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Frozen gems

49 degrees North Mountain Resort. Courtesy photo

Blueberry-muffin sweetness of small, local ski areas

By Eric Lucas

“You look familiar,” I tell the Loup Loup lifty.

“Did you have lunch in the lodge?” He’s a platinum-haired gent like me, lean and weathered like the nearby trees, grinning mischievously. “Yep,” I reply, “a great bowl of chili.”

“Well, I served it to you. We all wear many hats here at the Loup. Now, heads up, ready steady…” He helps guide me skillfully to the center of the load platform as the resort’s quadruple chair swings around its turnstile to scoop me up unceremoniously like the pickup man at a bronc riding event.

I’m sitting in the middle because there’s no one else ready to ride. In fact, there’s no one else in line. And when I get up top, there’s no one on the slope. Not even any stray chipmunks.

Loup Loup Ski Bowl from the air. Courtesy photo

It’s 2:30 p.m. at one of the Northwest’s best little community ski areas, between Winthrop and Omak, a fine and fabled representative of a long-overlooked corner of the downhill ski universe. “Ski the Loup!” is its slogan, a deliriously simple and effective mnemonic device that Madison Avenue could not improve. Loup Loup, by the way, is apparently French for “wolf wolf,” which is about as sticky as dust, and was assigned the area by French trappers a million years ago. They saw wolves, golly.

And why should you ski the Loup?

It’s got 1,240 feet of vertical, which seems shrinky compared to the big boys (Whistler’s a mile; yes, one whole mile, its ads declare ostentatiously), but is plenty for a good, hard quick run. I once spent three days at one of the biggest resorts in the upper Midwest, and I could knock off its lone 530-foot black diamond run in 42 seconds. So, everything’s relative, right? The Loup boasts 300 acres (that’s 227 football fields, folks), and deliciously dry powder, which, if it were a martini, would get a grin from Sean Connery.

The Loup has but 10 runs. A volunteer nonprofit ski education outfit runs it. Their names are simple country monikers such as, well, “Volunteer” and “Hugh’s,” and they don’t mean Hugh Grant. The lifts are the chair, the poma and the rope, and are nameless. I spend the afternoon on “Bulldog,” a delicious black diamond run with three inches of fresh powder, mostly untracked, rolling down a spruce glade.

I take breaks in the lodge, hefting my boots up on the raised stone hearth of the merry Ponderosa pine fire.

I get a cup of coffee and a muffin from Betty, who’s moonlighting from her day job as a children’s librarian.

The spiffiest vehicle in the parking lot is a new crimson Dodge Ram, so big it has its own elevation.

No Porsches.

Designer wear is Carhartt.

I don’t have to dodge Rocket Man barreling down Bulldog at warp speed.

49 degrees North Mountain Resort chairlift at sunset. Courtesy photo

To say all this is laid-back sounds like faint praise, as if it’s blueberry-muffin skiing. Well, it is, but I get to run down Bulldog 10 times, experimentally trying out jump turns. Said blueberry muffin costs $3. Coffee, $2.

There are a dozen or so such areas in the Northwest, and they all offer a throwback style of outdoor recreation that is both charming and lots of fun. And because almost all of them are east of the Cascade crest, the snow is much lighter than fresh concrete, you’ll never ski through a puddle, and there’s a bright light in the southern sky you can use to see.

Personally, I favor the no-drama approach to skiing.

At Mt. Hood Meadows, I actually skied down a broad intermediate run so mellow that I closed my eyes for a few seconds to enjoy the physical sensation of glissading. (No, your honor, I didn’t actually do that. I don’t know what the ski patrol is talking about.)

At 49 Degrees North, up from Spokane, eight inches of fresh powder allows my beginner/intermediate companion to drift carefully down a black diamond run called Roller Coaster, which is aptly named. “I skied a black diamond? Really?” she exclaims. It was broad and unthreatening enough that I could easily ski down while watching her from above.

At sun-splashed Anthony Lakes high in eastern Oregon (7,100 feet), the 30K of divine Nordic trails around the namesake lakes are as fine as sherbet, broad as a boulevard, and will cost you just $25 for a trail pass. Up above, the 8,000-foot downhill mountain has easy-going runs called Broadway, Variety, Holiday and Claude’s.

The view from Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort chairlift. Courtesy photo

See how low-octane this all is? It harks back to a time when skiing’s only stratospheric spot was Sun Valley. In fact, years ago at a delightful little area up in B.C. called Crystal Mountain, I chuckled at a double chair so old it should have had historic designation, and while on it, called out to a fellow coming down on skis with cable bindings.

“Have you had those for 40 years?”

He tipped his cap. “Yep, found ‘em in the back of my garage last week.”

Alas, Crystal Mountain illustrates the temporal nature of these places. Most are open only four days a week; volunteers do the work, or no one does; cash flow is a trickle, not a Whistlerian avalanche. B.C.’s Crystal closed in 2014 after a lift “deropement” sent a few riders to the hospital, and the area’s owners could not find the money for safety upgrades. The dream of resurrection still lives on in Kelowna; meanwhile, I think it’s worth heading to these smaller areas just to keep alive a worthwhile facet of a sport that has otherwise grown as grandiose as Marvel Comics.

Whistler and Bachelor and the like are certainly thrilling. But while I can ski the longest intermediate run in North America at Whistler, I’ve never had Betty hand me a blueberry muffin fresh out of the oven with midmorning coffee, just in time for another training run down Bulldog. x

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, squash and apples. He never had skis with cable bindings, but his dad did.


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