Let it Flow

Confessions of a Whatcom water geek


What: Whatcom Water Week

Where: Throughout Whatcom County


WHEN: Sept. 12-19
MORE: Events include photo contests, self-guided walking and biking tours, scavenger hunts, socially distanced beach cleanups, a virtual Run with the Chums, virtual hikes and beyond.

Info: http://www.whatcomwaterweeks.org

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

When it comes to building and maintaining trails through the precipitation-sculpted contours of the Pacific Northwest, water functions as one of the chief adversaries. 

If you are building a trail that needs to last more than a few weeks, then natural watercourses such as rivers, creeks, freshets and sloughs present obstacles that need to be studied closely and then surmounted with sufficient aplomb and ecologically congruent engineering.

If you are maintaining a trail to any degree of competency, then one of your top priorities is to make sure that surface water (in the form of rainfall, snowmelt or spring-fed runoff) gets funneled off the tread effectively at adequate enough intervals so that it doesn’t gain enough momentum and/or volume to become a damaging erosive force.

Essentially—as one of my dearest early mentors in the Forest Service likes to put it—when you build a trail on the west slope of the Cascade Range, you are excavating a channel where water will soon collect and cavort to variable degrees of catastrophe and inundation.

“A trail only stays a trail for as long as it stays dry,” she says, “but let that sucker get wet enough and your trail becomes a creek bed that can turn very quickly into a river.

“And once you’re in a river, then it’s time to start swimming.” 

Through many sloppy, mud-slathered seasons, I’ve learned the hard way that the prodigious amounts of water help endow our trail workers here in the Fern Belt with an uncanny but enduring appreciation for hydrology (and rubberized clothing).

You don’t have to be a rain lover to spend weeks on end trying to dig down to mineral soil through an eight-foot layer of gnarled tree roots, mouldering logs and squirrel midden duff while a creaseless downpour caresses your neck just a few degrees above freezing, but it helps.

That’s not to say I don’t get a hankering to step out of the local murk and go eat a bit of dust in drier climes every so often.

Alas, there have been many occasions over the years when I have gladly aerated my well-marinated gills in the parched, dusty expanses of the interior where the marked absence of water proves every bit as much and quite often even more adversarial than its fungal overabundance in our soggy neck of the woods.

During the 1996 trail season, for instance, I successfully absorbed one of the strangest, most meaningful and inexplicably sustained riparian interactions of my career—and didn’t see a single speck of rain for 27 consecutive days throughout.

It was midsummer and the daily temperature in the South Fork Salmon River canyon hovered between 100 and 110 degrees. 

To help beat the heat and avoid the afternoon rattlesnake onslaught, my co-leader and I implemented a 4am-1pm work schedule.

This adjustment worked like a charm but it meant waking up at 3am, which threw a sizable wrench into my established sleep-dream cycle.

Early in our hitch—during peak snowmelt in the mountains—the river roared at terminal velocity through the boulder-choked canyon so egregiously that many of us resorted to sign language and took to wearing earplugs. 

It wasn’t until the deluge slowed to a trickle that a few of us began to hear voices from people who weren’t really there. These audible hallucinations talked, laughed and screamed at each other at all hours. There was singing and chanting and drumming mixed in too.

Finally, as I laid awake in my tent listening to the river on our last night, I heard a garbled voice grow louder and louder until I finally understood it was calling my name. 

If you also want to be wowed by the vast array of our local waters—16 percent of Whatcom County’s 2,503 square miles consist of rivers, creeks or lakes—and get a better handle on who’s doing what to help protect one of our region’s most bountiful but increasingly precious natural resources, the water-loving folks at Whatcom Watershed Information Network are hosting an annual event that might be in your wheelhouse.

From Sept. 12-19, Whatcom Water Week 2020 will celebrate our local water resources by offering family-friendly events at multiple locations throughout the county where the general public can interact with and become better aware of businesses, nonprofit organizations, community groups, tribes and government agencies that are dedicated to the ongoing stewardship of our marine and freshwater resources.

From learning more about the City of Bellingham’s rain garden program to hiking through restored salmon habitat along the South Fork of the Nooksack River, to cleaning up local beaches, your thirst for local waters is bound to be slaked.

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