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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Methow Suite: Determined young couple runs unique system of remote ski-in cabins

A budding young family from Alaska has relocated in Washington to maintain a system of ski-in and bike-in cabins in the Methow Valley.

The remote rustic accommodations are wildly popular, despite the lack of electricity or plumbing. Visitors must ski or snow bike 5 to 9 miles on groomed trails to reach the cabins. Although weekday openings are available, there’s a waiting list for weekend reservations.

“We don’t do any real advertising,” said Ben Nelson, who owns the Rendezvous Huts with his wife, Virginia. “We don’t really need to. People just kind of know about it.”

This winter season got off to a great start on the Methow Trails groomed for cross-country skiing and fat-tire snow biking. While other nordic areas in the state, including Mount Spokane, were almost bare of snow in December, the Methow lived up its reputation for snowy trails and sunny skies on the east slopes of the Cascades.

“That’s all we wanted – just a normal year to get our season and reservations off to a great start,” he said.

The Nelsons had to tap all of their Alaska-bred tenacity to endure their first year running the system of five cabins spread over more than 20 miles of trails in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

“We’re no different than a lot of people in the (Methow) Valley,” Nelson said, noting that a high degree of determination and resourcefulness is required to make a living in this niche of outdoor recreational heaven.

Ben had just finished building their house in Fairbanks when the huts business was listed for sale. “Everything happened suddenly and not exactly the way we would have planned it,” he said.

They moved from Fairbanks to Winthrop in 2013 with their first child – only 2 weeks old – with barely enough time to prepare the five cabins for winter.

A few weeks later, before the first snow fell for the 2013-2014 season, a storage shed fire destroyed three snowmobiles critical to the business they’d just assumed. The insurance had not yet transferred from the previous owner. They were stuck with the replacement bill.

As if nature was trying to break their backs, the 2013-2014 winter season delivered a discouraging dearth of snow to the Methow, which is widely considered to be the region’s Mecca for cross-country skiing.

“The old-timers told us that last year was the worst snow season in their memory,” Ben said. “It hurt a lot of businesses in the valley.”

But nature wasn’t done testing their mettle.

Summer lightning strikes ignited the 2014 Carlton Complex wildfire, which exploded up the Methow Valley for a total of more than 256,000 acres, the largest recorded in Washington.

“Lucky for us, the fires had no impact on the forest around our cabins or the Methow Trails that are groomed for skiing,” Nelson said. “But the fires affected everybody here personally because we know people who lost homes and animals. Worrying about all those people added another layer of stress.”

The Nelsons were lured to the Methow like so many before them. The Winthrop-Mazama area is the end of the road for steelhead and salmon migrating up the Methow River, as well as for tourists when snow closes the North Cascades Highway route over the Cascades for the winter.

The 200 kilometers of routes groomed by the nonprofit Methow Trails is the longest continuous groomed nordic trail system in the United States. Portions of the groomed trails system also are open to snow bikes and dogs.

The trails are situated in a transition zone of stunning beauty where sagebrush, orchards, vineyards and bitterbrush meet the national forest.

“Virginia’s parents retired and moved here from Alaska 10 years ago,” Nelson said. “We visited them during winter vacations after college and started looking for a way to move here ourselves.”

The Nelsons share the job of running the snowmobiles to maintain the cabins and shuttle gear for guests. They both have other jobs they’re balancing, as well as caring for Oliver, their toddler son.

“But that’s part of what it’s like to live in the Methow,” he said. “People are flexible with their time because everything’s so seasonal and everybody kind of needs another job to make things pencil out.”

The first of the Rendezvous Huts were established starting in 1985 by a string of previous owners.

Dan and Sandy Ciske of Seattle have been booking getaways from weekends to six-nighters at the huts for 28 years. “We were primarily backcountry skiers back then, but now we do more skating,” Dan said as they enjoyed the relative luxury of the Gardner Hut on New Year’s Eve.

“The original huts were very primitive with wind blowing through some of the cracks in the walls,” Sandy said.

More dependable year-round Forest Service permits have enabled the huts to be built larger and more efficient, but the owners have purposely kept them rustic.

“We like the propane lights, stove and the snowmobile gear-haul service,” Dan Ciske said. “We don’t need much more than that.”

Wood is stacked by the cabins and ready to split for the wood-heating stove, where a huge pot is stationed to melt snow for water. Utensils and necessary kitchen supplies are stocked in each cabin next to a propane cooking stove and oven.

Some winter visitors carry all of their gear into the huts, but most opt for the snowmobile gear-haul service. For $85 a load, the food, luggage, extra skis and water for a group of up to eight people will be waiting at the cabin when they arrive.

The huts, which accommodate up to eight, rent for $200 a night.

Visitors must ski up into the mountains 5 to 9 miles depending on which hut they’ve reserved. However, the routes are part of the groomed trails system.

A snowcat paves a track and skating lane almost to the doorstep of the remote cabins.

“From my research before buying the business, there’s nothing in the country like the Rendezvous Huts and the associated groomed trail system,” Nelson said.

“The business appealed to me because it was something I could get passionate about. I like to build and renovate. That will always be part of running the huts.”

Nelson already has started adding porches and other nice touches to the cabins.

“The challenge is finding the balance between what the old-timers expect out of the hut experience and what new people might want,” he said.

The winter business is pretty much running itself, with about 70 percent of the clientele coming from Western Washington, he said. Summer offers the most room for growth.

“We’re seeing more interest from snow bikers, who are allowed to ride the groomed trail 6 miles into the Grizzly Hut.

During summer, mountain bikers enjoy the huts as well as people who just want a cabin-camping experience.”

On New Year’s Day, a family group of eight, with two boys ages 8-10, skied the 9 miles to the Cassal Hut, the most remote on the system. The kids were tired but clearly empowered by their journey when they arrived at the cabin and the prospect of a warm fire and hot food and the sleeping loft.

“For some people, it’s an easy ski into the huts; for others it’s a challenging trip but they rise to the occasion,” Nelson said.

Each cabin has an outhouse. The facilities are a short but sometimes adventurous walk from the cabin in winter temperatures that can drop below zero.

“Adventure is part of the experience, but it’s an adventure almost anyone can do,” Nelson said.

“We want to make the huts comfortable while keeping them an affordable backcountry experience without too many amenities. People who visit the huts are seeking to get to a quiet, peaceful place. A lot of visitors go out for night skiing with their headlamps or under the light of the moon.”

Although cell phone service is available at some of the huts, guests generally are trying to get away from technology, he said.

“Virginia and I hit garage sales to find more old-fashioned board games to stock in the huts,” he said. “It’s the only time some families get to play them.”

With this season off to a great start, Nelson looks back at the shed fire that burned their snowmobiles as a positive.

“It set us back $20,000 and we haven’t made that up yet, but we have two new more efficient snowmobiles that are four-stroke, which means they’re quieter and less smelly,” he said. “That’s better for everybody.

“We prefer to look at our first year as the worst-case scenario. That means everything will get better from then on. We’ve had the best conditions of ski areas in the state this year and we couldn’t be more grateful.”