Businesses along the route weigh in about sales during weekend event
At precisely 8:30 a.m. on May 25, a gun will sound and hundreds of cross-country skiers will begin what can be considered the largest and longest race in Whatcom County. A crowd of exponential size will cheer them on as the racers change from skiers to runners, bikers to paddlers.
This is Ski to Sea weekend.
Last year, the event drew 3,432 participants to race from the Mount Baker Ski Area all the way to Marine Park in Fairhaven. According to statistics from the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event, the race attracted an estimated 75,000 spectators to the area last year.
More importantly, the chamber estimates that event created $7.2 million in revenue for Whatcom County businesses.
So who is getting all that money?
The race route meanders throughout the county, exposing spectators and participants alike to numerous amenities and attractions along the way. So let’s take a look at the race as it happens.
Glacier, the day prior
On the Saturday before the race, the town of Glacier slowly begins to fill up with racers looking to get an early start in the morning.
For Aaron De Boer, general manger of Graham’s Restaurant in Glacier, the extra traffic from the race buildup is a good sight to see, and at just the right time.
“It’s kind of a nice little island of business in the off-season,” he said. “That’s the time of year when there’s still a little bit of snow on the mountain, but it’s not nice enough to hike yet and the weather is too nasty to backcountry ski.”
For Dan Graham, owner of Mount Baker Lodging, the weekend also marks a high point during a normally slow month. The company represents about 100 vacation homes along the Mount Baker Highway and fills roughly half of them for Ski to Sea weekend. About two-thirds of the occupants are racers or spectators, Graham said.
Though Graham doesn’t fill every unit for the event, it is still a good way to get repeat business.
“Quite often when teams come up to stay with us, they fall in love with the area like the rest of us and make plans to come back later in the year,” he said.
Once the race starts, however, Glacier is merely a blink of the eye for the road cyclists who race through town on their way to Everson.
“They just blaze right through and then they’re gone,” De Boer said. “There is absolutely no one stopping in Glacier Sunday morning. It’s a ghost town.”
That is, all except for the locals lining the road, cheering and having their own fun.
Everson, 10 a.m.
By the time the cyclists reach Everson, the canoeists are lined up along the banks of the Nooksack River ready to paddle 18 miles downstream.
Inside Famers Roost Cafe, which is just a stone’s throw away from the canoe put-in, manager Carol Eaton is hoping that business during the race is better than it was last year. Since the race route blocks off the main entrance to the cafe, Eaton said, many people avoided the cafe until the race was over.
“Afterwards, it was extremely busy,” she said.
This year, however, Eaton said, she is going to place a sign out front directing people to circumvent the main road and use the back entrance to the parking lot.
On the other side of the river, about a mile from the cafe sits Samson Estates Winery. Inside the tasting room, Amy Grafmyre waits for passersby to stop in for a sample.
“We don’t really get more people in here because of Ski to Sea,” she said. “We’ll get a few extra stragglers from the race, but not many.”
There is definitely more traffic in town that weekend, she adds, but she is unsure whether that is because of the race or the three-day weekend.
Either way, the weekend marks the start of the busy season for the winery. From Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day weekend, the tasting room is open seven days a week, compared to the regular Friday through Sunday schedule during the rest of the year.
Squalicum Harbor, 1 p.m.
After the canoeists hand off to the mountain bikers, the racers cruise their way along the river dike and down into Squalicum Harbor, where they will hand off to the kayakers for the final leg of the race.
Though the racers pass right by Web Locker Restaurant, Ski to Sea is just like any other summer day at the restaurant, said manager Brian Crook.
“Ski to Sea doesn’t really affect this restaurant,” he said. “It’s not like opening day for boating season or the Pitch Race [sailboat regatta], which are much busier.”
When Web Locker first opened two years ago, Crook said he scheduled the entire staff to work on the day of the race, expecting a large turnout. But it never came.
“We thought it would be like Fairhaven,” he said. “but people come here, drop off their kayaks, and then head over to Fairhaven. They don’t stay here.”
Now, Crook said, he sets his sights on the more traditional busy days, such as the Fourth of July, when the weather is nicer and he can put more tables and chairs outside for customers.
Fairhaven, 1:30 p.m.
As an estimated 24,000 spectators amass at Marine Park to see the end of the race, they all have to pass by Mud in Your Eye, a pottery studio and retail store located at the bottom of the hill on Harris Avenue.
The increased exposure that day is good in the long run, said owner Cate Howell, but sales aren’t anything extraordinary.
“We generally don’t do a lot of business that day, but we have a busy store,” she said. “Most of the people who come to Fairhaven that weekend are here to support a team or someone in the race. Usually, shopping is the last thing on their mind.”
Just up the road at The Archer Ale House, Ski to Sea marks the second busiest day of the year behind St. Patrick’s Day, said co-owner Steve DeMaria. Most of the staff works that day and they make sure to order lots of extra beer.
Though an estimated 51 percent of the race participants live in Whatcom County, the crowds at the pub tend to keep locals away, DeMaria said.
“Some regulars stay away that day because they know it’s going to be busy,” he said. “They can come here a day or two before and get the same thing but without the crowds.”
At Dos Padres, a Fairhaven favorite for Mexican food, it’s almost standing room only, said manager Skyla McLean. Ski to Sea is the restaurant’s busiest weekend, surpassing even Cinco de Mayo at the beginning of the month. Every staff member is required to work on race day, she said.
As seen in other major races, the party tends to happen at the finish line. Think Paris and the Tour de France, or the RSVP — “Ride from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. and Party.” Think Nome and the Iditarod.
The same is true for Ski to Sea it seems. Sheila Conners, marketing and events director for the chamber, said that a majority of the race’s economic impact is in Bellingham, especially on restaurants and hotels.
After all, “it all ends in Fairhaven,” she said.