Adapting to 'Outside'

Having spent five weeks in Bellingham, Washington, I'm realizing that it's a little different from the central Kenai Peninsula, where I've lived year-round since 1978.


Bellingham is blessed with an average annual rainfall of about 35 inches; Kenai, about 19. On that subject, Bellingham has the dubious distinction of having the lowest average sunshine amount of all U.S. cities with a population of more than 50,000. I'm told, however, that it can be quite dry in summer, when I'll be back in Alaska.

Bellingham has its good points. About a week ago, it started snowing -- and sticking -- on the Kenai Peninsula. It hasn't snowed yet in Bellingham. When it does, it usually goes away in a day or two. Kenai averages an annual total snowfall of about 5 feet; Bellingham, 1 foot. Bellingham's winter daytime average high is about 47 degrees, almost 20 degrees warmer than Kenai's. On Tuesday morning, just before I sat down to write this column, a friend in Sterling called and said, "It's 5 below here this morning." In Bellingham it was 50 above.

Like Alaska, Washington has some interesting wildlife. Cougars and bobcats prowl the woods. Three species of grouse -- blue, spruce and ruffed -- are "huntable." Wild turkeys are plentiful in parts of Eastern Washington. You're liable to see black-tailed deer most anywhere. Since arriving, I've seen one lying lifeless on the shoulder of the highway, and three eating an ornamental tree next to a condo unit.

I'd forgotten that Washington has skunks, but it's impossible to forget the distinctive stench of a road-killed specimen. Skunks are one animal that Alaska does well without. Funny thing, I was born and raised in Western Washington, but I've never seen a live skunk, only flat ones.

In Alaska, bears looking for food often conflict with humans. In Washington, it's raccoons. When I was growing up in Washington, in the 1940s and early 1950s, raccoons were scarce.  Due to a lack of predators, an abundance of human-supplied food and restrictions on hunting and trapping, raccoon populations have skyrocketed. As adaptable as coyotes, the masked marauders have invaded and taken up residence in urban areas.

Like bears, raccoons will eat almost anything, including garbage and pet food. Unlike bears, raccoons will have babies in your crawl space, and then argue with you about who owns the house. Unlike bears, raccoons will shinny up a drain spout and "den up" in the chimney of your fireplace. As to how to convince a mother raccoon to move herself and her young out your chimney, one Internet Web site suggests: "Keep the chimney damper closed, and put a loud radio tuned to a talk station in the fireplace." That would do the trick, all right, but People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would no doubt consider it cruelty.

In Washington, the main cause of raccoon-human conflicts is the same as the cause of most bear-human conflicts in Alaska: People think the animals are fun to watch, or they feel sorry for the animals and feed them, or they carelessly leave food where the animals can get into it. The animals become pests, and someone kills them.

Maybe Washington isn't that different from Alaska after all.

Les Palmer is spending his first winter as a snowbird in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at