The first time I heard about the Mt. Baker Marathon, I was at the tail end of finagling a 200-foot tape measure across a characteristically log- and boulder-choked span of the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River.
There were three of us up there surveying potential trail bridge locations that morning: a longtime Forest Service employee, a longtime member of Backcountry Horsemen of America (Whatcom Chapter) and me—the new guy.
Struggling hard through thick brush and heavy rain on the clay-slick slope of the riverbank, I overheard the Backcountry Horsemen guy tell the Forest Service guy that he’d just discovered another long-abandoned section of something he referred to as: “Galbraith’s race trail.”
Unaware of the topo-historical significance of that particular reference, I could only assume he was referring to some sort of mountain bike competition on Galbraith Mountain.
“Sounds like a blast,” I panted, thinking it would make me sound tough. “Where do I sign up?”
“You can sign up for anything you want anywhere you need to, son,” the horse guy said. “But it won’t be for the Mt. Baker Marathon.”
“Mt. Baker what?” I asked, even more disoriented.
“Marathon!” the Forest Service guy chimed in. “A car and train-assisted footrace all the way from Bellingham to the top of the volcano and back. First one happened in 1911. But it only lasted three years, until one of the contestants fell into a crevasse. A tough-as-nails stump rancher by the name of Joe Galbraith won it the first year. And the old trail he took came right up through the valley here.”
“Wow,” I said, envisioning a calamitous stampede of Model Ts and steam-powered locomotives barreling hell-bent through the hinterlands followed by all sorts of crazy, wilderness-induced mayhem. “That must have been quite the grueling ordeal.”
“You still wanna sign up?” wisecracked the horse guy.
“No thanks!” I said, setting up to chuck the tape measure over yet another gigantic, impregnable jumble of logs. “Think I’ll stick to Ski to Sea.”
Yet, impressive as this impromptu bit of schooling was, it only served to pique my curiosity about the Mt. Baker Marathon, and local history at large.
Not only did I come back into town a wetter and a wiser man that day, but I was also far more appreciative of the myriad ways our region’s distinctive topography has shaped, and continues to shape, the cultural fabric of our community.
Whether you’re a multi-sport enthusiast, a classic car/train aficionado or just an average, everyday quality-of-life seeker out on the street/trail/ocean, chances are more than good you will come away from local filmmaker Todd Warger’s new docudrama about the Mt. Baker Marathon, The Mountain Runners, with your knowledge of and appreciation for the wondrous place you inhabit irrevocably enhanced.
The characters are strong. William B. Davis, a.k.a. “Cigarette Man” from X Files, plays Mount Baker Club President Henry Engberg. The narrative is gripping, and includes interviews with world-renowned ultra-marathoner Kissy Moehl and record-setting “speed alpinist” Chad Kellogg. And the vintage set pieces—including restored Model Ts and a century-old steam train from Australia—are epic.
Even if you’ve read every article, seen every photograph and listened to every story about the Mt. Baker Marathon a hundred times over, the vivid, cross-generational perspective that The Mountain Runners brings to life is bound to leave you breathless, inspired and wanting to know more.
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