Since moving to Fidalgo Island last July I’ve immersed myself in my immediate surroundings: the park, town and shoreline locations that are minutes from home. We are a long 90 miles (145km) from the ocean, but it’s still a water-defined landscape; Fidalgo’s shores look out onto sounds, bays, channels, and more islands, and even the forests here are dotted with lakes.
If you head east off the island, it’s a very different landscape. As you mount a high, arcing bridge, overlapping layers of foothills and mountains appear in the distance. Agricultural flatlands spread out on either side of the road, to the north and south. The view ahead steals the show as rhythmic mounds of forested hills rise up and gradually crumple into the jagged, rocky folds of the North Cascade Range. That rough and rugged terrain was beckoning me a few months ago – but I’m no mountaineer, so on a quiet Tuesday in October, we headed east for a lowland walk in the Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National forest.
The goal was to meander along the East Bank Baker Lake Trail, an easy walk through the thick, coniferous forest that Baker River passes through as it divides into countless turquoise ribbons, braiding their way towards Baker Lake. The river’s namesake, Mt. Baker, or Koma Kulshan, is a young, glaciated volcano, and the third-highest mountain in the state, at 10,781 ft. (3286 m). Koma Kulshan’s lofty, somber face dominates many a vista in this region. You might think Baker River begins under a glacier on Mt. Baker, but it actually rises under Whatcom Peak, to the northeast. From there, the river cuts a deep valley southwest, flowing around Mt. Baker before emptying into Baker Lake.
Getting to the trail was harder than we thought it would be. The first part was simple – drive east past fields and small towns on State Route 20. Then, in the tiny hamlet of Birdsview, you leave civilization behind to follow Baker Lake Road for 26 miles (42 km). The problem was the final six miles, where the road is not paved, and barely maintained. We still have the cars we brought with us from New York City seven years ago, and neither one is appropriate for the rough, deeply pot-holed forest roads that usually lead to trailheads. It’s really a pickup truck, SUV and Subaru world here. The going was tedious as we crawled back and forth across the road, trying not to wreck the car’s suspension. Occasional glimpses of snowy Mt. Baker beckoned through dense curtains of towering trees, and eventually the painfully slow slog ended.
If you’re in the area:
The East Bank Baker Lake and Baker River Trails are about 115 (185km) miles from Seattle, and about 124 miles (200km) from Vancouver, BC. The trailhead is 64 rather slow miles from where I live. Once you arrive at the large parking lot, if it’s an off-season weekday, you may be all alone. Set out on the wide, flat trail among huge boulders and towering trees, and soon you’ll sense the river behind the trees. In half a mile a suspension bridge crosses the river. From there, the Baker Lake Trail continues down the river and then follows the lake edge, for a total of 14.5 miles one way. Along the trail you’ll find more bridges, and views of the snow-covered mountains high above that are the repositories for all this rushing water. If you don’t cross the first bridge you can continue straight upriver on the Baker River Trail, reaching a campground in 2.6 miles. It was so pleasant the day we were there, and there was so much to look at, that we didn’t get far at all. That was not the object. The point was to feel, hear, see, and smell this unique place, to fully sense the aliveness of one small corner of our planet.