Nooksack: A Washington Town Left to Decay

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By Amy Hengst

Home in Nooksack

On the long road trips I took as a kid, my Father had this habit of pointing out the window at any dilapidated old barn we passed, saying, “Now that’s the house I’m going to buy for you when you’re all grown up.”

These days, I live in a city apartment, and I’m just waiting for my father to hold good on his promise and buy me a nice abandoned shack in some remote valley. I got the shot above in northern Washington, on a road trip of my own up to Vancouver, B.C.


Road Near Nooksack

The woods in northern Washington and the Pacific Northwest coastal region were once home to native American tribes, whose worlds were shaped by the landscape and the local wildlife. Their reverence for the animals is reflected in their art, in stylized drawings of salmon, raven, deer and other creatures.

The towns up there still bear native names, some of them funny to native English speakers – Lake Ketchum, Skagit, Chuckanut. I finally pulled off the road in a place called Nooksack, hoping to get a snapshot of the town’s name and its clunky green bridge.


I never did get that shot. The road wound down and away from the bridge into open fields. What I found instead was a sleepy rural community with the remains of better times – old, rotting hulls of homes with oddities still stuffed inside their sheds – mustard and ketchup bottles, napkins, machinery.

I also discovered empty fields littered with broken trucks and tractors, rusting and melting into the grasses.

Before the Nooksack Fire
After the Fire

Before and after the devastating blaze that destroyed half of Nooksack.

The city of Nooksack had a population of just 851 in the 2000 census. Although it’s named for the Noxwsa7aq tribe that originally lived there, the city itself has only a small portion of Native Americans left. Nooksack experienced growth in the early 1900s, but a fire at one time cut through and left the town devastated. It was never rebuilt, and quickly declined. The post office is no longer operational, and the town now contracts major services from a nearby rival city.

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Video slideshow of a March walk in Nooksack, courtesy ostosp

Today, Nooksack’s only attractions are a couple gas stations, churches, a drive-in, and a graveyard near the edge of the city. I found an abandoned home sagging into the mud beside a field of old machinery, overgrown with vines, mosses, and lichen. A rusting barrel collected rain droplets, and I regretted that I couldn’t capture the patter and plop of the rain with my camera.


Rust and lichen

Living in Oakland, California, I’ve seen decay and age, but they happen differently here. I’m accustomed to dirty houses with mold slowly creeping around their foundations. I often bike by boarded-up storefronts with aging signs and wonder about the stories of each. But in these cities, it’s often wind and vandalism that wear away the abandoned facades. With so many storefronts plopped side by side, and the roads still vibrantly rumbling with cars, nature doesn’t stand too much chance to grow right through the abandoned structures.


In the countryside, there’s more room for objects to sit just out of sight, forgotten and left to decay. Plants, fungi, and insects play with and overtake them — letting them melt into the landscape and transform. In Nooksack, I spent somewhere between an hour and three, walking around and snapping pictures, and I didn’t see another person. It seemed possible that no one had set foot in those fields for years.


At the time, I was shooting with a little 2.5mp point and shoot I’d bought in late 2002. It was just a snapshot camera, to record memories of vacations. Eventually as the air misted, and rain began falling again in earnest around me, its brave little screen finally fizzed and went dead. Back in my car, I opened up the camera, pulled everything out, and left the parts out to dry.

Since the camera was dead, I didn’t get any pictures from Canada that day. But I don’t regret visiting Nooksack – it was more surprising and rewarding than any urban trip led by a AAA Guidebook. In fact, this became one of my motivations to finally get a dSLR and learn the art of manual photography. I haven’t gone on a long trip since then, but I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Bay Area and capturing local treasures of growth and decay.

My story from that rural town isn’t complete yet. One of these days I plan to return to Washington state, Canon 30D in hand, hop out into its muddy thoroughfare, and get the snapshot of the sign that says “Nooksack.”

9 comments on “Nooksack: A Washington Town Left to Decay

  1. Blaize on said:

    When I was growing up, we went to a lot of ghost mines in Colorado and throughout the southwest. Not into the mine shafts, of course, but all around the works. My parents are both science geeks, my dad is especially interested in geology, my grandma was a rock hound, and my sister and I learned that tailings piles promised pieces of fool’s gold and, occasionally, turquoise. I blame my interest in abandoned things on these outings with my family.

    Your story, where your dad promised you future ownership of the dilapidated, is great. And you do, in my mind, have a certain ownership, at least in words and images.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    I have similar experiences to Blaize’s, and Washington was just around the corner from the family farm in Oregon, so I can definitely relate to the differences in decay between the town and city. An abandoned home deep in the forest is like nothing else. There are plenty of those in Oregon, and nothing the likes of which we find here in the Bay Area.

  3. Blaize on said:

    I haven’t experienced the abandoned-deep-in-the-forest that you talk about. I would be interested to see that. I am, because of my upbringing, extremely fond of abandoned-in-the-middle-of-the-desert-or-prairie aesthetic.

    I am intrigued by the different types of abandonment that people like to explore. Some people are generalists, but others seem to focus on industrial sites or housing or medical sites. When I see that kind of focus I wonder about the backstory. What made that person seek out that kind of thing, and not seek out others?

  4. Blaize & Jon, Thanks for your comments and stories.

    I didn’t have any access to abandoned places growing up, since I lived in the suburbs and was not allowed to wander as a kid. Even so, I’ve always dreamed about abandoned houses and fields and woodlands… In college I lived in the redwoods; I rarely found abandonments, but I did find many objects and shelters left there by students, hikers, and wanderers.

    However, now I’ve been in Oakland nearly 2 years, and the longer I live in the city, the more sway urban and industrial areas have over me too.

  5. Amy,
    I noticed that your writing is very good. The villian in your story that failed to buy that house for you was only doing it for your own good. You weren’t allow to wander because we just wanted you to be safe.

  6. James on said:

    You have captured an interesting side of Nooksack. My parents have lived in this town since the early 90’s and while there is certainly some of the decay that you speak of, it is quite a quaint town with it’s own charm. The post office is in fact operational (although quiet small) and sits across from the City Park. There is, in fact, a bit of renaissance that has begun to take place.

  7. Darrel Z on said:

    My three other brothers and I grew up in Nooksack. I was going to point out that the post office is still operational, but James beat me to it. One of the biggest memories was when the mercantile (Sturmans) burned up. I think that was the last of the bigger business to go. I now live in Olympia, but whenever I go near there, I just have to drive thru the old neighborhood. It certainly has changed. We used to live next to the “church camp”. It is now mostly a residential area.

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