by Joe Meche
A pastoral morning at Whatcom Falls in Bellingham, something you would see on a walk described in the article. Photo: CelebrateBig.com
The basic concept of realizing a sense of place is to locate any space that offers a feeling to you that is beyond the mere geography of the location itself. In the 36 years that I’ve lived in Bellingham, no other place has captured that feeling for me as much as Whatcom Creek. From Scudder Pond, across Electric Avenue from Bloedel-Donovan Park, and three miles downstream to its mouth on the Bellingham waterfront, the creek holds a special place for me. Except for the flood control gates that regulate the level of Lake Whatcom, the creek flows the same as it always has − unrestrained. This waterway is a major part of the history of the city itself and the wildlife corridor it provides through the heart of Bellingham is at times extraordinarily active, yet always comforting.
Few cities of this size can boast of an active salmon stream bisecting a densely populated core and flowing year round to saltwater.
The stream has been at the forefront of the efforts of numerous individuals and organizations to maintain the health of this riparian corridor despite the continuing growth of the city around it. What was often used as conduit for waste has now become a showpiece for the healing power of natural places in the human psyche. On the many walks I’ve made along any part of Whatcom Creek, I often forget that I’m in the middle of one of Washington’s largest cities.
When I first moved to Bellingham, one of the first outings to explore my new neighborhood led me right to the old sandstone bridge and the Upper Falls at Whatcom Falls Park. The foresight of concerned citizens from the early part of the last century was commendable. Equally commendable is the continued effort of like-minded people in today’s fast-paced society to maintain this vital facsimile of wilderness within a sometimes chaotic world. The impression that the area made on me then has only increased over the past 36 years. In that time I’ve recorded almost 120 species of birds and a good list of mammal species along the creek, so it appears that wildlife has given its own inimitable stamp of approval.
Trail map of Whatcom Falls Park and Whatcom Creek in Bellingham.
On the last Sunday in May as part of my ongoing efforts to share this resource, I will lead a group of enthusiastic and hardy bird watchers and nature enthusiasts on the Third Annual May Day Meander/Whatcom Creek Walk. This walk along the entire length of the creek is a hands-on interpretive walk to increase the awareness of this shared treasure and point out the role the creek plays in our collective hearts and minds. The healing power of the natural world becomes evident as soon as you leave the confines of your vehicle and hear the sounds of red-winged blackbirds just down the trail.
As on past walks, we will begin the day at the Scudder Pond parking area off Electric Avenue and end the six-hour trek at the Holly Street bridge over Whatcom Creek. While I don’t expect to see all of the bird species I’ve recorded on the creek, we will see a significant number of birds, including some of the early neotropical migrants. The early courtship/breeding/nesting season will be well underway and avian activity will be noticeable. Weather has been perfect on the first two walks and I expect another glorious day this year.
From the beginning to end of the trek, we will be surrounded by bird song. The urban wetland of Scudder Pond attracts numerous species that rely on the nesting habitat the pond affords plus the availability of a diversity of food. As the weather warms toward summer, flying insects in the open space above the pond attract three species of swallows, while other species glean insects from the leaves of the budding flora surrounding the cattail marsh. The increased activity of nest-building will be a pleasant reminder that we’ve made it past winter once again and that spring has finally returned.
When we leave the open space of Scudder Pond behind and enter the wooded area of Whatcom Falls Park, the change will be perceptible. By this time of year, the trail will be covered by a canopy mixed with the new green of deciduous trees and the towering evergreens of Douglas fir and western red cedar. As we leave the main trail and continue along side trails to check for nesting barred owls, we will begin to hear and feel the sounds of moving water. After we pass the Derby Pond, the soothing sounds of moving water will be replaced by the increasing roar of falling water.
An American Dipper creek-side, working hard to find dinner. Photo: Terry Sohl.
From the bridge at the Upper Falls we will look for nesting American dippers, which contribute greatly to the unique nature of Whatcom Creek. Dippers are birds of mountain streams and while this three-mile creek is far from the mountains, it still provides enough of a facsimile for these birds to stay around throughout the year. The dipper is unlike any other bird and to have them nesting in the heart of Bellingham is a rare treat. There have been as many as four confirmed nests between the main falls and the whirlpool downstream, but no one really knows how many other nests might exist in the deeper, hidden recesses of the creek.
As the trail meanders along the creek and through the dense forest, eyes and ears will be on alert for any number of birds that might be on the hunt to feed hungry nestlings. From barred owls and Cooper’s hawks to the pileated woodpeckers and ospreys that nest near St. Clair Park, activity should be consistent with the season.
The area that was devastated by the pipeline explosion in June of 1999 continues to recover and is flourishing with new growth.
In this area is also the Middle Falls, which is as far as salmon can travel upstream on the creek.
After traversing the area of the burnout, we’re forced back to reality by the need to cross the busy intersection at Woburn Street. But there’s no need to worry since we’ll be back on the trail and the soothing sound of the creek in no time. Between Woburn and the interstate is a stretch of the creek that has been the focus of habitat restoration by the city’s parks department and other stream enhancement organizations. The Red Tail Reach is a classic example of the cooperative efforts that are an integral part of the feeling of community that embraces this creek.
The trail from Red Tail Reach goes underneath a busy freeway and takes us along a few blocks of city streets before connecting with the lower creek trail. Still, the moving water speaks volumes of a sense of place that this creek provides for anyone who needs it. Farther downstream, closer to the bay and near the end of our walk, the power of this wonderful creek is unleashed at the Lower Falls, just behind the main post office. After its final dramatic plunge, the creek reaches the saltwater of Bellingham Bay and its journey has ended.
If you’re interested in joining me on the walk on May 26, go to www.northcascadesaudubon.org and check for detailed information on the field trips page.
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and is still active in chapter affairs. He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years. He has written more than 100 articles for Whatcom Watch.