Bauer, Wolf G. (1912-2016)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 6/28/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9440

It was his night, April 9, 2010, and Wolf Bauer looked every bit the star of the show. The Mountaineers club was honoring him as a "Living Legend." At age 98, he was short but straight and steady, his handshake firm, his eyes twinkling as he mingled with old friends, his long white eyebrows sprouting from his head like wings. More than 230 turned out at the club’s Seattle headquarters, paying $100 each for the dinner program. They were mostly climbers, because Bauer is recognized as an important pioneer of their sport in the Pacific Northwest. He started the Mountaineers’ first climbing course and helped create the Mountain Rescue Council. He also launched kayaking in the region and was an outstanding skier. But as his biographer, Lynn Hyde, would remind the audience that night, his biggest contributions were as a conservationist.

Bauer led a successful campaign to preserve the Green River Gorge. He drafted a "Natural Shorelines Act" with ideas that were incorporated into Washington’s landmark Shoreline Management Act. As a self-taught, self-described "hydro-geologist," he changed conventional thinking about how moving water affects the land.

"My degree was in ceramic engineering, but I studied geology too, and I probably did more with that," he said in a 2010 HistoryLink interview. He retired at age 63 from a productive career designing factories, and became a self-taught shoreline consultant. He believed that artificial barriers such as bulkheads eroded beaches, while porosity, usually in the form of added gravel, could save them. His ideas eventually were applied to a dozen beaches in Seattle and nearly 20 more elsewhere around Puget Sound. It was, he said, "always a fight against the bulkheads" -- a fight he often won.

From the Alps to the Cascades

Wolf G. Bauer was born on February 24, 1912, in the Bavarian Alps near the Austrian border. His maternal grandmother’s family, the Eplers, had settled in Seattle before the Great Fire of 1889. However, they sent his mother, Elsbeth, to school in England. She spent summers in the Alps, where she met Hubert Bauer, a German with a university degree in economic geography. They married, and Wolf was the first of their five children.

The family immigrated to Seattle when Wolf was 13. He didn’t speak English then, but learned it quickly. After he enrolled at Lincoln High School, scoutmaster Harry Higman recruited him into Boy Scout Troop 145 in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. He took to the new mountains around him, as a hiker and skier, and showed early signs of leadership.

In 1929, at age 17, Bauer was one of three scouts selected to receive a free membership in The Mountaineers. His knowledge of Alpine techniques and his natural competitiveness soon made him a standout among the club’s skiers. According to Mountaineers historian Lowell Skoog, Bauer won what was perhaps the first slalom race west of the Mississippi in March 1930 at the club’s Meany Ski Hut. That same day he placed third in the state’s first downhill race, a wild affair in which the racers started en masse and could choose their own routes. Three years later, he won that race spectacularly by taking a flying leap over a cornice at the top of Meany Hill.

Scholar and Teacher

Wolf’s father, Hubert, earned a doctorate in geography at the University of Washington in 1930 and then landed a job as president of a junior college in Montgomery, West Virginia, where Wolf completed high school. After a summer working on a Montana ranch, he entered the University of Washington School of Engineering.

While in college, Bauer continued to build a reputation among the Mountaineers as a daring skier and ambitious climber. But he also emerged as a teacher. In 1933, he got permission from the Seattle Area Council of the Boy Scouts to offer Explorer Scouts basic mountaineering instruction. For rock climbing practice, he took his students to a boulder near his home.

The Mountaineers’ established climbers generally were reluctant to teach, thinking others should learn as they had -- the hard way, on their own. Bauer saw a need for formal training. In 1934 he asked the Mountaineer Climbers’ Group, headed by Jack Hossack, to offer a climbing course. They agreed and asked him to teach it. Feeling he didn’t know enough, he sent for mountaineering books from Germany. When they arrived, "I really took fire," he recalled in 1980. "I studied those books and then went out and practiced by myself, until I had some of the new techniques down pat" (The Mountaineer Annual). His first free-hanging rappel, conducted in secrecy, was off the girders of Seattle’s Cowen Park Bridge. That evening, while his students watched from the stairwell railings, he lowered himself three stories down the central shaft of the Rialto Building downtown.

