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Ski to sea tradition broken after 46 straight years

Kyra Yanny, a cross country ski racer for the team "IM NOT TIRED" competes in the first leg of Ski to Sea. // Photo by Hailey Hoffman 2019

The beloved Whatcom County race has been canceled amid COVID-19.

By Jordan Stone

After 46 straight years of competition, the Memorial Day weekend Ski to Sea was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. 

While the streak may be over, Ski to Sea has evolved over those years, enjoying a rich history that can be traced all the way back to the early 20th century.

The Ski to Sea race is a multi-sport relay race that starts on Mount Baker and traverses 93 miles of Whatcom County before reaching the finish line in the Bellingham Bay, said Anna Rankin, executive director of Whatcom Events, the nonprofit that puts on the race.

The race begins with the cross-country ski leg, then the downhill ski or snowboard, followed by running, then road biking, before moving to the canoe leg, followed by mountain biking, and finishing with kayaking. Ski to Sea provides a full race map on their website.

Beginning as a small community event, Ski to Sea has blossomed into one of Bellingham and Whatcom County’s main attractions, said Jeff Jewell, a historian who works at the Whatcom Museum.

“Well, it’s our biggest event,” Jewell said. “It’s bigger than any other thing happening. It also spreads our name all over the world.

Jewell was not exaggerating by saying “all over the world.” 

During the 2019 Ski to Sea, there were teams from four different countries aside from the United States and Canada, Anna Rankin said. In some years, they have had even more than that.

“There have been times where we have had over a dozen different countries represented,” Rankin said.

In 2019, Ski to Sea had 2,233 people participate across 419  teams, Rankin said. However, this staggering number is not what solidified the event as part of Bellingham’s identity.

“Nothing made that more cemented than we had to cancel because of the pandemic,” Rankin said. “People were sending me emails to issue refunds, and they came with so many personal stories. People that were doing it for 40 years without interruption.”

The festival that has accompanied the race has evolved over those 40 years, and well before. It began in the 1920s, before halting due to the Great Depression, Jewell said. It was recreated as the Blossom Time festival, which ran until a few years after the first Ski to Sea race. It has since been replaced by The Historic Fairhaven Festival.

“The Historic Fairhaven Festival grew out of the kayak finish line at Marine Park,” Hillary Friedrich, chair of the Fairhaven Festival, said. “Spectators went up to the Fairhaven Village to celebrate and the HFA had the idea to start a festival.”

Not only has the festival evolved from deep in Bellingham’s history, but the race itself has as well.

“It harkened back to an event known as the Mount Baker Marathon, which started in 1911,” Jewell said. “The marathon is a wonderful amalgamation of getting to the mountain, running over the mountain and down to the other side.”

One catch of the marathon was that to get to the mountain, you either had to get there by car or train. The race was canceled after 1913, because one of the participants had to be rescued after falling into a crevasse, Jewell said.

Jewell himself has participated in the event, doing the running leg one year and the road biking twice.

“I really want to do it again,” Jewell said. “I’m going to have to find a senior team and do it.”

Of all the things that Ski to Sea is known for, Rankin’s favorite story is one that may come as a surprise.

“Last year, this woman contacted me that her girlfriend was on one of the firefighting teams, and that she was doing the cross-country ski leg,” Rankin said. “She wanted to propose to her when she came off of the leg, so we helped organize getting her on the snow, so right when her girlfriend came off the snow, she got down on a knee and proposed in front of a lot of people. It was really, really awesome.”

Rankin hopes that moments like these return in 2021.

“I’m just really keeping my fingers crossed that we can have a race in 2021,” Rankin said. “It was just heartbreaking to break up such a long-standing tradition that meant so much to other people.” 

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