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

By John Doerper
September 03, 2002

Every autumn, the chum salmon run in Whatcom Creek, whichthreads through the heart of Bellingham. The salmon spawn in theshallow 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 thespot where a lumber mill gave the city its start. After coal wasdiscovered under Sehome Hill, now the home of Western WashingtonUniversity, 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 canneryrose from the Fairhaven shore. The boom lasted a little more than ahundred 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 fishingharbor now caters mainly to pleasure boats.

Despite the loss of these industries, Bellingham's future looksbright. The city (population 68,000) has emerged as a regionalshopping destination; white-collar jobs are replacing blue-collarones, and well-to-do telecommuters and retirees pump money into theeconomy. Western Washington University is expanding as well, inpart because of its splendid location on Sehome Hill, with grandviews of the Canadian Coast Mountains to the north, the Salish Seaand the San Juan Islands to the west, and the Olympic Mountains tothe south.

Its setting has made Bellingham popular in recent years: Thesheltered waters (both salt and fresh) are perfect for kayaking andsailing, and the tall mountains are ideal for hiking, mountainclimbing, snowboarding, and skiing. Tallest of these peaks isvolcanic Mount Baker (10,778 feet), which rises about 40 miles eastof 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 aspecies of palm is hardy and camellias flourish. In spring, urbanlawns are covered with daffodils and tulips; summer bringsstrawberries, blueberries, and cascades of roses; in autumn, apple,pear, and plum trees are weighed down by bushels of fruit. Wintercan turn cold, but lowland snow is rare.

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

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

Local kids who leave here because of the scarcity of well-payingjobs often retire in Bellingham. Ken Imus went away to California,made lots of money selling cars, and came back to spend a largeportion of his profits rehabilitating the 1890s business districtof Fairhaven, the part of Bellingham where he grew up. Now in his70s, he's settling in a house he built overlooking the town, thebay, and the mountains he loves.

(published 2000)