Climbing, Teaching, and Skiing

Thirty signed up for that first course. Studying and learning as he went, Bauer taught climbing and rescue techniques on field trips to nearby places such as Little Si and the sand bluffs at Fort Lawton. An intermediate class soon followed, with added material on flora, fauna, and geology. Students were tested, and more advanced climbers were required to help the beginners. Before long, Bauer and his students were making Northwest mountaineering history.

In 1935, when Bauer was 22, he and Jack Hossack were the first to reach the summit of Mount Rainier from its north side, along Ptarmigan Ridge. In 1936, shortly after his graduation from the University of Washington, Bauer and four of his intermediate course graduates were the first to scale Mount Goode, a 9,200-foot peak in the North Cascades that had stymied some of the region’s best climbers.

According to Hyde, Bauer was teaching techniques virtually unknown in the United States. He used an ice ax on Ptarmigan Ridge instead of an alpenstock. He favored soft-soled shoes instead of hard-nailed boots. He was first in the Northwest to import pitons -- metal spikes that are driven into ice or rock to support climbers -- and used them while climbing Mount Goode. His first graduates included Lloyd Anderson, who founded Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), and others who would become giants among Pacific Northwest climbers, some of them in turn teaching future legends such as Fred Beckey (b. 1923) and Jim and Lou Whittaker (twin brothers, b. 1929). Mountaineering historian Harry Majors called Bauer’s courses "the single greatest, most influential, and most enduring achievement in the history of Northwest climbing" (Northwest Mountaineering Journal).

Between climbing seasons, Bauer continued to excel as a skier. In the 1934 Silver Skis, a stampede of a race down Mount Rainier, he had the lead when he did a high-speed somersault. He broke a ski and lost both poles and his goggles, but still managed to finish fifth in a field of 60. In 1936, he took the Mountaineers’ triple crown, winning the club’s slalom, downhill, and cross-country championships. He was good enough that Eddie Bauer (1899-1986), the sporting goods retailer (and no relation) gave him skis to race in and, presumably, endorse.

Family and Career

Bauer had graduated in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree in ceramic engineering and a minor in geology, but he had no job waiting for him, so he took a graduate fellowship from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. That allowed him to continue his mountain exploits during the following school year.

His priorities then shifted. In 1936 he launched his engineering career with Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Co. on San Juan Island. That same year he married Harriet Woodward (1912-2010), a hiker and former high school athlete he had known since he was in Boy Scouts and she was in Girl Scouts. They fell in love at the University of Washington where she was a sculptor using the same kiln as the ceramic engineers. She had accompanied Bauer on his skiing and climbing weekends during college. They were married in Seattle on December 23 and lived in a primitive cabin near the Roche Harbor plant. Their first son, Rocky, was born about a year later in Friday Harbor.

During the next few years, the family would move often as Bauer changed jobs or job sites. A second son, Larry, was born in the spring of 1940 in Spokane while Bauer was working for Washington Brick & Lime Company. His boss there sent him to design lime plants in Republic, Washington, and Williams, Oregon. In 1942, Bauer took a job in St. Louis, working for a prominent engineer who designed lime-manufacturing equipment and plants. Exempted from military service because lime was needed for the war effort, Bauer spent what he described as "three professionally frantic" years traveling to about a dozen different plants in the East, Northwest, Canada, and Hawaii (Bauer and Hyde, 150).

The pace was wearing on him, and his travel was wearing on Harriet. They both missed the Pacific Northwest. In 1945, he quit his job, moved the family to Seattle’s University District, and established himself as an independent consulting engineer.

He and Harriet divorced after about 50 years together, but they remained friends until her death in February 2010.

