Chasing Spirits in Bellingham, Washington
By Max Hartshorne
In early March, I spent some time in Bellingham, Washington, about two hours north of Seatac airport.
While riding the Airporter bus north, I met a man who said he’d lived in the city for twenty years. I asked him what had changed, and what was still the same. This is a question I am always interested to find out…what’s different, and what’s new?
No More Paper Mill
He said the biggest thing in Bellingham in early 2013 was that there was once a Georgia Pacific paper mill right next to the water and that the 137-acre site is now being re-imagined by city planners and a host of other stakeholders. Bellingham is a city that’s also famous for trains.
Very long coal trains traverse the tracks that run next to the ocean about eight times every day. Amtrak shares the tracks, for service from Seattle all the way up to Vancouver. It’s a wonderful train trip, (more about this later).
My Bellingham friend told me that the trains come west from Wyoming and are headed for Vancouver, where coal is loaded on ships and sent to Asia.
The talk of the town is about a proposal to increase the number of trains and to build a terminal in nearby Ferndale Washington, which would stop the trains short of the border but anger the legions of environmentalists by building an ugly marine terminal on the water.
Once a Major Logging Center
So these are the issues that lay before this old city, which was once a major logging center of the Northwest, and was created by merging Fairhaven, Bellingham, and two other towns into one metropolis. Today there are about 90,000 residents, and the county, Whatcom, is famous for the raspberries that are grown here.
A character named Dirty Dan Harris founded the historic and beautiful town of Fairhaven in the 1850s, where we were also told there are lots of ghosts.
There is also a world-class book store ere called Village Books, which could be a model on how to prosper selling books while engaging a local community of readers in myriad creative ways.
Western Washington University
Today Bellingham’s biggest employer is Western Washington University and there are two large oil refineries just outside of town. My friend on the Airporter said that people are willing to sacrifice high incomes to live here, just like he did. It’s a friendly city and the ocean is right here.
It’s easy to enjoy the ocean ambiance from the raised metal walkway that hugs the shore and the many biking and walking trails that snake down and around near the sea. Lots of condos and apartments are built looking out at the water nearby.
I settled into the Chrysalis Inn, which sits right above the big walkway that stretches out into the harbor and then runs parallel to the shore. A walking and bike path leads to one of the city’s institutions–Woods Coffee.
Amidst the berry farms, I met a couple who have figured out how to thrive by growing apples. The trick said Dory Belisle, of Bellewood Acres Farms, is to offer the fruit in as many ways as you can by distilling them into vodka, gin or eau de vie, vinegar, and making them into pies, drying them into chips, and doing everything except trying to sell them to every common grocery store where the price won’t keep up with all of your efforts.
The Belisle’s Bellewood is a temple to farmer’s ingenuity. There are gigantic wind blades that can be turned on to create big breezes to slow down sudden freezes, and there is their prize crop–the super sweet Honey Crisp Apple, which is beloved and turned into many different products.
The couple also holds weddings in their upstairs function room and is nurturing a young couple to take over for them after they retire, so all of this agricultural ingenuity doesn’t turn into housing lots.
We watched the master distiller explain how they make all of these different types of booze in their copper still, and tasted the very well-crafted products in their tasting room. Boy, what you can do with some good apples!
That evening after a tasty dinner at Keenan’s on the Pier, we walked over to historic Fairhaven, a compact, historic village where we met a local writer who has studied the mysterious orbs that appear when you shoot photos late at night.
Taimi Dunn Gorman wrote a book called Haunted Fairhaven, and she took us to some of the places around town where she’s seen ghosts and orbs herself. She owns an electromagnetic field meter that is useful to determine otherworldly forces around us.
Fairhaven is full of handsome buildings all built around the time of famous Dirty Dan Harris, the turn of the 20th century, and from many of them, there are pretty views looking down a hill at the ocean.
Inside one building called Sycamore Square, which is open in the middle and has four levels of open stairways circling up, the spirit of a former marshal and his wife, who may or may not have jumped to her death, is still restless and alive.
It was fun to hear about the stories and when one of us shot a photo with an unexplained orb in the corner, well, we believed too!
Fairhaven is the home of many locally-owned stores, and every time I visit a place like this I appreciate speaking to the owner and being helped out in my purchases. I found a toy store called the Toy Garden with lots of clever brainy little toys, and my writer friend found a steal of a leather jacket in a chic little boutique called Serendipity.
The jewel of Fairhaven, though, is Village Books, where there are three stories of inspiration and owners who have committed themselves to diversify their offerings well enough to push Amazon far out of people’s minds.
They succeed by making book signings a regular occurrence..more than 300 events like this a year–and by having a world-class cafe, called the Book Fare Cafe, offer treats that keep people coming in hungry and leaving satisfied.
I’ve been to plenty of bookstore cafes, but none offered salads with smoked salmon nuts and pears, turkey tarragon soup, and cookies this good!
After an impressive feast, we joined Christina Claassen, Village Books’ events manager, and learned more about Chuck and Dee Robinson, who founded the store 40 years ago. The store has some employees who have been there for 25 years, most for at least ten years.
They recommend books to their loyal customers and there is lots of community outreach–benefits for local charities of all stripes, a full-time community manager, and many donations to local charities. The all-time leader for drawing a crowd at a book signing was Garrison Keilor, but travel writer Rick Steves, who lives in nearby Edmunds, also packs them in.
