The Right to Skate
Story by Oliver Lazenby // Photos by Skyler Wilder
On a dry day in early March, seven skateboarders gathered at a patch of concrete under a cloudless sky. Most of them drove 35 miles from Bellingham to roll the curves of a half-finished, renegade skate park behind Graham's Restaurant in Glacier, the last outpost on the scenic Mount Baker Highway. A collection of wheelbarrows, shovels, and buckets for mixing and shaping wet concrete, along with a sign reading, "Take your empty cans with you," is a testament to the do-it-yourself nature of the skate park and its builders.
The makeshift skate park started out of necessity-skaters needed something to do in the secluded mountain town. But because the park is on private land, it is in danger of being demolished.
On Nov. 20, 2009, Joe King, a Lynden-area resident bought the 25-acre plot of land that includes the makeshift park in a tax auction. The logging company that formerly owned the land had not paid property taxes in seven years. King, who was unaware of the construction on the property, was issued a citation one day later with two options-pay thousands of dollars to get permits for the skate park Miller created, or bulldoze it. The dreams of Whatcom County skaters would come crumbling down with the concrete.
"I think it's way better than the Bellingham skate park. It's really creative and well thought out," says Dave Bolt, an agile skateboarder from Bellingham riding the glacier skate park for the first time. "It's built with love."
The completed section of the Glacier skate park is roughly 10,000 square feet, about half the size of a tennis court-tiny compared to Bellingham's nearly 25,000-square-foot park.
King originally planned to bulldoze the skate park, as it is in the best spot on the property but changed his mind when he saw how much the park meant to the people of Glacier, and the skaters of Whatcom County.
Since learning about it, the Glacier Chamber of Commerce and the Whatcom County Parks Department have been supportive of the skate parks project.
Jim Evangelista, president of the Glacier Chamber of Commerce, says the park is a good outlet for the young people of Glacier.
"The kids out here are really into the outdoors and because there's only a few kids around there's not a lot for them to do," he says. "I have two teenage kids that come up here and skate with their buddies in the summer, so it's a real focus for them."
A LABOR OF LOVE
Among the skaters is the father of the park, Jeremy Miller, a 33-year-old Glacier resident outfitted with his sweatshirt hood pulled over his beanie. Miller, who started building the park four years ago with a couple bags of cement, skates his creation as well as anyone. Gliding effortlessly through steep, curved inclines that resemble a swimming pool's shallow end, he accelerates toward the biggest wall in the park. After flying off the nearly vertical seven-foot-tall concrete ramp and grabbing his board mid-air, all he has to do is hang on. He lands and rolls away to the sound of cheering and skateboards smacking the cement in applause.
Miller, who is emotionally attached to the skate park after pouring seemingly endless amounts of time into it the last four years, started the Glacier Skatepark Association, a nonprofit group central to the movement to save the project. An engineering surveyor and a lawyer volunteered to work for the nonprofit for free.
Miller and King are still negotiating, but King, the landowner, says he will allow the skate park to stay if the nonprofit group meets his requirements. The skate park must obtain liability insurance, keep the area clean, and put up signs informing park users of the recreational immunity law, which protects King from being sued for injury on his property.
"He wants to create a stipulation where if we're blowing it, it can be torn out," Miller says. "And I kind of like that. That's how all the other parks are."
DUMP CLEAN UP
Tall alder and fir trees growing out of the spongy soil and a nearby creek make a picturesque backdrop to the sound of urethane wheels screeching through gritty concrete corners.
But the forest surrounding the half-finished park wasn't always so pretty. Buried in soggy leaves and branches, a mossy piece of scrap metal hints at what the land used to look like.
Before skaters took over, the area was an illegal dump littered with everything from old cars that were often half-burned and leaking mercury to dirty diapers.
"They worked hard and cleaned the place up," says Jan Eskola, secretary of the Glacier Chamber of Commerce. "It had been an eyesore for years."
Miller and a crew of local skaters hauled countless broken appliances and other trash from the former dump to the Whatcom County dump.
Homegrown skate parks are an old concept in skate boarding's do-it-yourself culture.
Before the project began, Miller had been in Portland cruising the collection of quarter-pipes, banks and bowls under the Burnside Bridge.
Portland skaters began building the Burnside Skate Park in the early 1990s. There was no place to skate in the city, so without getting permission from city officials, local skaters started pouring cement under the bridge.
Miller was inspired by the story of Burnside and it didn't seem likely that Glacier, with a population of about 100 residents, was going to get a skate park anytime soon, so he started building one himself.
"I found a couple bags of cement, a couple trowels and some chicken wire at a friend's house and decided to go for it," he says.
The first obstacle in the park was a lump of concrete that smoothed the transition between the ground and a concrete barrier, allowing skaters to ride to the top of the barrier and back down.
"People would laugh at it," Miller says. "We slowly just waited for it to get torn out."
The rest of the building materials were salvaged from other projects or paid for by the builders and local donors.
They even convinced a concrete contractor to give them leftover concrete from a building foundation.
Miller knew all along that his makeshift park could be demolished at anytime, but the enjoyment of rolling and grinding across his creation is worth the labor, even if the structures are temporary.
Miller's learning curve is apparent in the quality of the walls at the skate park. The first section of the park is small, lumpy and rough compared to the smooth, round walls that Miller and his crew has poured since the summer.
"It was all an experiment," Miller says. "I'm a baker and I smooth whipped cream on cakes. I know the angle of how to make things smooth and itŐs basically the same thing."
The next step for the project is to survey the boundaries of the land and start raising money for more concrete and building material, Miller says. Volcom, a skateboard clothing company, has offered to write a check to the nonprofit as soon as they get tax-exempt status.
Although pouring concrete on someone else's land is illegal, the skate park builders cleaned up a former dump and created something valuable for the youth of Glacier. If King and the Glacier Skate Park Association can reach an agreement, Whatcom County skaters will continue to gather at the dump-turned-playground for years.
Interested in donating to Glacier? Check out the Glacier Skatepark Association website