Todd Elsworth | 02/18/2014 | Insider Blogs |   

Up Whatcom Creek - Without a Paddle

Whatcom Creek runs through downtown Bellingham and empties into Bellingham Bay at Maritime Heritage Park. "For over 10,000 years, Whatcom Creek has tumbled four miles into its estuary at Bellingham Bay. As early as 8,000 years ago, Coast Salish peoples used the mouth of Whatcom Creek to land canoes, camp, fish and gather shellfish. The word “Whatcom” (Whatcoom or Xwtqwem) means noisy or rumbling water in the language of the Lummi Nation."(1)

For a slice of nature in downtown, try hiking the Whatcom Creek Trail. We set out on a Friday afternoon to see what we'd find on a clear, crisp February day. We would witness how man and nature have worked to live together in this unique landscape as we strolled along.


At the bottom of the falls, the creek empties into the tidal zone where people gather along the shores to enjoy the bounty. During the salmon run season, people line the banks of the creek, dropping their lines into the rapids. Birds also gather here to enjoy the scenery and also search for food. (Okay, they probably aren't here for the former, but I like to think that they have a little space in their bird brains to appreciate their surroundings.) Seals and other wildlife are also often seen in the water and on the stream banks.


There are walking paths (wheelchair accessible) that line both sides of the creek. "Most of the trails along Whatcom Creek are compacted crushed rock, with a wheelchair accessible boardwalk from Holly Street to the hatchery and pavement around the salmon hatchery. The sections on Prospect Avenue and Grand Avenue at the Whatcom County Courthouse are paved. All users stay on designated trails, please. Bikers yield to pedestrians." (2)

Along the walk are interpretive signs to help people become more informed of their surroundings- hopefully instilling an appreciation for the natural beauty that exists in this urban setting and the role that the vegetation plays.


There are many people who care about salmon in the Northwest. Evidence of this commitment can be seen in the recently opened (Bellingham Technical College) Perry Center for Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences: "Bellingham Technical College has run the fish hatchery at the mouth of Whatcom Creek in Maritime Heritage Park since 1978, after the former wastewater treatment plant was converted. Officials said when they took over the hatchery, there were no natural salmon runs in the creek. Today, it has multiple healthy runs of salmon species, according to BTC." (3)


In the fall, this area is bustling with activity as the salmon try to make their way upstream. Below is the short ladder for those salmon on their own, uninterrupted, journey.


Volunteers and staff are onsite to help take the chosen ones and put them in a tube to deliver them to a holding pen. In the fall you can witness salmon hanging out, pointing their noses up the creek, trying to make their way home.


Like the salmon, we headed upstream. Instead of a ladder to climb, we were afforded stairs that hug the hillside and offer great views of the top of the falls. Crossing over Dupont Street, we headed into the trees and began our walk on the Wayside Trail. The first piece of visible art is Eagle Totem (Mike McRory, 2000, cedar) poking its' head out of the bushes- with a frog holding on to his strong chest.


Follow the Salmon Art Trail (PDF) (see below) and enjoy the artwork that has been integrated into the landscape.

Salmon Art Trail Walking with the Returning Salmon (Steve Seymour, 1997, steel) sculptures gives an interesting perspective as you make your way along the wide trail.


The fish leap over the natural barriers as they make their way upstream.


The sculptures blend into the surroundings so well, that the unobservant passerby may not even notice their presence.


Beautiful creatures in their own right, Seymour, does a great job of capturing their features and casting them in steel. You can imagine them fighting their way up the creek below- determined to reach their ultimate destination.


We chose the shortest loop, taking a right before crossing over Grand Ave, and headed back downstream. Our daughters, passing underneath Pickett Bridge, were simply enjoying each others company-- as we watched the sun descend towards the horizon-- signaling the end of another fantastic day in this beautiful corner of the world.


Explorers in their own right, the girls saw the path less traveled and made their way up the installation Steel Salmon Going to Salmon Woman (Steve Seymour, 1997, steel). This is one of the few places where I allow my small hiking companion the freedom of going "off-trail".


The girls got to have the experience of walking with these fantastic fish as they make their way up the man-made stream bed. Or, maybe they just saw it as a fun shortcut!


With smiles on their faces, they made their way to the headwaters of the artistic installation- passing the iconic northwest symbol on their short stint up the path.


At the top, they looked up and admired the Salmon Woman Totem (Lummi House of Tears Carvers, 1997, cedar) that stands proudly on the upper banks.


At the base of the totem is a dedication to the community for the support provided for salmon recovery in our region. "Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring self sustaining wild salmon runs to Whatcom County. The Northwest Salmon Recovery Fund was established to support NSEA’s salmon recovery efforts. The names of major contributors are engraved on river rocks." (4)

SalmonTotemzoom The top of the totem has an eagle perched on Salmon Woman's head. You can see her cedar-bark hat in the bottom of the photo protruding upward into the eagle's wings.

If you have the time, you can walk further up the Whatcom Creek- all the way up to Explore the Hidden Treasures in Whatcom Falls Park. See you OUT THERE!


(1) City of Bellingham/Parks and Recreation

(2) City of Bellingham/Parks and Recreation

(3) Bellingham Herald

(4) NSEA plaque at the base of the totem.

        We acknowledge that Whatcom County is located on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples. They cared for the lands that included what we’d call the Puget Sound region, Vancouver Island and British Columbia since time immemorial. This gives us the great obligation and opportunity to learn how to care for our surrounding areas and all the natural and human resources we require to live. We express our deepest respect and gratitude for our indigenous neighbors, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.
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