So You Want to Live in ... Bellingham, Washington

Twenty minutes south of the Canadian border, this western Washington outpost prides itself on its handsome setting and sense of community.
By John Doerper

Every autumn, the chum salmon run in Whatcom Creek, which threads through the heart of Bellingham. The salmon spawn in the shallow riffles, unconcerned that urban buildings and garden trees, rather than towering cedars and firs, now shade their beds.

The fish leap a cascade to rise above the tidal shore at the spot where a lumber mill gave the city its start. After coal was discovered under Sehome Hill, now the home of Western Washington University, several small towns sprang up along Bellingham Bay; they consolidated in 1903 to become the city of Bellingham.

Shipyards soon followed, and the world's largest salmon cannery rose from the Fairhaven shore. The boom lasted a little more than a hundred years. Canneries shut down when the salmon declined; shingle mills and boatyards closed when they ran out of trees. Today, only a few rotting pilings mark their sites. The fishing harbor now caters mainly to pleasure boats.

Despite the loss of these industries, Bellingham's future looks bright. The city (population 68,000) has emerged as a regional shopping destination; white-collar jobs are replacing blue-collar ones, and well-to-do telecommuters and retirees pump money into the economy. Western Washington University is expanding as well, in part because of its splendid location on Sehome Hill, with grand views of the Canadian Coast Mountains to the north, the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands to the west, and the Olympic Mountains to the south.

Its setting has made Bellingham popular in recent years: The sheltered waters (both salt and fresh) are perfect for kayaking and sailing, and the tall mountains are ideal for hiking, mountain climbing, snowboarding, and skiing. Tallest of these peaks is volcanic Mount Baker (10,778 feet), which rises about 40 miles east of town at the edge of North Cascades National Park.

Yet even though it lies just 18 miles below the 49th parallel, Bellingham's climate is mild enough with infrequent frosts that a species of palm is hardy and camellias flourish. In spring, urban lawns are covered with daffodils and tulips; summer brings strawberries, blueberries, and cascades of roses; in autumn, apple, pear, and plum trees are weighed down by bushels of fruit. Winter can turn cold, but lowland snow is rare.

Pete Kremen came to Bellingham in 1974 without plans to stay. He was a news director on the rise, intending to use his job with a local radio station as a springboard to the big city. When his dream job was offered, however, he turned it down. Pete and his wife, Fidela, decided they liked Bellingham, its people, and the beautiful surroundings too much to move.

Dean Bumstead, a tree surgeon, moved here from New England for the town's splendid recreational choices: He paddles his sea kayak almost daily, rain or shine. He also competes in regional ski races and, at 46, is still a contender in Bellingham's annual May "Ski to Sea" race, a grueling multidiscipline competition that starts at the Mount Baker ski area and ends at the Fairhaven waterfront in south Bellingham.

Local kids who leave here because of the scarcity of well-paying jobs often retire in Bellingham. Ken Imus went away to California, made lots of money selling cars, and came back to spend a large portion of his profits rehabilitating the 1890s business district of Fairhaven, the part of Bellingham where he grew up. Now in his 70s, he's settling in a house he built overlooking the town, the bay, and the mountains he loves.

(published 2000)