Headwaters

Summer Lovin, But Not for Long

New neighbors, brace yourself: It’s not all sunshine and beargrass.

PHIL GROVE

T o the Flathead Valley transplant class of 2020: Welcome! You have to be the biggest in a generation. Regardless of what some of us jaded locals might say, there is plenty of room here for a few thousand new friends. In fact, I’ll argue that the Flathead could use some new residents; new talents and experiences make our communities richer and stronger.

If your first thought upon arrival here, after our government-mandated short-term lodging shutdown was lifted, was, “Am I missing something; why hasn’t this place exploded like Lake Tahoe?’’ Don’t worry, you’re not alone. As part of the transplant class of 2008, this was my first thought when I somehow stumbled upon a ski town next to a lake that was just as beautiful as it is today, and yet dead as a doornail compared to the California and Colorado resort scenes.

So why is Whitefish “the last” of the ski towns to not be completely overrun by money (well, this might be debatable), a place where regular folks can just ski and bike and swim and have a good time in one of the most beautiful spots in the country? Great question. I myself was only supposed to be here for a year from 2008 to 2009, but any time I think about leaving, I think, “Where would I find this again anywhere else?” But there are a few downsides to consider.

First, you probably moved here during our six-week midsummer window of perfection. The sun shines until 10 p.m, the lake is finally warm enough to invite a dip, and the backdrop of the Whitefish Range seems like it was created in a Mario World game. But know this: every nice day after Labor Day is a gift. Most of the boats at the lodge vacate their slips in September, and for good reason.

Second, winter here is long and relentless. Don’t listen to the marketing department at the mountain. They’ll have you believe we’re basically the next Aspen, Colorado. Truth is, for every sunny day in the winter there are 10 that are so cold, dark, and foggy you’ll definitely be questioning why you moved here. Do you know what fog balls are? You will, and you’ll be thankful for them. Big Mountain gets so foggy that the ski patrol pounds 6 inch neon orange circles on 4-foot poles down the middle of the groomers so you can find your way down. Fog balls are your friend, learn to love them.

Third, jobs and housing. Restaurants here have banners advertising dishwashing positions starting at $15 an hour as if it’s some sort of fortune. I haven’t checked in a while but I’m guessing that you’d need a lot of roommates at that wage. Oh, you’ve got a solid job. That’s great. And you want to buy a house?? A decent teardown in Whitefish is now pushing $300,000 but you can make it work, or at least that’s what the mortgage brokers will tell you.

It can definitely be hard to live here. We have a challenging climate, we’re a few hours from the nearest interstate, and flying in or out of here can be a chore, usually involving a connection or two. The Flathead Valley isn’t for everyone.

So is there any reason to be here other than just a few weeks in July? I certainly think so. One of my favorites is the seemingly never-ending fall. Aspen, birch, and cottonwoods are the first to go, followed by the native larch trees whose needles turn gold and paint the hillsides in the green and yellow colors of the Whitefish Bulldogs. Spring is late to arrive in the valley. If you can make it through our long winter, and are willing to hike up the mountain long after the lifts have closed, you’ll be rewarded with some great spring skiing with views of a beautiful lake you might not have seen all winter long.

I’ve come to realize the valley is growing, one way or another, so we might as well try and attract some interesting people. Look at some of the new businesses giving it a go here the last couple years. Jalisco Cantina, for example—some of those dreaded Californians have given us a Mexican restaurant that serves a great margarita.

If you’re new in town this year and a little unsure of the big move, give it some time. I think the place will grow on you. The people here are pretty great. It might take a minute to meet some new friends, but I think you’ll find that the Flathead Valley is one of those places “where everybody knows your name.”

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