Mountain Rescue

While on a three-month engineering tour in post-war Europe, Bauer learned about Bergwacht, a volunteer rescue group in Bavaria. In 1948, he persuaded The Mountaineers, the Washington Alpine Club, and the National Ski Patrol to sponsor a similar organization to provide year-round wilderness search and rescue. His co-organizers were Dr. Otto Trott (1911-1999), an expert mountaineer and ski patrol pioneer, and Ome Daiber (1908-1989), one of Bauer’s original climbing students. Bauer would teach field techniques and design and improve equipment, Trott would handle medical matters, and Daiber would head many of the search and rescue efforts.

Originally called the Mountain Rescue and Safety Council, the group’s name eventually was shortened to the Mountain Rescue Council. It was the first group of its kind in the United States. Bauer designed its logo, organized its first two annual conferences, and served as chairman for six years. Avalanches, lightning strikes, mountain climbing accidents, and airplane crashes prompted at least 15 rescue attempts in 1952 and 1953, many receiving front-page coverage in the Seattle newspapers.

The group got national attention in 1953 when Daiber was featured in the Saturday Evening Post as "The Man Who Rescues Mountain Climbers." As the value of the basic concept became apparent, local rescue councils were formed in other Washington cities. The idea went national in 1959 when the Mountain Rescue Association was created.

Launching a Water Sport

At the same time he was establishing the Mountain Rescue Council, Bauer was getting interested in foldboats -- collapsible kayaks that could fit into two portable pieces of luggage. As he wrote in the preface to his biography, "Introducing and developing the kayaking sports in a landscape of ideal river and island-studded waters became, for me, a consuming discovery" (Bauer and Hyde, xv). As he had done with mountain climbing and mountain rescue, he sent for books from Germany, where foldboating was an established sport. He also taught himself, studying the movement of water above the surface and below, using a mask and snorkel, to learn what he could about handling the boat. He created terms for water features such as "play spots" and maneuvers such as "eddy-christy" adapted from skiing.

In 1948, he founded the Washington Foldboat Club mostly with friends from The Mountaineers. They made the first descents of most of the major rivers in Western Washington, paddling without helmets and wearing World War II surplus aviator life jackets. Although rapids were part of the picture, he viewed the sport as "river touring"  -- a leisurely way to enjoy nature and something anyone could do, a combination of "exhilaration and rocking chair comfort" (Bauer and Hyde, 198). He believed, however, that an educational program was needed to teach safety and navigation. He designed a seven-week course that was offered through the YMCA starting in 1950.

Over the next 15 years, he instructed hundreds of new kayakers. He also mapped rivers, introducing the now standard Class I-V rating system. He and club members went farther in their travels, touring rivers in British Columbia, Alberta, and Idaho, and eventually exploring the Washington coast, Puget Sound, and islands in British Columbia. By the early 1960s, Bauer was designing and building rigid fiberglass boats that were watertight. They eclipsed the old foldboats, a switch that led to the club changing its name to the current Washington Kayak Club.

Besides educating, mapping, and designing, Bauer also was promoting. He sang kayaking’s praises in articles for the Seattle newspapers and regional boating publications. He staged races on Lake Washington. He even led the Opening Day boating parades through Montlake Cut.

Green River Gorge

Seeing wild rivers and shorelines from his kayak increasingly turned Bauer’s thoughts to conservation. He was worried about development spoiling recreation areas. As he neared retirement as a consulting engineer, "environment spearheading became a final love affair," he wrote in the preface to his biography (Bauer and Hyde, xvi). He got involved late in an unsuccessful effort to stop construction of dams on the Cowlitz River, but that primed him for a fight to save the 12-mile Green River Gorge, "the only river-cut canyon in Western Washington not inundated by utility company dams" (Bauer and Hyde, 221).

He explored, kayaked, and photographed the gorge, then presented a slideshow to the Nature Conservancy in early 1965, making a case for designation as an official conservation area. The State Parks and Recreation Commission agreed to research the situation with King County Parks and Recreation. Meanwhile, Bauer spread the word. A collection of his papers at the University of Washington includes an undated appeal to recreation, nature study, sports, scientific, and educational organizations around the state; it touted the gorge’s unique qualities as a recreation area and urged the groups to send letters supporting its conservation.

