Ski industry may not be prominent, but it’s thriving
Photo by Isaac Bonnell
Bellingham can be described in a number of ways: a college town, the “city of subdued excitement,” or just another place to stop for gas before crossing the border.
But is it a ski town?
There are certainly enough Subarus with “Go East 542” stickers and local ski shops to warrant the title. But compared to some of the more prominent ski towns like Vail or Sun Valley or even Whistler, something seems different about Bellingham.
“I don’t view Bellingham as a ski town because we’ve got too much going on here,” said Bill McGown, director of product development for the Bellingham-based glove designing firm Tabar. “Are we a mountain biking town? Are we a water sports town? Or are we a ski town? The mild weather makes this more than a one-sport town.”
Chances are that most of the skiers and snowboarders up at the Mount Baker Ski Area are wearing a pair of gloves designed by one of the eight staff members at Tabar. The company designs more than 300 gloves a year for labels such as REI, Mountain Hardware and Outdoor Research.
McGown often takes ski trips with industry executives in Utah or California. He flies to corporate headquarters all over the world to hobnob with clients. It’s the life any ski or snowboard bum would dream of — and it’s all based out of cozy, quiet Bellingham.
“The success of Tabar in Bellingham is closely tied to the outdoor sports scene here,” McGown said. “If you ask anybody here, many of them say they live here for the proximity to recreational resources.”
No place like your home mountain
Bellingham may not be a ski mecca like other towns, but it is a great place to design gloves, McGown said.
“This is a great sports town. The same guy who mountain bikes Galbraith for a third of the year might hang up his bike and go telemark skiing for the winter,” he said. “There are a lot of people in this town who like to play outdoors.”
Jeff Galbraith, publisher of The Ski Journal and frequency: The Snowboarder’s Journal and no relation to the local mountain, is one of those people. He has skied more places than most — Japan, South America, Norway, not to mention a handful of North American ski resorts.
When it came time to settle down and launch the ski and snowboard magazines, Galbraith knew he wanted to be in Bellingham and close to the Mount Baker Ski Area, where he first learned to snowboard.
“Bellingham is different than other ski towns because it’s not the main economy for the area,” Galbraith said.
Unlike other towns where snowboarders crowd the bars and Gore-Tex and goggles are in vogue, Bellingham has a more laid-back scene.
“There are other areas that get more visibility, but what Mount Baker has is more unique,” Galbraith said.
So what makes Mount Baker different?
For starters, there aren’t any condos or hotels on the mountain, thus it lacks that “resort” feeling. In fact, this is true for most of the ski areas in Washington, McGown pointed out.
“Washington is like a giant, locals-only ski area and Baker fits that,” McGown said. “I don’t know that there are many places like that around the country.”
And with a strong following of snow addicts, skiing around here has become more than a vacation-only activity.
“Here it’s more integrated into people’s day-to-day activities. It’s like surfing in Hawaii,” Galbraith said. “You go take a few turns in the morning and you know the guys at the North Fork or at Milano’s.”
Photo courtesy of Tabar
Taking a snow day
Another hallmark of a ski town is the powder rule: If last night’s storm left two feet of fresh snow on the mountain, then there’s no use going to work. Call in sick — hopefully your boss will understand.
Being in the snow industry, McGown understands all too well.
“We have a fairly easy arrangement with employees, so if it’s a great snow day, leave us a voicemail and just go,” he said. “Nobody abuses it, but everybody uses it. It’s the same for sunny days too. If you need to go for a bike ride, just go.
“Part of it is the size of our business right now. Maybe there will be a day when we’re larger and need more structure. But right now we’re taking advantage of having less structure.”
Longtime resident and snowboarder Burnadette Castner has made sure that her job is flexible enough to allow her to take snow days. As the development director for RE Sources, she often works nights and weekends — meaning she can easily justify a morning at the mountain.
But Castner picks her days carefully and watches the snow report for powder.
“If there are nine inches or more, I’ll ride,” she said. “When we have the opportunity to ride deep powder, people realize that the opportunity is not always going to be there, so why waste it at work? And when there’s no snow, I find something else to do.”
So when Castner awoke one morning during the week before Christmas to find that Mount Baker had 17 inches of fresh snow, she had no problem calling in sick. And she wasn’t alone on the mountain. For Castner, that is the sure sign of a ski town.
Bellingham may not be a traditional ski town, but has all the right symptoms.
Check the snow report
To find out current weather conditions up at the Mount Baker Ski Area, call the snow phone at 671-0211 or check out the Web site: www.mtbaker.us.
Tune your gear
Make sure your skis and snowboards have a fresh wax and sharp edges. Below is a list of Bellingham shops that offer tune-ups and repair:
- REI: 647-8955
- Sportsman Chalet: 671-1044
- Backcountry Essentials: 543-5678
- Fairhaven Bike & Ski: 733-4433
- WWS: 676-1146