Whitefish @ 70
How a Ski Town and Mountain in the Northwest Corner of Montana became a Favorite Town and Mound
By Jules Older
If you snuck into my room in the middle of the night, shined a bright light in my eyes and said, “Tell me your favorite mountain and mountain town or I’ll kill your dog,” chances are I’d whisper “Whitefish.”
Even if I didn’t have a dog.
Which I don’t.
Odds are, you wouldn’t know what I meant — kinda’ like I’d said, “Rosebud” or “42.” But unlike the punchline of Citizen Kane or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Whitefish is real. It’s a town and ski area — the official title is Whitefish Mountain Resort, but as you’ll see, it’s more an old-fashioned local ski area discovered by proud fans from around the world than a resort.
What makes them so proud and me so fond?
Whitefish isn’t a tourist town; it’s a working town. Started as a stop on the railway (and yes, you can still get there by train on Amtrak’s Empire Builder), Whitefish, née Stumptown, evolved into a tourist destination in the 1940s. The visitors were hikers and Nordic skiers drawn to Glacier National Park, and alpine skiers schussing the new ski mountain next door. Today? Think Bend, minus the big population and the legal marijuana.
Though it skis big, Whitefish sits at low elevation —just over 6,800 feet at the summit — making it an ideal place to start skiing without altitude issues.
And though the town has only 6,500 full-time inhabitants and is pretty much in the epicenter of nowhere, it’s a foodie paradise. Here are but a few of the choices.
Café Kandahar in the on-mountain Kandahar Lodge provides the same level of haute dining as you’ll find in San Francisco or New York. Unlike San Francisco and New York, alligator is often on the menu. And when the sommelier — despite the fact that she looks nineteen — recites the history, terroir, acidity, minerality, diurnal complexity and other fascinating details about the glass of wine you’re about to sip, you know you’re in for an evening of haute.
Boat Club Restaurant. Aged steaks, fine wine, fresh seafood, and lake views, plus a chef who is both adventuresome and restrained — a rare combination. Save room for the huckleberry mud pie.
Breakfast at Swift Creek Café, where the coffee’s from Panama, the tea’s from Kenya, and the huevos rancheros is from cowboy heaven.
Lunch at Loula’s Café, the favorite of just about everyone in town … who are all there with you, almost every one of them savoring a slice of homemade pie.
And, for guests only, breakfast perfection at the Garden Wall Inn, including fresh-squeezed OJ, persimmons in the fruit cup, local eggs and … and you don’t want to leave, except to ski.
Oh, and the Summit House on top of the mountain, serves pho and burritos, along with the usual burger and fries.
Whitefish, the resort, is celebrating its 70th anniversary. And it’s still a quirky, locally owned ski hill. Quirky? The highlight of the week for just about ever is the Frabert Award at the Bierstube pub. The Frabert goes to, yes, The Clod of the Week. To learn more of Whitefish’s history of quirk and guts, read Hellroaring: Fifty Years on the Big Mountain by Jean Arthur.
The ski lessons are outstanding. I took one with Lori Rust; another with Kevin McConnell, and both times I came out a better skier than I’d been an hour or two before.
Whitefish has three other charms. It’s a 360-degree mountain, which lets you follow the sun and sweet snow all day. It’s not only uncrowded, it’s a rare bargain — day tickets cost well under $80. And, if that weren’t enough, Whitefish has snow ghosts, other-worldly layers of rime that coat the trees in ghosty white.
Those are some of the reasons I’ve always admired Whitefish. Now, there’s a new one.
In 2016, the town was beset by hate criminals. One lived in the spare bedroom of his mommy’s Whitefish vacation house. The rest — mostly wannabe-Nazis without the guts to come out from under their digital hoods — lived far away. From their moms’ basements, they launched cyber-attacks on Whitefish’s few Jewish citizens — and anyone with the temerity to come to their aid. The attacks were vicious, death-threatening, sometimes aimed at young children, and designed to ruin businesses and lives.
Since the haters attacked anybody who supported their Whitefish neighbors, the prudent response would be to pull your head in and try not to incur their wrath.
But living in the wilds of northwest Montana doesn’t inspire prudence. What the good folk of Whitefish did was stand with their neighbors and say, “Attack one of us, you take on all of us.”
The Neo-Nazis had to look elsewhere for more timid turf.
And that’s why I love Whitefish.
Jules Older: PhD, psychologist, medical educator, writer, editor, app creator, videographer, ePublisher. Big awards, big adventures, big fun. His ebook on hilarious travel disasters is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love.”