Bauer also wrote a cover story for the November 12, 1966, Seattle Times Sunday Magazine that brought wider public attention to the gorge. Titled "A Ribbon of Wilderness in Our Midst," the article described the gorge as a natural marvel and passionately made the case for protecting it. Five pages of his photos bolstered the argument. It was convincing enough that some of his language was included in the state parks department’s conservation proposal in 1968. The state legislature approved the measure in 1969, starting a program of private land acquisition and improved public access for Flaming Geyser and Kanaskat-Palmer state parks.

Focus on Shorelines

Before the gorge was officially preserved, Bauer had helped create the Washington Environmental Council and was widening his conservation focus. In a 1968 article titled "Our Shoreline Heritage," he warned that Puget Sound’s shorelines were being "blocked off and cluttered by haphazard, outdated environmental concepts and practices of waterfront tract developers and zoning commissions alike." He said all remaining natural Puget Sound and river shorelines should have green belt status. "Their preservation," he wrote, "is tied closely to our fame and fortune as a recreational water state."

Through his first-hand observations, Bauer was convinced that artificial barriers such as bulkheads and riprap that were intended to protect beaches or waterfront property actually had the opposite effect. In 1969, he drafted a "Natural Shorelines Act" aimed at controlling development and promoting better ways to offset erosion, an important step toward the state’s Shoreline Management Act in 1971.

He also sounded an alarm with "A Time for Understanding," a pamphlet published by The Mountaineers in 1970. Its tone was urgent. It described the geology of Puget Sound rivers and various shoreline features; pointed out that they were in danger; and strongly advocated "a public "Declaration for Land Use" for remaining undeveloped water-oriented open space."

Bauer's Growing Influence

Bauer became a fulltime shoreline resource consultant in 1975. "Instead of working for some client, I would now work for the public good," he wrote (Bauer and Hyde, 229). Professional coastal geologists and shoreline engineers were skeptical, partly because Bauer made up his own terms, such as "geo-hydraulics, "feeder bluff," and "accretion beaches." He had no degree in their field, just years of careful observation. At one point, a former kayaking student who was a pilot flew him over shorelines at 500 feet so he could photograph land forms and current action. "It didn’t take very long to make sense out of nature’s long-established shore erosion-accretion system," he said (Bauer and Hyde, 230). He concluded that gravel was a key to beach survival, because it provided porosity that could absorb wave action.

In 1985, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Bauer, then 73, had photographed and studied about 2,000 miles of Puget Sound shoreline. Bauer said later that he eventually covered 2,500 miles. He created a classification system for beaches, a tool that would allow for planning in sync with natural shore processes. He gave presentations and wrote reports, his goal being to "achieve a compromise of sustainable, eco-friendly design in development and to establish a legacy of public access" (Bauer and Hyde, 236).

Bauer found willing audiences. In 1974 -- the year before he began consulting on shorelines fulltime -- his resume already listed as recipients of his services 12 Washington counties, nine Washington municipalities, and nine Washington State governmental agencies, as well as engineering and law firms, developers, shore owners, and public works.

Bauer Beaches

That same year he was called in to address a problem at Tolmie State Park near Olympia. Its spit beach was eroding. The planned solution was to protect it with an offshore barrier, or riprapping. Bauer said no. Instead, he installed a gravel berm beach with dune grass. It worked and served as a model for other installations, which came to be called Bauer Beaches.

In 1977, Bauer produced a lengthy report for Seattle’s Department of Community Development. He already had done a five-hour presentation for city staff members. The written report was his assessment of public beaches at eight city parks. About Carkeek, for example, he wrote that the bulkhead along the railroad tracks prevented the bluffs from replenishing the shoreline: "Thus we have a material-starved and shrinking beach." He had similar appraisals for Golden Gardens, Myrtle Edwards, Lowman, Lincoln, and Discovery parks and Alki and Seola beaches. "Parks should be designed around their resources, not over them," he wrote. Bulkheads were a recurring problem.

