On A Roll: About the Alaska Panhandle

By Leonard Durrenberger | Posted at 4:55 AM

Alaska has been a subject of national interest in recent days. Years ago I lived there and I recently found myself musing on some of the unique aspects of that mysterious state the nation is now so inquisitive about.

For those innocents out there, in Alaska, “sunny” is that rare and brief occurrence between rains. In some parts, the average rainfall is well over 200 inches a year. I live in Washington now and the experience is very similar here. One summer, I was a USFS campgrounds officer for the Mt. Baker National Forest, and we got “dunked,” quite literally, every second week. People would drive up in their campers or pitch tents for two weeks, the rains would come, and then they would mostly clear out that day or the next!

For you Google Map types, look just east of Everett, about 50 miles north of Seattle; there you will find Mt. Pilchuck State Park. Here, a mass of water-laden clouds funneling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca would often suddenly rise precipitously and anyone caught outside got to make like a drowned rat. I am barely kidding! I had a kiddie cleanup crew (a Young Adult Conservation Corps or some other alphabet soup program — they changed names and terms from time to time, but to us recreation officers, were just the same) out one day and those local residents begged to be taken back to the station. They were pretty well dressed, but even so, the downpour (emphasis on “pour”) was miserable.

This area is the world's farthest north rain forest. I stood in the campground one day and witnessed a fawn step into the foliage. Upon the second step, he was pretty hard to detect – even though I was watching the whole while – and on his third step into the foliage, he was completely invisible.

A plane went down pretty close to Verlot during WWII. It wasn't found until about 30 or so years ago, and that was by a hunter who got lost. Well, that gent was mighty lucky to have finally made it out, but at least he brought with him an identifiable part of the plane to substantiate his incredible story. He tried to lead a search crew back to the plane, and they tried hard to find it, but never succeeded. It's still there today, somewhere along the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River near Big 4 Mountain.

Why this story? Our rainfall at the station was officially 200” per year too! So compare notes with the above quote.

That was the Monte Cristo Ranger District. An interesting place. Of all things, the city charter was done in a courthouse back in Ohio — ever heard of such a thing? The town of Monte Cristo sits squarely upon the headwaters of the Sauk River. It and the Skagit to which it fed in were our nation's first members of the new category of “wild and scenic river systems.” There was a boy who grew up in Monte Cristo, before it became a ghost town, who wrote of his childhood: Elof Norman, an immigrant from Denmark. His book is titled the Coffee Chased Me Up. Small, but great reading that is pure, unvarnished Americana.

The Alaska ferry terminal is in Fairhaven, now merged into Bellingham. It was one of the places Mark Twain visited before heading East for the final time. Near by, one finds wall-to-wall tulips in the plain of the Skagit River. They get shipped to Holland; the Hollanders in turn ship them around the world as “Dutch tulips.” Interestingly, this is the greatest source of “Dutch tulips” – far more than they grow in Holland itself.

Moving along, when you make it to Bellingham, take the city/county bus to Lynden, practically smack on the Canada border. This city is twice in the Guinness Book of World Records. Dutch styling for the buildings on main street, Dutch food that will make you swoon, Pioneer Museum… it is a fascinating place for shutterbugs. Why did Guinness take interest? Lynden has more churches per population than elsewhere in the whole country and it has a cemetery devoted exclusively to Dutchmen.

But Bellingham itself has a noteworthy landmark other than its churches and cemetery. The house of Captain of the US army, later General Pickett of the Confederate army. This is the site of our last war with Canada: the Pig War, of which the only casualty was the pig. Anyhow our US Army administration sent a contingent to guard the peace.

By the way, that was on the San Juan Islands, also known as “the Land of Little Rain.” Ironic, isn't it?

Leonard Durrenberger is an experienced photographer who enjoys observing the little details of life.

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Check out this on the cemetery in Lynden:


Posted by Ike N. O'Clast - Dec 17, 2008 | 6:22 AM