Lots of Whee! In Ski to Sea

A curious spectator’s guide

By Mike McKenzie

Time to head out to watch Ski to Sea, coming right up—May 27, just like every Sunday of the Memorial Day Weekend over the last 45 years. But, with seven relay events and hundreds of participants, what and where is best to watch? The prevailing thought is—so many choices, so little parking.

Let’s begin where it ends, lured by one little descriptor on the event website in the Kayak section: “It is great fun to watch a kayaker hop out of his kayak and try to run up the hill to the finish after his legs have fallen asleep.”

Seriously, try start-to-finish: “Zuanich Park at Squalicum Harbor for the start of around 500 colorful kayaks.” Or, Boulevard Park as they float past (as their legs fall asleep). And/or, Marine Park for the grand finish of the whole kit-and-kaboodle. And if you’re on the water yourself to watch, you could create a wake, bad for a kayak, so stay back.

Speaking of colorful, check out the CycloCross Bike action at one of the easiest venues for watching any of the seven legs, Hovander Park in Ferndale, with lots of parking.

Another strange notation by event organizers says of the Canoe race, “One of the most hazardous parts of the river is the whirlpool near the north end of Noon Road.” Who doesn’t love a good whirlpool hazard. Otherwise, good vantage points for watching canoes: the river crossings on Hannegan and on Guide Meridian, Ferndale parks overlooking the river, and the exchange area in Hovander Park.

And there’s yet another little, devilish tease: “The (canoe) finish is fun because the exhausted canoeists must carry their canoe across the finish line before they hand the (relay) chip to the mountain biker.”

Obviously, there’s much more. For additional details on observing one or multiple facets of Ski to Sea, go to that voluminous, aforementioned website, skitosea.com.

OK, with those preliminary guidelines in place, I’m up, awake, and ready. Time to go watch people race all day. Remember, this massive, wide-ranging community fixture is billed as the “original adventure race”—and it gives rise to a plethora of spectating speculations. Especially since I’ve never gone before.

Where, oh where do I go to watch? Mt. Baker Ski Area. Highways. Bridges. Parks. Start. Finish.

And what am I watching? Skiers, snowboarders, runners, cyclists, and here come the kayaks, or canoes…no, they’re kayaks. Oh, my—what’s the difference? Just kidding. But, look, if I’m really not sure, I can think in grammatical terms of the number of competitors in the boat: singular, kayak; plural, canoe.

And that whole thing about the kayakers’ legs falling asleep, I’m thinking, “Yay!—rubber-legged kayakers wobbling up to the finish line. But, hey, it beats watching film of a torture chamber. Maybe.

(By the way, I have those easy-breezy sit-on-top kayaks, and every time the term “kayak” comes to my mind, so does certain music. Billy Joel, as in, if you’re watching kayaks or canoes from your own boat, stay back-ack-ack. And I think of the Coasters, “Yakkety-yak, don’t talk back….” It’s a curse.)

At the CycloCross Bike action, stand back and watch out for the scramble of the mélange of bicycles pumping out of there like bats outta Hey!—look at the colors on that little wheel-a-monster!

Regarding that vaguely-veiled (appealing?) notation by event organizers about the Canoe race, whee! I wouldn’t. want to miss the whirlpool hazard.

OK, time to get serious again. Here are some more helpful reminders and tips, however whimsical, for putting more “whee!” into the Ski to Sea:

  • The most important precautionary thought for the day–safety, safety, and safety. In that order of importance, first, second, and third—right up through 7th and final leg.
  • That’s precaution for competitors. For you as a spectator, No. 1 precaution: Parking is sparse on the course. Some roads close. Parking on road and street shoulders and bike lanes, no, as in NO.
  • Some popular spots: Up on Mt. Baker to see anything on snow—cross country and downhill skiing, snowboarding—knowing that you’re trapped up there for four or more hours. Must arrive before 7:15, and roads will reopen about 11ish. Parking, tight.
  • Ditto, the Downhill Run. Starting point of the hand-offs is good. Lots of turnoffs for watching, but not lots of parking. And, roads closed, so you’re pinned in until the last runner goes through.
  • Other popular spots: Parks. Hovander Park, Squalicum Creek Park, near Zuanich Point Park, Boulevard Park. And the biggie—the crowd-infested Finish Line in Historic Downtown Fairhaven at the foot of Harris Avenue. (Where there are goodies to eat and drink.)
  • Most hazardous points: Tightly-controlled Mt. Baker Highway. Roads along on the Road Bike leg (good watching spots in Glacier, Kendall, Nooksack, and the exchange area at Riverside Park in Everson, but not in between). Narrow Marine Drive.
  • And an option for additional fun-for-the-day: Mark your calendar for Saturday, May 19 and go see the Junior Ski to Sea. No skiing, no boats, but scads of kids between Grades 3-8 with bikes, hula hoops, soccer balls, a race to run, and an obstacle course to maneuver.

Best part of it: Everything’s in one place—Zuanich Point Park. And there’s parking.

All in all, I’m ready to go. And in considering options from all I’ve gleaned from the website, news clippings, and advertising, I’m thinking in terms of where and what to watch, me and Billy-J, well, “You oughtta know by now….”