Which of these parks did he get to alter? "All of them," he said in 2010 (Bauer interview). A dramatic example was the West Point Beach at Discovery Park in 1989. Bauer worked with engineers, wildlife experts, and scientists to take what had been a shrinking beach that disappeared at high tide and turn it into a wide, continually accessible stretch of gravel, rocks, driftwood, and dune grass. It was one of more than 30 state and city waterfront parks that he helped transform.

Accolades and Accomplishments

As the number of his beaches grew, so did recognition for Bauer’s accomplishments. In 1985, he and the other two founders of the Mountain Rescue Council won Jefferson Awards for public service. In 1991, he collected an award from the Washington State Department of Ecology for "his dedication and commitment in protecting shore resources under the Shoreline Management Act of 1971." In 1994, he was inducted into the Northwest Ski Hall of Fame. In 1998, the American Society of Landscape Architects gave him its national Alfred B. LaGasse Award, for contributions "to the management and conservancy of natural resources and/or public landscapes." In 2009, the lodge at Flaming Gorge State Park was renamed Wolf Bauer Lodge in recognition of his preservation work there.

The State House of Representatives adopted a resolution in 2010 saluting Bauer for "his dedication to outdoor education and safety, as well as his steadfast commitment to the preservation of Washington rivers and shorelines." It also noted that, at 98, he was still hiking the trails of Washington Park, near his home in Anacortes.

On his special night at the Mountaineers, Bauer answered quickly when asked what made him most proud. "The Green River Gorge," he said. "It’s the most unbelievable thing, that a million people live within a half hour or less from a 15-mile stretch of canyon (and) have no idea it’s right in their middle. I was so lucky to save it from the dams." Looking ahead, he sounded optimistic. "It’s important for the young people to understand they have a good chance to improve things," he said. Then he shrugged and added with a laugh, "Well, I can hope. You can only do so much" (Bauer interview).

More than five years after the night the Mountaineers honored him, Wolf Bauer died at the age of 103 on January 23, 2016.


Sources: Wolf Bauer and Lynn Hyde, Crags, Eddies and Riprap: The Sound Country Memoirs of Wolf Bauer (Seattle: Northwest Passage Press, 2010); Glenn Drosendahl interview with Wolf Bauer, April 9, 2010, Seattle; Lowell Skoog, "Wolf Bauer: Eighty Years on the Sharp End," Northwest Mountaineering Journal, 2005 accessed March 2010 (http://www.mountaineers.org/nwmj/05/051_Bauer1.html); Mary Lynn Hanley and Win Gentry, "Idealism Put to Work: A Portrait of Wolf Bauer," The Mountaineer Annual, 1980, pp. 19-21; Wolf G. Bauer Papers, 1953-1974, Accession No. 1669-001, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Wolf Bauer, "Our Shoreline Heritage," The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, September 15, 1968, pp. 6-7; Wolf Bauer, "A Time For Understanding," Heritage Series pamphlet (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1970); Gordy Holt, "Saving Our Dying Beaches: New Tactics Can Reclaim the Shoreline," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 4, 1985, p. C-1; Wolf Bauer, "Seattle Marine Resource Analysis, Preliminary Overview," May 26, 1977, report for the city of Seattle Department of Community Development; Bob Lane, "Beach Designer Is Bringing Good Tidings to West Point," The Seattle Times, May 23, 1989, p. B-2; "Conservationist, Outdoorsman Wolf Bauer Honored by State Legislature," San Juan Journal, January 29, 2010 (http://sanjuanjournal.com); Jack Broom, "Mountaineer Wolf Bauer Cherished the Northwest," The Seattle Times, January 28, 2016, p. B-6.
Note: This essay was updated on January 28, 2016.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Environment | Recreation

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