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Friday, March 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:42 PM

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Editor's note: Mount Baker ski area still has 200 inches of snow at the base. It's spring skiing time. But don't just burn up the highway on your way to and fro. Plan a stop or two along the way. Maybe an overnight stay at a rustic cabin? You could even get married at the North Fork Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel.

Great stops on the road to spring skiing

Special to The Seattle Times

At the end of the long winding Mount Baker Highway is a spring skier's and 'boarder's Nirvana. There lies the Mount Baker Ski Area, which this time of year is still blanketed with mega-inches of righteous corn snow that makes even the most casual spring skier drool like a Saint Bernard. In April, the days are longer and skies brighter, and the lifts — which stay running on weekends throughout the month — have hardly any lines. Even after the ski area closes there's enough snow nearby for sledding, snowshoeing and backcountry plank-riding into August.

But Highway 542, as it's known to those with more of a numbers bent, affords access to lots that isn't necessarily snow dependent — places to eat, places to stay and places to saunter — and that might just tempt you to transform your Mount Baker day trip into a multi-day escape. My family and I escaped a few weeks ago, setting up base camp at one of the rustic cabins at Silver Lake Park, just outside Maple Falls, about 26 miles east of Bellingham. (That's just about halfway between Bellingham and the ski area.)

Along with a 92-site campground, the 400-acre Whatcom County park has six heated lakefront cabins for rent, as well as an overnight lodge with three bedrooms, bathroom, fireplace and full kitchen. During fishing season, the milelong lake is a magnet for anglers, and in summers is crisscrossed by rowboats, canoes and pedal boats, all available for rent. This time of year though, the place is dead, and we pretty much had the run of it.

A walk in the woods

If you go


On the road to Mount Baker

Lodging

Silver Lake Park has six rustic cabins and a three-bedroom overnight lodge on the edge of a 180-acre lake. All cabins have full kitchens; cooking utensils and bedding are not provided. To reserve: 360-599-2776 (3-5 p.m. Monday-Friday) or www.co.whatcom.wa.us/parks. Non-Whatcom County resident rates are $75 to $100 per night (depending on whether the cabin has a fireplace and/or bathroom) with a two-night minimum for weekends ($10 per night less for Whatcom County residents). Rates, which include tax, are 25 percent less Monday through Thursday nights.

Non-county rates for the overnight lodge are $175 per night with a two-night minimum on weekends ($20 per night less for Whatcom County residents). The same weekday discount applies.

Dining

North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel: Masquerading as a mere roadside tavern complete with wood beams, old-school beer signs and a couple of blaring TVs, this multi-tasking marvel east of Deming, Whatcom County, makes a fun destination for dining and drinking. Super casual, the North Fork boasts one of the smallest breweries in the West. Along with pizza, they also serve lasagna, as well as appetizers such as artichoke jalapeņo dip and Wild Smoked Salmon salad. The beer shrine is what it sounds like, a shrine to beer — good beer, bad beer, old beer, it's all here. Just off the main dining room, more than 90 years worth of beer bottles are displayed behind glass. Finally, the owner is an ordained minister who performs weddings on-site. Find the shrine just past Milepost 20 on the Mount Baker Highway. 360-599-2337 or www.northforkbrewery.com.

Milano's Restaurant is at 9990 Mount Baker Hwy. in Glacier, Whatcom County. 360-599-2863.

Finding your way

To get to Silver Lake Park, head east on the Mount Baker Highway to Maple Falls (about Milepost 28) and the intersection with Silver Lake Road. Turn left and follow for about 3 miles to the park, which is on your right.

North Fork Nooksack Research Natural Area: A level, half-mile trail leads through some forest giants. The unmarked pullout parking area and trailhead are on the left (north) side of the Mount Baker Highway just before Milepost 44.

Nooksack Falls: About a half-mile past Milepost 40, turn right onto Wells Creek Road (Forest Road 33) and continue 0.6 miles to a parking lot just before a bridge. Follow your ears to the sound of rushing water. The view is made even more spectacular by Lower Wells Creek Falls, which cascade just to the south.

Our comfortable one-room cabin featured a stove, oven, refrigerator and a couple of full-size mattresses on the floor. To my wife Jen's disappointment, however, rustic means outhouses across the road (though flush toilets and free showers were available 24 hours a day a few hundred yards away in the main day lodge).

After unpacking and starting what would turn out to be a weekend-long game of Monopoly, Jen, our 7-year-old son, Baker, and I headed out for some Mount Baker Highway fun. First stop, the roadside North Fork Nooksack Research Natural Area, located just before Milepost 44. It's a 1,400-acre old-growth forest populated by gi-hugic and majestic 700-year-old firs, cedars and hemlocks, some eight- to 10-feet around at their bases.

Many tree trunks appeared furry, thickly cloaked in mosses and lichens, their limbs and branches hung with old man's beard and dangling, dripping icicles. Against the foot of snow that was on the ground, the multi shades of green appeared even richer, and with the snow muffling all sound, everything in the forest somehow felt closer. It was like we were on the set of a play.

