Birch Bay beckons

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If you go: Birch Bay, Whatcom County

BIRCH BAY, Whatcom County - The seaside resort of Birch Bay, just south of the Canadian border, reminds me of childhood summers spent on the Jersey shore. Days were simple - I went to the beach, ate junk food, rode bikes, ate more junk food, and played miniature golf. We rented rooms in a large boardinghouse a few blocks from the ocean, whose soothing roar we heard nightly through windows left open to catch a cool breeze.

Birch Bay, 20 miles north of Bellingham, is known for summer tourist activities like these, but its natural setting also makes it an ideal spot to visit during the off-season. A fall getaway found me enjoying blue skies and a brisk breeze that whipped waves onto the shore of the large, semicircular bay. Logs piled at the high-tide line suggested the power of recent storms, while distant landforms loomed offshore to the west and south across the Strait of Georgia.

The tide was out, exposing long ridges of sand on the floor of the shallow bay. Great blue herons stood in the inches-deep ponds of water that remained between the ridges, patiently stalking dinner. Small shorebirds sped along the sand in short bursts. More than 100 species of birds can be seen in this area, including eagles and belted kingfishers, and many migrating species pass through during the fall and spring.

The ancestral lands of the Lummi, Nooksack and Semiahmoo tribes, the area once had the Lummi name of Strav-a-wa, which meant "the place for clams." While exploring the region in 1792, Capt. George Vancouver named the area after its abundant birch trees, and pioneers settled here after the gold rush along the Fraser River in British Columbia during the 1850s.

Miles of saltwater and freshwater shoreline dominate Birch Bay State Park's 193 acres, which feature wetland, forest and beach environments to explore. I walked the park's lovely half-mile Terrell Marsh Trail, sharing it only with a woodpecker that kept a sharp eye on me as I passed beneath his tree. A dramatic sunset in the late afternoon kept me snapping photos along the park's shore.

The quiet delights of nature are the main draw this time of year, but now is also a good time to begin planning for a late spring or summer visit when many of the area's manmade attractions are open.

I look forward to visiting again during the summer to wade in the warm waters of the shallow bay and to snag a ride on the Plover, a 1944 foot-passenger ferry that carries tourists between Blaine Harbor and the Inn at Semiahmoo. One of the few vessels listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the tiny black, white and red passenger ferry once carried cannery workers to their jobs on the narrow Semiahmoo spit.

Another seasonal treat is a visit to The C Shop, a candy store and cafe housed in a yellow wooden building on the shorefront road that curves along the bay. The historic structure was the original store at Birch Bay at the beginning of the 20th century."When we opened 30 years ago, all the things we sold started with the letter "c," said Pat Alesse, who owns the store with her husband, Patrick, explaining the store's unusual name. "We had caramel, caramel corn, cake doughnuts and cones (snow and ice cream), and everything else could be grouped under `candy.' We liked the name because of all the puns associated with it--the store was by the `sea,' and people could come `see' candy being made."

Other diversions include a waterslide park (open late May through Labor Day) and several miniature golf courses including the indoor Borderland Miniature Golf next to The C Shop. Its walls and course obstacles are covered with thrift-store-style tchotchkes. Based on a Northwest theme, the décor demands perusal while your partner is pondering putts.

For overnight stays, there are motels, cottages and B&Bs, and the Inn at Semiahmoo is just three miles away. May through September, the best cheap lodging option is the Birch Bay Hostel in the former officers' quarters on the spacious grounds of a mothballed Cold War Air Force installation in Lion's Camp Horizon Park.

My private room was Spartan and spotless. Instead of a few large bathrooms down the hall, each pair of rooms was set off from the long hallway by a second door and shared a bath, which on the night I stayed was all mine. In addition to family suites, a private room isn't unusual at this little-known hostel.

"If you call ahead, there's a very good chance you can get a room to yourself," said Wayne Maschger, the hostel's manager.