The Tipping Point

Riding in the Northwest can vary immensely by region, but tall trees, ripping singletrack and good company are guaranteed just about anywhere. Skye Schillhammer and Kelend Hawks enjoy all the attributes on Bellingham’s Cougar Ridge, one of the newest additions to Bellingham’s renowned (and ever-growing) trail network. NIKON, 1/640 sec, f/5, ISO 6400

The Tipping Point Passion and Drive in Whatcom County

I can’t sit on my couch.

The tick of spinning hubs is too distracting. It’s an all-day, every day parade past my front lawn during the summer. Old bikes clank, new bikes hum. Young, old, somewhere in between, they roll by smiling, a bit dusty, dogs in tow. Solo, in groups of six. Inevitably, someone will recognize my van and stop by.

“Wanna ride?”

“I just wanna watch the game, man. Maybe do some gardening. But yeah, I got time for a quick lap I guess.”

My street’s only a block long. It’s right off Birch, the main thoroughfare to the north side of Galbraith Mountain (officially part of Lookout Mountain). The hub of Whatcom County cycling, it’s right in the city. No more than a 20-minute pedal from most of Bellingham. The nickname comes from Galbraith Lane, where the first handful of folks starting building trails in the mid-80s. It stuck. They formed the Whatcom Independent Mountain Pedalers, or WHIMPs, when trail access became an issue.

Located at the base of the Chuckanut Mountains and overlooking the San Juan Islands, Larrabee State Park is the oldest state park in Washington. It’s also home to Double Black Diamond, the Chuckanuts’ first purpose-built, descent-only trail. Dropping from the top of Cleator Road, “Double Black” links into Double Down for 1,700 feet of rooty, raw, shuttle-accessed glory. Britney White leads Angi Weston into Double Down’s entrance (air-time optional). NIKON, 1/800 sec, f/4.5, ISO 4000
The Chuckanuts are known for their huge cedars, mossy sandstone slabs, and gnarled roots, a class Pacific Northwest combination that’s scenic and fast in summer and slick and tricky (and still gorgeous) in the wetter months. Whatever the weather, for locals like Angi Weston (front) and Britney White (back) it’s a rowdy good time. NIKON, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200
Angi Weston leads Britney White down some techy goodness in the Chuckanuts. NIKON, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 4000

Galbraith was, after all, a privately held, 3,000-acre tree farm. It’s a utilitarian space packed with every type of trail you can imagine, from old-school steep-and-tech to mellow XC lanes to machine-built jump lines. Slabs, ladders, tables and gaps; it’s easy to stay entertained up there. And it will continue to grow for years to come: in late July 2018, the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition announced the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom Land Trust would be purchasing Galbraith Mountain to preserve recreational access in perpetuity.

Nowadays, the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, led by Trail Director Eric Brown, maintains relations (and 65 miles of trails) up on Galbraith, down in Larrabee State Park, and beyond. They’ve got big plans in the works, including expansion to the east side of Galbraith and over toward Lake Whatcom. They even built a pumptrack a few years back, just two blocks from the main trailhead. It’s my feeling-really-lazy option. My girlfriend loves it. So do the neighbor kids and a handful of local BMX rippers. They’re always down there.

No one rides a line like its creators. Andy Grant (front) and Spencer Baldwin (back) built Mohawk throughout the winter of 2017/2018, and the trail officially opened in late June of 2018. A combination of machine-built flow and hand-sculpted features, Mohawk has become an instant classic on Galbraith and—while it’s pedal-access only—can compete with even the most iconic bike park jump trails. NIKON, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6, ISO 2000
Continuing the party train on one of the flowier sections. NIKON, 1/1250 sec, f/5, ISO 1000
Lines for all kinds. A well-built jump trail has options for all skill levels, and Mohawk offers both introductory features for beginners and a full-on freeride fix for more advanced riders. Andy Grant (in blue) and Spencer Baldwin (in red) get a good dose of airtime on one of Mohawk’s most boost-able corners. NIKON, 1/1250 sec, f/6.3, ISO 3200

When I moved to Bellingham in the fall of 2007, I didn’t ride much. Sure, I’d grown up in a Gulf Island locale north of the border with its own core bike community, and I arrived with an aging Rocky Mountain Element, but I’d hardly put tires to dirt since the late-‘90s. I came here to snowboard at Mt Baker. Snowboarding, was, and still is to a certain extent, the nexus of my life. And snowboard I did.

Then, that first summer, Galbraith sucked me in. Slowly, at first. Before I knew it, I was scouring Craigslist for a bit of a newer bike with a bit more travel. Then looking south to the Chuckanut Mountains, east into the county for more trails. I watched the DNR shut down the unsanctioned North Fork trails out past Deming in 2012, then the recent, officially-sanctioned growth closer to town. Down in Larrabee State Park, the oldest park in Washington State, the WMBC was able to build Double Down in 2015, a bike-specific, downhill-only beauty benched along a steep hillside through old growth cedar. Linked with Double Black Diamond above, it now provides 1,700 vertical feet of sometimes-technical flow and one of the better laps in the county, a showpiece for the half-dozen rooty and raw descents in the park.

The past few years, the WMBC and its cohort has been working with local legislators and other interest groups to legitimize non-motorized recreation on Stewart Mountain and Lookout Mountain to the east, and Blanchard Mountain down south. They’ve got the passion, drive and momentum to make it happen—thanks in large part to the WMBC, official recognition for mountain biking in Whatcom County has reached a tipping point and our trail networks are set to double in size over the next decade.

Cougar Ridge offers one of the longest continual descents off Galbraith, and includes everything from technical rock rolls to high-speed step downs (which Kelend Hawks never hesitates to send). It also marks the first stage of an expansion on the southeast side of Galbraith, which will vastly increase the network’s already hefty amount of trail. NIKON, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200
Party in the woods, PNW style. Tucked on Galbraith’s north-facing aspect, Cougar Ridge winds through thick cedars, giant ferns and multiple waterfalls on its way to Lake Whatcom far below. Skye Schillhammer tweaks a popper while Tyler Deschaine manuals the whoops, appreciating the scenery at high speeds. NIKON, 1/1000 sec, f/4, ISO 4000

Nowadays, I probably ride my bike as much as my snowboard. While, I came to Bellingham for the winters, I stayed for the summers. Through the years, I’ve gotten out to build a bit and I’ve been lucky enough to see and ride a handful of masterpieces created by some of the most dedicated diggers around. Indeed, there are dozens of folks who spend their evenings and weekends moving dirt for our enjoyment. They’re the backbone of the local bike community, and the recent growth is emblematic of their hard work. I wish I could name ‘em all, but know I’d miss someone. Rest assured they’re out there in the woods, in the summer heat and fall drizzle, getting bit by mosquitoes with a sixer of Rainier tall boys warming on a stump as they sweat and curse and laugh and ride.

Or maybe that’s one of them now passing by my front door. Tick, tick, tick. Better go see who it is. Maybe they’ve got time for another lap?