• Population: 67,000
• Median Annual Household Income: $24,714
• Median Home Price: $89,100
• Climate: Seattle with a tad less drizzle
Texans talk about football, Manhattanites about real estate, Coloradans about inches of new powder. In Bellingham, they know their anadromous fishes. One recent night, Lummi tribespeople held their annual First Salmon Ceremony on the reservation just up the coast. Dancers brought in the year's first catch, and after salmon prayers and songs, everyone nibbled a bite of fish and the bones were cast into the bay. The next night, at the terminal where ferries depart for Alaska, hundreds of Anglos crowded the Jammin' for Salmon benefit, with four bands and a mascot in a sequined fish costume. Different melodies, same backbeat. For back-to-the-landers and those who never left it, Whatcom County casts a potent spell.
By the numbers, it offers 143 miles of shoreline, 3,000 miles of river and stream, jagged Cascade peaks topping 10,000 feet, thousand-year-old cedars. In one epic day—well, maybe two—you could wade in a tidepool, paddle from shoreline bluffs to a San Juan Island, snowshoe along a crevasse, plunge down rapids, scale a volcanic cliff, and canoe past organic berry farms on a paper-flat floodplain. One acre of every seven is a park or other green space.
Even so, Bellingham feels like a place in flux. A new waterfront spa sits next to a boiler works. The old homes on South Hill, near Western Washington University, overlook both the San Juans and the smokestacks of the Georgia Pacific paper mill. But townsfolk remain frighteningly pleasant—and why not? They're 90 minutes from Seattle, an hour from Vancouver, and a ferry ride from Alaska. Trivia bonus: You can enter Canada by heading southwest.
PLAYGROUNDS: Few places could host Bellingham's 82.5-mile Ski to Sea relay, held every Memorial Day weekend and open to hardcores and duffers alike. It starts with cross-country skiing at 10,778-foot Mount Baker, followed by downhill skiing, running, road cycling, Nooksack River canoeing, mountain biking, and five miles in a sea kayak across choppy Bellingham Bay. On the other 364 days, add to the mix kayaking and sailing in the San Juans, hiking and mountain biking in the foothills, beachcombing and scanning for harbor seals along the rocky shore, and wandering the 29 miles of trails threading through town. An hour or two away, there's fly-fishing in remote alpine lakes and hiking and climbing on a gargantuan scale in North Cascades National Park.
WORK: Be warned that the local alternative paper calls this the City of Subdued Incomes. Georgia Pacific just let go more than half its workforce, and Alcoa's aluminum smelter has stopped smelting for now, although petroleum refineries still pay well. Many people work at the university, hospitals, and Haggen Food's grocery headquarters; some latch onto TV or film production in Vancouver. Career baristas reach retirement before exhausting the possibilities at Brewed Awakening, Buzzz, Jitters, and their ad-infinitum rivals.
NEST: Check out the huge range: a modest chalet in the county's hinterlands for under $125,000, a needy farmhouse on 20 acres for $175,000, an 80-year-old three-bedroom with unblocked bay views for $327,000, a $4 million minilodge with 800 feet of Lake Whatcom shoreline that screams, "I sold my Microsoft at $110 a share!"
NEIGHBORS: Olympic kayaker whose team has won three straight Ski to Seas; Lummi majoring in environmental policy at Western; fisherman who gave it up to grow bamboo.
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Don wool socks and sandals for a night on the town; plant rhododendrons in your yard; shoot your own indie film.
WATERING HOLES: Popular downtown dance halls, full of cheap beer and collegians, include the Royal, 3B, and the smoke-free Wild Buffalo.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Recent projections call for 50,000 more county residents by 2010, so conflicts over the land-trust ethos, north-spreading sprawl, and affordable-housing gap seem likely to boil over in the years to come.