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The Still-Wild West

The Still-Wild West

Travel
By Gordon Wiltsie
posted: 11/19/1998

Situated on a large lake and pressed up against the mountain walls that lead into Glacier National Park, the town of Whitefish is the quintessential Montana mountain idyll. During the summer, snow-capped cliffs reflect in blue-green lakes, mountain goats graze in wildflower meadows, and rivers run high. Come winter, the region is blanketed in feathery snow, making for great skiing at The Big Mountain, the large yet underpopulated ski area just 10 minutes from Main Street. With an airport 12 miles from downtown, Whitefish is a paradise for urban refugees cum alpine adventurers. It's no surprise that the region's population has nearly doubled in just the past 10 years.

But Northwest Montana winters can be harsh, and endless snow, fog and subzero temperatures have been powerful forces in shaping the soul and character of Whitefish. Ever since the late 1800s, when the Great Northern Railroad first brought in loggers, ranchers and farmers, locals have had to be anvil tough to survive year-round living here. Most newcomers last barely two winters before limping back to their former homes.

The key to wintertime psychological survival is skiing. As early as 1934, pioneers such as school teacher "Mully" Muldown were using homemade skis and sealskins to climb what Mully called simply "that big mountain"-a name that has stuck. He helped found the Hell-Roaring Ski Club, whose members hauled a primitive rope-tow up the slopes in 1938. By 1947, local interest in skiing had boomed, and many members of the community helped finance and build a T-bar and ski lodge they hoped would transform Whitefish into a second Sun Valley.

By almost any standard, Mully struck on perfect raw material. Most winters, the 3,000 skiable acres of The Big Mountain are beset by blizzards that dump 300 inches of snow onto slopes challenging enough to train the likes of Tommy Moe, who learned to ski here and now has his favorite run named after him. At its best, Whitefish powder is rivaled only by that of the Wasatch. And on clear days, the views of Glacier Park are rivaled by none.

The Big Mountain will celebrate its 50th anniversary this winter. It promises to be a roaring celebration. An extraordinary amount of local sweat and financial risk have created a modern, beautifully situated ski area that lives up to its name. But thanks, at least in part, to the region's brutal weather, this resort has never shared Sun Valley's success. It hasn't attracted the rich and famous, and despite growing national attention, downtown Whitefish has changed little over the years. In fact, with its classic, false-fronted buildings and craftsman-style houses built during the Twenties, it doesn't look like a modern ski town at all. Even though skiing and tourism are rapidly replacing extractive industries as the major source of income, a large share of the Whitefish population continues to earn its living from logging, aluminum smelting and the railroad.

Not surprisingly, Whitefish is home to an eclectic mix of people. There are gregarious lifties such as Pam Robinson, who seems to know every season pass-holder by name and greets many with a peck on the cheek. And the loyal regulars of Great Northern Bar & Grill, a.k.a. Union Hall, who meet over beers to swap tales of their latest backcountry adventures. At the other end of the spectrum are major shareholders of companies such as 3-M, the San Francisco 49ers and Harley Davidson. Tucked somewhere in the middle is a broad mix of creative small-business owners such as Buck and Mary Pat Love, who built the slopeside Kandahar Lodge-one of the most comfortable places to stay in all of ski country.

Regardless of occupation, locals don't let the long winters slow them down. After a day at work or on the hill, residents choose from night cross-country skiing at the golf course, playing in the co-ed hockey league, relaxing in the large bookstore, or lounging on one of many warm bar stools.

"You have to have a zany sense off humor to survive here," says Matt Mosteller, a good friend who moved to Whitefish a few years ago and became the ski school director. "I call it a wacky-weather attitude." Indeed, the whole town is slightly off-beam. One of the biggest events of the winter is the annual Furniture Race, in which four-poster beds, TVs and other appliances hurtle down the slopes on skis, many bearing confused, if well-intended, pilots. Virtually any night can be mirthful at the slopeside Bierstube bar. This is where the ski patrol presents its weekly "Frabert" award for the most boneheaded move by a mountain employee. The trophy is a casted, bandaged toy monkey which, in various incarnations, has been the object of ransom and hostage-taking for five decades. Practical jokes are an ongoing source of local folklore. Before the health department intervened because of vermin in 1994, the downtown Palace Bar held regular pari-mutuel mouse races.

Whitefish is a town of survivors and skiers. Winter ends sometime mid-May. Then, for a few months, summer drops in for a visit. The landscape recovers its exuberant green brilliance, bursts with flowers and offers some of the finest scenery on earth. Rivers rise to kayak paddles, trails to hiking boots and back roads to knobby bike tires. Tourists flock from around the world, and cash registers ring. Life is warm and sunny again, real estate agents rejoice, and locals in the know gear up for another Montana winter.

Whitefish, Montana Almanac

Population 4,500
Elevation 3,025 feet
Median Home Price In Town $123,300
Median Home Tax $1,500
School Population 2,005
Ski Area Vertical 2,500 feet
Skiable Acres 3,000
Season Pass Before 11/3, $660; thereafter, $770
Lift Ticket $40
Average Annual Snowfall 330 inches
Best Local Event (winter) Wright'sFurniture Race, (summer) Big Mountain Amphitheater concerts
Locals' Favorite Restaurants Hellroaring (on-mountain pub); Whitefish Lake Restaurant (fine dining at golf course); Truby's (wood-fired pizza and wine); Great Northern Bar & Grill (affordable burgers and gyros)
Locals' Favorite Hangouts Bierstube (slopeside); Great Northern Brewery (après-ski); Palace Bar (rowdy)
Getting There Daily jet service to the Glacier Park International Airport, about 10 miles south of Whitefish. Many skiers also come via Amtrak from Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis.
Chamber Of Commerce P.O. Box 1120, Whitefish, Mont. 59937; (406) 862-3501; web site (www.whitefishmt.com); email (chamber@whitefishmt.com).

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