Outdoorsman and Birch Bay advocate Wolf Bauer dies

By Steve Guntli

Wolf Bauer, a legendary outdoorsman, activist and engineer, has died at a care facility on San Juan Island. He was 103.

Bauer passed away on January 23, only two days after the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce hosted a special presentation honoring his accomplishments and local impact. Bauer was the first to suggest the Birch Bay berm project, which will begin construction this fall.

Bauer was born in the Bavarian Alps on February 24, 1912. His family immigrated to Seattle when he was 13, and it was there Bauer developed a love of the outdoors. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in engineering, but was much more interested in a career in outdoor sports, particularly skiing and mountain climbing.

In 1935, Bauer became the first person to summit Mount Rainier from the north side. He went on to teach a highly influential series of mountaineering courses, which introduced Americans to European mountaineering techniques that have since become standard. Mountaineering historian Henry Majors would later call the courses “the single greatest, most influential and most enduring achievement in the history of Northwest climbing,” in The Northwest Mountaineering Journal. Among his pupils were Jim and Lou Whittaker, the first Americans to summit Mount Everest, and Lloyd Anderson, a founder of REI.

Bauer co-founded the Mountain Rescue Council, and was president of the organization for its first six years. The council was the first organization of its kind in the United States, and was responsible for dozens of daring mountain rescues.

Bauer was also a pioneer in water sports. In the late 1940s, Bauer introduced foldboat kayaking to the United States. Foldboats, small kayaks that can be folded in half for easy transportation, had been popular in Germany but were all but unheard of in the U.S. In 1948, he founded the Washington Foldboat Club and, along with other club members, mapped routes along many western Washington rivers. He also created the white water rapid classification system that is still used today, ranking rapids in intensity from I to IV.

In the 1970s, Bauer began making a name for himself as an environmental activist and shoreline engineer. He launched a successful campaign to prevent the damming of the Green River Gorge, and spent years petitioning the state to preserve eroding shorelines.

In 1975, he turned his attention to Birch Bay. The Birch Bay berm project was Bauer’s suggestion. According to Roland Middleton, special projects manager for Whatcom County public works and a longtime friend of Bauer, the current design for the project is nearly identical to one of Bauer’s original drawings from the ’70s.

“Wolf is a man who has lived more than 100 years and he didn’t spend any of it sitting on the couch,” Middleton said at the chamber meeting. “Every time I see him, the first thing he says to me is, ‘Roland, have you finished Birch Bay yet?’”

Middleton said he and other project leaders had proposed naming a section of the berm Bauer Point. The state told him he couldn’t name the section of the berm after Bauer until five years after Bauer’s death.

Bauer leaves a sister, a son, a daughter in law and several nieces, nephews and grandchildren behind. He was preceded in death by his ex-wife Harriet and son Laurence. Bauer will be laid to rest with a small ceremony on San Juan Island later this week.

On Saturday, February 6, Whatcom County public works is hosting an open public forum to take feedback on the berm project. The meeting will take place from 10 a.m. to noon at the Birch Bay Bible Community Church.

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