With more than 5,000 visitors during Christmas alone, businesses in the foothills thrive during winter
photo by Vincent Aiosa
It causes skiers to rejoice, drivers to curse, and if there’s enough of it, schools to cancel class.
Along the Mount Baker Highway, though, snow means money for local businesses. Approximately 5,000 people flock to the region between Christmas and New Year’s, filling rental cabins and crowding the ski area. That is, if there’s enough snow to ski or snowboard.
For Carole MacDonald, owner of The Inn at Mount Baker and president of the Mount Baker Foothills Chamber of Commerce, this time of year is a little slower than summer. But she said she still sees a steady stream of guests at her bed and breakfast despite the gloomy weather or, as with some years, a lack of snow.
“Nobody cancels because of the weather; they come anyway,” she said as she peeked out the window to see if Mount Baker had emerged from the clouds yet. “Sometimes they go up to the mountain and don’t stay very long, come back and watch movies or just take it easy, which is something most of us don’t ever do.”
Even if there isn’t knee-deep powder, as long as there is enough snow to ski on, the guests keep coming. In fact, The Inn got a slight boom in 2005 when the snow arrived late and for a few weeks Mount Baker was the only ski area open in the state.
“We got huge exposure that year because this was the only mountain you could ski on,” MacDonald said.
During the summer, MacDonald’s visitors have a variety of activities to pursue, from hiking to river rafting to just plain sightseeing. But in the wintertime, the focus is primarily on skiing or snowboarding at the Mount Baker ski area, she said.
For that reason, MacDonald gets the ski report faxed to The Inn twice a day so that she can relay the good (or bad) news to guests. And when the temperature drops and snow covers Maple Falls, where The Inn is located, the guests love it, she said.
“It makes it feel much more isolated,” she said. “And it’s just spectacular with all the snow on the trees.”
photo by Vincent Aiosa
This winter ‘best year ever’
Thanks to a long cold spell and steady snowfall this year, the Glacier Ski Shop has seen great business.
“We’re having our best year ever,” said John Adams, who owns the ski shop with his brother, Drew. “It seems like it gets busier up here every year.”
After an especially busy holiday season, Adams said, he and most of the staff are burned out from the rush. Business tends to level out for the rest of the ski season, which allows the staff of eight to schedule regular days off to go skiing, Adams said.
Growth in Whatcom County during the past several years has been a major contributor to increased traffic at the ski shop, Adams said. After all, there is only one road to the ski area and everyone passing through Glacier is also passing by the ski shop. The shop is quite noticeable: it’s the log cabin, which the Adams brothers built themselves, with a fence made of old skis.
“We’ve never really had a problem attracting business,” Adams said. “People see us. Location, location, location, that’s what we have.”
The increased car traffic has also spawned other amenities along the highway, such as a new gas station and a grocery store. In turn, this keeps more money in the local area and makes life easier for residents and visitors.
“It’s nice to have a few more businesses in town that eliminate your runs into Bellingham,” Adams said. “Now it’s rare that I go into Bellingham.”
Before finding your way to the Glacier Ski Shop, you first must pass by the Foothills Visitor Center in Maple Valley, which opened in 2002, where Rebecca Boonstra will fill you in on the inside scoop of fun local activities. This time of year is slow for Boonstra, though.
“I enjoy the slow pace of winter,” she said. “I get a lot done around the office.”
During the summertime, around 500 people each month stop at the little visitor center located on the northeast corner of Highway 542 and Silver Lake Road. Boonstra shows people the Foothills Visitor Guide, which was produced for the first time last year, and helps guide them to different activities.
“I’ve had everything from people planning weddings to spur of the moment trips,” she said.
In the wintertime, when the highway is clogged with cars going to the ski resort, Boonstra said she gets more snowshoers than skiers stopping by mainly because the visitor center doesn’t open until 10 a.m. With the first chair at the ski resort opening at 9 a.m., that means a majority of skiers are passing through Maple Falls before the visitor center is open.
But Boonstra still stays busy.
“Not everybody wants to climb Mount Baker, not everybody wants to ski,” Boonstra said.
In early-to mid-December, many people come up to see bald eagles feasting on salmon along the North Fork of the Nooksack River. Around Christmas, many guests come in to inquire about the best spot to find a Christmas tree or just to use the free Internet.
“I’ve met a lot of cool people that way,” Boonstra said. “The husband will check e-mail while the wife sips coffee, and then they’ll switch.”
photo by Isaac Bonnell
New visitor center essential for local business
Until four years ago, the visitor center didn’t exist. When MacDonald became president of the local chamber of commerce, though, she said a visitor center was a must-have.
“I realized that first summer that I was getting phone calls from people saying ‘Do you have a liquor store out there? Can I get my haircut while I’m there? Can I get a massage? Are there any restaurants?’ People had no idea what was out here,” MacDonald said.
In the quest to open a visitor center, MacDonald said she would have preferred to have a location on the south side of the highway, which would allow for an easy right-hand turn for vehicles traveling up the highway. Options were scarce, though, and she settled on the current location.
However, in November, the Chamber received an $800,000 grant from the Washington Department of Transportation to purchase property on the south side of the highway and open a new visitor center.
“Hopefully within six months we’ll have that deal sown up,” MacDonald said.
By then, the Glacier Ski Shop will be closed for the season. John and Drew will be over on Lopez Island running their other seasonal business, Lopez Kayaks, where they rent sea kayaks. The majority of cars on the Mount Baker Highway will be full of hikers instead of skiers and the snow that so gracefully decorates the foothills will be retreating to higher elevations.