
The 18 1/2-mile canoe leg goes from Riverside Park in Everson to Hovander Homestead Park outside Ferndale.
Because the river is so low this year, canoes will be staged on the sandbar in the river at Riverside Park instead of the grass. And once on the river, canoeists will need to look out for trees and logs sticking out of the water, but Coy said safety boats also will be stationed around areas that could pose a bit more danger. Overall, though, the slow-rolling Nooksack likely will be safer on race day than it has been in the past.
Elite racers who already have run the course this year saw their time increase by 30 minutes, according to Coy.
“The Nooksack River is the the lowest I’ve ever seen it in the month of May,” he said.
That means less-experienced recreational teams might be on the river quite a bit longer, creating a domino effect that would set the rest of the competition behind schedule. That’s also a concern because race organizers want to get kayakers off Bellingham Bay in case afternoon winds make the bay too choppy.
To curb that, Coy is preparing an early release of competitors in the next leg, which is cross-country biking. The rider at Hovander would get another timing chip and be sent off, if his or her team hasn’t come in by around 3:30 p.m. The times would be added once the canoeists finish.
Coy said he did an early release for 12 teams last year. This year, he’s prepared to do so for 150 teams.
Also new this year, the racers’ bibs will all be white instead of color-coded by division.
That’s because a number of teams were switching divisions late in the game, according to Coy.
“It’s all we could do with things changing so quickly,” he said, acknowledging that change might frustrate some racers who won’t know if they’re passing someone in their division.
Elite athletes usually know each other by sight because they compete against each other in other races, Coy said.
Another tricky part of the race, at least when it comes to Mother Nature, is the roughly five-mile kayak leg on Bellingham Bay. Afternoon winds have forced race organizers to shorten or cancel the leg in past years.
But that isn’t expected to be a problem this year, with a forecast calling for wind speed of 6 to 7 mph out of the southwest on race day, Coy said.
It’s expected to be mostly cloudy at Mt. Baker Ski Area with a calm wind on Sunday, and mostly cloudy with a high near 66 in Bellingham.