History of Bertrand Creek
Named after James Bertrand, one of the surveyors of the 49th parallel in the 1800’s, Bertrand Creek was originally known as the “Sehkomehkl” to native inhabitants. The creek is a trans-boundary stream, with approximately half the watershed originating in British Columbia and the other half located in Washington State. The many small streams and wetlands comprising the Canadian portion travel through hilly terrain, with the watershed flattening considerably as it approaches the U.S. border. Early inhabitants described the northern most U.S. portion of the watershed as the “Bertrand Prairie” –a flat, wet, grassland- shrub area interspersed with the huge conifer forest stands common throughout the region (Jeffcott, 1995).
Native peoples inhabited the watershed for thousands of years prior to white settlement. In the 1800s a native leader named Skaleel reportedly lived to the age of 125 years in the northern open prairie along the creek. Lockanum, another native leader around that time, lived several miles away, down at the mouth of the creek along the Nooksack River. Lockanum subsisted on the abundant salmon and waterfowl available near his home and on wapatoes (potatoes) grown by his industrious wife. He also aided white explorers and settlers portaging around log jams on the Nooksack near the mouths of Bertrand and Fishtrap Creeks (Jeffcott, 1995). The Sehkomehkl watershed proved to be rich and productive not only for native peoples, but for the new inhabitants as well. The following description rings familiar to those who have loved and inhabited this area, but it was written over 100 years ago by Axling Road settler John Potgeter: “We can see the snow-capped mountain from here – it appears as if it is only two miles…Here we have every fruit…apples, plums, berries – no want for anything. The water runs through the ditches along the road the whole year…there are more fish than [anyone] could eat… [including] many salmon. The creeks have the nicest trout and the largest salmon in the fall. The trees are beautiful…here is rich land, a mild climate; [anything closer to] a heaven on this earth you could not find.” (Walcott, 1966).
Other watershed inhabitants of the mid-1900’s recalled the large salmon runs and plentiful wildlife. Farm wife Nellie VanderMey revealed that the code phrase used by Dutch settlers, “De hondjes zyn aan het lopen” [“The doggies are running”] meant that it was time to get to the creek to harvest the running salmon, often simply by pitchfork. Long-time residents such as Marshall Bayes and Myrtle VanderYacht related that other fish species, freshwater clams, deer, bears and beaver were plentiful enough to be taken as food also. Cougars and bears were not uncommon, and foxes and numerous birds of prey and other birds were in the area (personal communication).
By the 1950s the Bertrand watershed on both sides of the international border was primarily in agricultural use, with dairy cows and row crops supporting many small farms. Some of the finest soils on earth, in combination with a mild climate and plentiful rain, resulted in the highest milk production per cow in the world as well as the most concentrated raspberry production in the world, interspersed with productive salmon streams and wetlands.
Hawley, R.E. 1945. Skqee mus, or pioneer days on the Nooksack. Bellingham, WA: Whatcom Museum of History and Art. 189 pp.
Jeffcott, P.R. 1995. Nooksack tales and trails. Bellingham, WA: Sincyrly Ours Publishing. 436 pp.
Walcott, A.R. 1966. Genealogy of Jan Potgieter. Dearborn, MI: privately published. 68 pp. Family records provided by Howard and Rachel Van Aalsburg of Lynden, Washington.