The day was sunny and warm for mid-March and the snow high in the forest canopy was melting, sending great chunks of snow and streams of icy water down upon our heads. When we looked skyward, it was as if the crows and Steller's jays far overhead were flinging globs of white paint down upon us.

On the way there, we cruised through sleepy Glacier (pop. not many), about seven miles east of Maple Falls. Glacier is the last chance for civilization along the highway before the National Forest and the ski area and is home to a couple of good restaurants, including Milano's, which serves Chicken Parmagiana, Lasagne Florentina and many other entrees ending in a, e, i, o, or u, that take me right back to my New Jersey roots and the checked-tableclothed eateries in Chambersburg — Trenton's version of Little Italy. And that's a damn fine thing.

Snowballs and waterfalls

In Glacier, we stopped at Graham's General Store for coffee, hot cocoa and cookies. Just outside we were serenaded by Jake "the Blue Snake" Baker, an idealistic guy in a wool cap strumming an acoustic guitar, who's of a type that's as much a part of the Glacier landscape as the ubiquitous old dog who stops traffic whenever he decides to cross from one side of the highway to the other.

"I don't want to be rich or famous," he told me. "I just want to make enough money for the people in the band."

Good luck.

From the North Fork Natural Area, we continued a little more than three miles west to Nooksack Falls. Because of snow, we parked at the road entrance and hiked the half-mile of forest road down to the falls. It was mostly a fun slide in the snow made all the more so by our Baker's insistence on using his parents for snowball target practice. (Thankfully, smallish hands tend to make smallish snowballs.)

We heard the crashing falls before we saw them and from behind the chain-link fence we gazed as two powerful strands of the Nooksack River plunged off a rock cliff, catching about 100 feet of air before crashing in a jumble of boulders below. The river flows from a glacier on the north side of Mount Shuksan, and after winding throughout Whatcom County for 70 miles or so, empties into Puget Sound just west of Bellingham at the Lummi Indian Reservation.

Signs everywhere — nailed to trees, hung along the chain-link fence, on an interpretive kiosk — warned visitors to observe the falls from behind the fence. And with good reason. In the past 30 years, seven people have fallen to their deaths after passing beyond the fence for a better look. Icy mist from the icy river chilled the air and after tossing a few snowballs at the rushing water — they instantly disappeared — we realized that we were hungry and cold, and that it was time for the shrine.

Pizza and a lazy Sunday

Or rather, to be more accurate, the North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel, just past Milepost 20. That's right, wedding chapel. Owner Vicki Savage is an ordained minister, and she's married more than 100 couples at this roadside multitasking marvel since 1997 when the North Fork opened.

"People who get married here are people who don't want to fuss and have to worry about all the crud that goes along with a traditional wedding," said Savage, a bit of a wiseacre's twinkle in her eye. "Mostly though, it's people who don't want to run out of beer."

Most unusual wedding she's performed?

"We had a couple who got married in jeans and T-shirts, but their dogs, a couple border collies, were all dressed up as bride and groom."

We weren't here to get married. Or for the beer either, really. (The North Fork brews its own beers and barleywines, some with names such as Son of Frog, an English-style ale brewed with caramel and chocolate malts.) We were here for the pizza, that wondrous thin-crust East Coast pepperoni pizza (see previous note re: New Jersey roots). It's the kind that John Travolta has in "Saturday Night Fever" when he buys two slices, stacks one atop the other, folds it in half and eats it.

It was yummy, and after our post-pizza fortune cookies ("Something unusual will happen to you this week at school or work" intrigued Baker to no end) we headed back to the cabin and our cutthroat Monopoly game.

The next morning we made a quick run out to the Horseshoe Bend trail, just past Glacier, at about Milepost 35. Just seconds from the roadside trailhead we were again walking along the Nooksack, where it rushes, gushes, splashes and dashes against hippo-size boulders. In Class III and IV rapids here, river kayakers and rafting companies bounce their boats around this narrow gorge like so many pinballs every summer.

The trail continues along the river for about two miles, but after a short Sunday morning saunter, we found a sunny spot at river's edge and did what comes naturally to a 7-year-old: collected smooth, polished cobbles that probably got their start a few hundred millennia ago up at Mount Shuksan. Skipped the flatter ones. Floated branches and limbs, pretending they were ships on a most perilous journey. Pretended the water was boiling hot lava and that we could only step on rocks and logs.

In other words, just whiled away a Sunday on a wild river.

What could be better?

Mike McQuaide is a freelance writer who stumbled upon Bellingham in the late '80s when the downtown paper plant still made the city smell like boiled hot dogs. Since then he has spent an awful lot of time hiking, running, cycling, snowboarding, camping, kayaking and triathloning throughout the Northwest. He is the author of five books including "A Falcon Guide to the Mount Baker-Mount Shuksan Area" (Falcon) and "Day Hike! Central Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). Contact him at mikemcquaide@comcast.net

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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