By Lauren Fritzen
Coming up on Saturday, September 19 is an annual event that brings together outdoor recreationists of all sorts — from hardcore soloists to fun-loving relay teams — to honor the lifecycle of our indigenous salmon and celebrate community. The 14th annual Vital Choice Bellingham Traverse covers 37 miles of Bellingham trails, parks and waterways, with enough options to entice athletes of all levels.
I’ve participated in the traverse since its inception, and from my competitor/volunteer perspective, this event embodies what I love most about Whatcom County: a great community embracing its amazing natural setting by getting outside to enjoy it and working hard to preserve it.
The race, offered by Recreation Northwest, starts and finishes at Boundary Bay Brewery, with a 5.5-mile Greenways run to Lake Padden, a 6-mile mountain bike on the Padden trails, an 18-mile road bike around Lake Samish to Fairhaven, a 3.4-mile trail run in the Chuckanut Community Forest, a 3.6-mile paddle on Bellingham Bay, and a short team trek from Cornwall Beach back to Boundary Bay.
Multiple divisions and categories make this one of the most flexible, user-friendly sporting events around. In honor of the salmon mascot, the divisions are Chinook (solo), Coho (tandem), and Chum (relay). Within each division are categories such as male, female, mixed, masters, family and company. Company teams are creatively categorized as healers, bean counters, brewers, techies, etc.
Speaking of flexibility, teams can have up to three runners on the Greenways leg, and the kayak options are nearly endless. Recreation Northwest’s Executive Director, Todd Elsworth, puts it like this: “Our rules are Be SAFE, Have FUN and Show RESPECT. If you’re doing that and using human-powered equipment, you’re good to go. We’ve had a guy on a unicycle, a 14-person canoe, and a team carrying a keg the whole way.”
The Bellingham Traverse is Elsworth’s creation. “After my first solo race in 2001, I wanted to offer the same experience here in Bellingham. The design of the course is to offer an endurance experience for one person — within reason. The tandem and relay teams are an inclusive way to get the community together for a day of fun. It’s been great to see people graduate from a team to a tandem to the goal of doing it solo. The course is there; how aggressive you want to be is up to you. Our approach of ‘big fun’ is the foundation of the success of the traverse. It is one big rolling party that starts and finishes with our founding partner, Boundary Bay Brewery,” he says.
Elsworth launched the first traverse with an aim to raise money for local environmental groups. There have been a number of worthy beneficiaries over the years, and the event now serves as a fundraiser for Recreation Northwest itself, whose goal is to promote outdoor recreation and bring people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where they play. Recreation Northwest’s current stewardship effort is a trail relocation project in Fairhaven Park. Working in partnership with the City of Bellingham and a host of volunteers, Recreation Northwest is connecting the park with the recently purchased Chuckanut Community Forest.
The other beneficiary of the traverse is, appropriately, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA). For the second year, Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics is the event’s title sponsor, donating a significant amount of funds to NSEA. In addition, Recreation Northwest partners with NSEA by promoting the association’s work parties to improve salmon habitat.
I have the dubious distinction of being the last finisher in the inaugural traverse, held in 2002. My husband thought it would be a fun way to stretch our athletic edges a bit, so we entered as a tandem team with him doing the road run and mountain bike, followed by me doing the road bike and trail run. We joined forces in a double kayak for the paddle to Cornwall Beach. Our team name — “His Idea” — hints at my trepidation. Long story short, I stopped to help a friend and fellow road biker fix her flat tire, something neither of us had done before. (Insider tip: practice this skill before the race!). It cost us some serious time, but we got a hero’s welcome at the finish line and that first beer at Boundary Bay tasted like nectar of the gods.
The traverse’s inclusive, all-in-good-fun vibe keeps me coming back. Since that first year, I’ve either raced on a team or volunteered at one of the transition points along the course. Either role promises unexpected challenges and great stories to share over victory pints at the finish line.
This year I’m on a women’s master team dubbed “We’ll Bring the Awesome, You Bring the Sauce.” It should be an epic day, but I’m pretty sure my favorite part will come at the end: after the kayak leg, all team members join up for a short trek to the finish line at Boundary Bay. The brewery will be serving Traverse Red Ale in the beer garden on Railroad Street, followed by an awards ceremony and live music. Now that’s awesome sauce!