Nooksack River runs cold and fast

River offers Class III rapids, calm sightseeing


Photo courtesy of Wild & Scenic River Tours.

Wild and Scenic River Tours, based in Glacier, runs whitewater trips all summer long down the North Fork of the Nooksack River.


The weather may be getting hotter, but the Nooksack River stays cold all year thanks to glacial meltwater streaming down from Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.

This steady flow of water also makes the Nooksack incredibly fun all summer long.

“The river is always fun,” said Paul Engel, owner of Wild and Scenic River Tours in Glacier. “It’s biggest in June but I have to admit that my favorite time to go is August, when the weather is nice and hot. And when the water is lower, the rapids actually become steeper.”

The section of the North Fork of the Nooksack River where Engel takes rafting groups has Class III rapids with technical channels and big splashes. It’s much different from the calm, peaceful river most Whatcom County residents are used to seeing, Engel said.

“Most people are completely unfamiliar with the section of the Nooksack that we raft,” he said. “It doesn’t look anything like what it does down in Ferndale. There are a lot of places where it’s only as wide as a driveway.”

The trip starts about a mile east of Glacier, where Highway 542 crosses the river. There’s no warm-up — the rapids begin almost as soon as the boat pushes off the bank. After about a mile the river enters a narrow canyon surrounded by trees, with few signs of the surrounding civilization.

“When you drop into the canyon, you don’t see any roads or signs or bridges,” Engel said. “You get those big Class III rapids like on other rivers, but it feels like you’re on an expedition. It’s like you’re in the middle of Alaska.”

Farther down the river — after the north, middle and south forks combine — the Nooksack becomes gentler and much more accessible to the average person seeking a river adventure. As the river enters the flat part of the county, it meanders through scenic pasturelands and offers views of Mount Baker.

This is the section that Dave Button prefers. Button owns Pacific NW Float Trips in Burlington and offers scenic rafting trips almost year-round on the Nooksack. The solitude combined with excellent eagle-viewing makes this trip enjoyable for the whole family, Button said.

“Everybody enjoys that trip,” he said. “There’s no whitewater, but there are some bouncing waves — for the kids who like to get wet.”

Though the gently flowing waters are more inviting to recreational inner tubers and canoeists, the river can still be a dangerous place, Button said.

“The problem with the Nooksack is debris,” he said. “When I run trips, especially after a flood or a windstorm, I float the river ahead of time to make sure there are no sweepers or log jams.”

Staying warm is also an issue no matter how hot the weather gets, Engel said. After all, the water you’re floating on was part of a glacier less than 24 hours ago.


Nooksack rafting trips


Wild and Scenic River Tours:

Whitewater rafting on the Nooksack and Sauk rivers. $89 per person. (360) 599-3115,


Pacific NW Float Trips:

Scenic trips on the Nooksack and Skagit rivers. $75 per person. (360) 757-1201,


Public access and bridge crossings, starting upriver:

Hwy. 542 in Glacier; Hwy. 542 near Cornell Creek, Hwy. 9 near Van Zandt, Hwy. 542 in Nugents Corner; Riverside Park in Everson; Guide Meridian Road near Lynden; Main Street in Ferndale; Slater Road near Hovander Homestead Park; Marine Drive near Marietta.


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