One innovation I liked was that they stock new, used and remainder books, of the same title, side by side, so you can choose whichever type you prefer.
Old Town Cafe
Bellingham’s downtown is right near the water, and we had breakfast at a local institution called the Old Town Cafe, which for 17 years has been the home of hearty breakfasts for local families. Owner Diane Brainard said that every year they do a free Thanksgiving meal for up to 450 people. They also have something that is rare–gluten-free pancakes, and eggs served with spinach in tortillas.
It was a great way to fuel up for our snowshoe excursion to Mount Baker. This mountain at 10781 feet, is sometimes visible from the city and is where one of the city’s most famous events takes place every Memorial Day weekend.
Ski to Sea Race
It’s the Ski to Sea Race, where up to 500 eight-person teams depart from Mount Baker on skis, then switch to mountain bikes, then canoes down the Nooksack River all the way to the city.
Mount Baker has the most snow you can find just about anywhere in the US. Huge dumps in recent years (and just before we arrived) gave us the perfect surface for a day out on the trails.
We drove about an hour east to the Mount Baker highway, in the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to a visitor’s center with a diorama of the mountain and trails.
Our guide told us about the avalanches that are common here, it seems like common sense to avoid overhanging precipices…when we looked up at the higher elevations we could see skiers getting their rich reward after hiking all the way up on their trekking skis.
There is a new 2-mile snowshoe route created in 2012, adding to several other trails near Mt Baker. There is plenty of snow here well into spring.
It was a pristine day out on the trails, I watched with amusement a couple who tried to get their little dachshund to follow them as they skied up the mountain. He wasn’t interested and ended up in the pack on Mama’s back.
We worked up a big thirst and since we were in the Pacific Northwest, that could only mean one thing–beer.
The North Fork Beer Shrine
On the Mt Baker Highway in Deming, WA is a wedding chapel. Well, they call it that, but it’s more like a friendly, funky place with a Gerry-rigged 7 barrel brewery that was built with spare parts and very little automation.
The North Fork Beer Shrine’s brewmaster Sandy Savage told us that over the years, hundreds of locals and some tourists have been hitched right here in the dining room. With a menu of pizzas, salads, and their own beers, what else do you need?
British Style Beers
The brews here are British style, but thankfully, none were served at room temperature. We sampled a gaggle of little shots and each picked our own winners.
Many Bellinghamites have fond memories of stopping here at the North Fork after a day of skiing of snowshoeing, and the warm atmosphere makes it a popular stop with tourists too.
One of the things I came away with after spending time in Bellingham was how much the outdoors matters to people who live here.
Whether it was the ability to take a quick lunchtime walk on a bike trail, or how far away the great ski trails and snowshoeing on Mt Baker is, these are the factors that make people here happy.
The city is full of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas like their farmer’s market, which comes to life every spring with a bustling market and local produce from far and wide.
Old Growth Forest
Whatcom County has another jewel in Bellingham…the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve. We drove out of the city to this pretty four miles of hiking trails to discover a largely undisturbed old-growth forest. Some of the Douglas fir trees are over 400 years old!
We passed by two ponds and heard the story of the man who sold this land to the city, in order to keep it wild forever. He was a cantankerous old coot who lived long and took a while to convince that he should sell. It’s a pretty tract of land that today, anyone can enjoy hiking on, and see the work of beavers and feel the stillness of the oldest kind of forest.
Spirits at Mount Baker Distillery
Soon I would depart Bellingham on the Amtrak train that snakes along the coast 50 miles up to Vancouver. But I needed more spirit to carry me through my journey. The ghosts that Taimi Gorman tracks were still playing tricks on people in Fairhaven, but today, spirits of a different kind were being produced in Bellingham.
Troy Smith and his wife and family had a relative named Grandpa Abe Smith, born in 1842. He suffered hardships and afflictions fighting in the Civil War.
His post-war occupation was a moonshiner. Today, Troy and his family use six-generation-old recipes from Abe to distill their own corn-based moonshine at a small distillery set up in an industrial park outside of Bellingham. www.mountbakerdistillery.com
The best thing about moonshine isn’t the taste of the strong stuff, I realized. No, with 50% alcohol, it’s like gas doing down the hatch. But many of today’s modern moonshiners make vodka along with corn whisky, and they sell the moonshine with lots of recipes so you can make mixed drinks, not down it straight.
A Brewery Geek’s Brewery
On our final night in Bellingham, we met a couple who have been beer experts for decades and finally stopped globetrotting consulting gigs to settle down and become leading citizens of Bellingham.
Will and Mari Kemper own Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen, where we sampled a locavore dinner menu with lots of Washington state specialties. Clams from Barlean’s Fishery, a chicken salad made with the brewery’s own pilsner, and pizzas made in their wood-fired oven made a delicious feast.
Razzle Dazzle Brewery
For beer geeks, a treat was to tour Will’s own brewery, which is perhaps the most automated brewing system you can build. Every hose, nozzle, and switch is connected to electronic controls so the brewmaster can brew a whole batch and control it all from his laptop, from anywhere in the world. I guess when you’re an engineer and brewery designer geek, this is what your brewery looks like. Good beer too!
Find out more about Bellingham WA at their website.