By Isaac Bonnell
As a young man, Tom Barnett never imagined that he would get into the hospitality industry. But that was before he discovered Ross Lake Resort.
Barnett came to Ross Lake Resort 38 years ago as a teenager looking for work and eventually bought the business with his wife, Carol. Located on the far eastern side of Whatcom County in North Cascades National Park, the resort is a conglomeration of 15 floating cabins. The only way to get there is by boat or by hiking two miles along the shore of Ross Lake.
“It’s kind of involved to get here, but people like that,” Barnett said. “It’s definitely remote. None of that technology stuff works up here. That’s hard for some folks, but it’s always a relief.”
The cabins were originally established for loggers and engineers building the nearby Ross Dam and were converted to a resort when construction of the dam finished in 1949. The cabins float on giant cedar logs that have remained buoyant since first felled more than 60 years ago.
“People really like the logging camp feel, with the shingled sides and wood docks,” Barnett said.
The natural environment is also a big draw for guests. Right outside the front door of the cabins, Jack Mountain rises 7,000 feet above the lake. The resort rents all kinds of boats — canoes, kayaks and little fishing dinghies — so guests can get out and explore the 23-mile-long lake. The lake boasts several native species of trout, more miles of hiking trails than you can walk in one vacation, and plenty of postcard-worthy vistas.
Barnett opens the resort in mid-June and stays open until the end of October, when the weather starts to get too cold for comfort. Many of his guests are on family vacations or just looking to get away for a while.
Word of this remote hideaway has spread and for the past few years the resort has been close to being completely booked before it even opens, Barnett said.
“We have a lot of regulars — people who come at the same time each year. The only time we have a vacancy is with no-shows or if someone leaves early,” he said. “If I had 500 rooms I could rent them all in the summer. You could rent a lot more than what there is, but it’s such a handfull. The maintenance of keeping them all floating would be a nightmare.”
The resort now averages 70 people per night and it is especially competitive to get reservations in late July and early August. Gary Cassidy of Bellingham might have something to do with that.
For the past 31 years, Cassidy has reserved cabins at Ross Lake Resort for an annual family vacation the first week in August.
“We’re pretty much in love with that place,” Cassidy said. “It has become a really big part of our lives.”
The family vacation started as a way for Cassidy to celebrate with his wife and four kids after returning from a season of fishing in Alaska. Cassidy is now semi-retired from fishing and his oldest son Andy is running the boat.
“As time went by we were able to get friends and other family members to participate and now as many as 50 people may come up for the week,” Cassidy said. “Some of them we may not see except for during this yearly adventure. No matter what trials and tribulations we have, this is a way to get away and reconnect with each other.”
The tradition became so ingrained in their family that Cassidy’s daughter, Jessie, eventually went to work at the resort as a teenager picking up guests and delivering luggage. Now 29, Jessie fondly remembers waiting for that day when her family and friends would invade the resort.
“That was always my favorite morning: I’d get up for a normal day of work, except I’d go pick up my whole family,” she said. “I’d always play lots of pranks. I knew which cabins everyone was staying in and I’d short-sheet some people.”
Working long days
Maintaining and operating the resort has taken a toll on Tom Barnett. The cabins require constant upkeep as the lake level fluctuates — it drops more than 100 feet in the wintertime when the dam is making electricity. And the remoteness just complicates everything.
“It’s more of a lifestyle than a business,” said Barnett, who rarely leaves the resort. “It’s not unusual for me to put in 12-hour days, seven days a week in the summer. But that’s what you have to do when you only have four and a half months to operate your business.”
During the winter, heavy snow loads can sink the cabins if they are not maintained. So the Barnetts check in often and spend time at the resort building new wooden rental boats. All of this work is tiring and more than once Barnett has contemplated selling the resort.
“I’ve been thinking about it for 10 years and I’m no closer now than 10 years ago,” he said. “I’m 54 and I’ve slowed down. I just don’t have the energy to do what I did 20 years ago.”
But the beauty of the North Cascades has a strong pull on the human heart: falling asleep to the sound of water lapping against a boat and waking up in the shadow of towering peaks.
“This is just an incredibly beautiful area,” Barnett said. “I’m not a world traveler, but I’ve been to a few places and there’s nothing like this.”
Whatcom County wilderness cabins
Most of Whatcom County is wilderness, places too remote or rugged for mankind to settle down. In fact, mountains cover the entire length of the county, from Chuckanut Mountain along the shoreline to Hozomeen Mountain along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Basically, we have plenty of places to take the family for a summer camping trip. But if tents and air mattresses aren’t your thing, try staying in one of the following wilderness cabins:
Ross Lake Resort: 15 floating cabins in North Cascades National Park, not accessible by car. $120 – $270 per night, depending on the cabin. Boats and fishing rod rentals are available. www.rosslakeresort.com
Silver Lake Park: 6 cabins and one lodge located north of Maple Falls. $78 – $173 per night. Offers boat rentals, horse rides and biking trails. www.whatcomcounty.us/parks/
Baker Lake Lodge: 9 rooms in large lodge located north of Concrete. $750 per night to rent whole facility. Offers tennis and basketball courts, meeting rooms and a suana. www.bakerlakelodge.com