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Sandpoint is a wealth of contradictions. Located in a part of Idaho known as the home to Aryan Nation Leader Richard Butler and former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman (of O.J. Simpson fame), it is nonetheless a liberal and diverse place. Locals feel the negative press the region gets over race issues is unfair, if for no other reason than the focal points of attention are not home-grown. What most people don’t know about Sandpoint is that it is one of the few towns in the world to offer the enviable combination of a huge, pristine lake and a great ski resort. But one thing is for sure: Once travelers stumble upon this gem, they stop for a closer look.
Situated 66 miles south of the Canadian border on the western shore of 45-mile-long, 1,200-foot-deep Lake Pend Oreille, (just say “pon-duh-ray”), Sandpoint is a small, park-studded town in a wild setting. From its south end, where the lake becomes the Pend Oreille River, the ground rises slowly north until it meets the southern end of the Selkirk Mountains. From the lake’s edge, one run-striped shoulder of Schweitzer Mountain, 12 miles distant, is visible.
The lake was long the domain of the timber companies, which ruled the area and its economy from the time of the railroad’s arrival in 1881 until the Sixties. Only the McFarland Cascade Pole Company can claim continuous operation since the early days, but the timber legacy is still apparent in Sandpoint’s architecture. Two-story brick structures mix with pre- and post-Depression frame homes, including stately five-bedroom mansionettes and Milltown cottages built by the timber companies. The forest that covered the surrounding country and attracted the timber companies is still here, but timber is slowing because of dwindling supplies of accessible forest and the continued rethinking of logging in the West due to environmental concerns.
New contenders for largest local employer are Litehouse Dressings, Coldwater Creek and the hospitality industry. When Litehouse opened its doors 36 years ago, it was a small restaurant in a tiny market. Now the company annually sells millions of dollars worth of bottled dressings in grocery stores nationwide. Coldwater Creek is another unlikely Sandpoint success story. The company, born in a bedroom closet in 1988, began as an environmental newsletter with a few select items for sale. Now it mails a half-dozen catalogs to millions quarterly and has a chain of high-profile outlets around the country, including a flagship store in downtown Sandpoint.
Sandpoint’s affair with tourism has been on again, off again since the Northern Pacific Railway built a destination hotel on the lake in the 1880s. People have been coming to fish and play on the water ever since, but it wasn’t until the Sixties that Schweitzer Mountain came on the scene to fill the winter tourism void.
Sandpoint and Schweitzer have had an intimate relationship since planners first drew up plans for the resort in 1961. The resort was founded by a group of Sandpoint and Spokane, Wash., businessmen, including Pack River Lumber Company owner Jim Brown, who eventually acquired all interest in the mountain and operated it until 1986, when he passed the reigns on to his daughter, Bobbie Huguenin. Funding for the first, mile-long Riblet (still operating as Chair One) was provided by local businessmen, housewives, farmers and children who bought shares at $10 a piece. Suz Dalby, a lifelong resident, still hangs the framed stock certificate her dad bought her when she was 13. “One of the best things that happened to Sandpoint was Schweitzer,” she says. “And skiing was one of the best things I got to do.” Skiing at Schweitzer is still one of her favorite pastimes, but the mountain her dad invested in is no longer in local ownership.
Schweitzer was acquired by Seattle-based Harbor Properties on Jan. 1, 1999. (Harbor has been in the ski business for 25 years at Stevens Pass and recently purchaseed Mission Ridge, both in the Cascades.) It had been struggling financially for five years, so locals greeted the sale with equal parts of relief and apprehension. Grooming and maintenance improved significantly after the takeover, but Harbor has been reluctant to tout itself as a savior. Steven Fina, Harbor marketing director, says future plans include upgrading Riblets to detachable quads, although the upgrades aren’t scheduled yet. “It’s all a function of skier visits, profits; whatever the revenue of the mountain will support,” explains Fina.
Harbor spent the summer quietly remodeling the area hotel, rebuilding and lighting the terrain park, installing two new handle lifts, and expanding the beginner area. The biggest bang of the summer was Harbor’s announcement of the $199 season pass. At a resort that has typically sold 2,500 passes in a good year, selling nearly 14,000 in two months was huge. Local skiers can’t decide whether they love the bargain pass price or hate it, but merchants are looking forward to the extra traffic flow. And that they will get. Once those 14,000 season-pass holders get a taste of Schweitzer, they’ll be hooked.
Harbor’s new tagline for Schweitzer is “The Mountain on the Lake,” which is apropos considering 75 percent of the terrain in the area’s two big glacial bowls offers views of the lake, in addition to open and gladed steeps, groomed “cruisers” for family skiing and gentle beginner areas. Of the 2,500 skiable acres, 40 percent is rated advanced and an equal amount is rated intermediate. Black-diamond favorites with easy access from the top of the resort’s single detachable quad include Pend Oreille, Sundance, White Lightning and Stiles. A little searching or a friendly local (most are) can take you to places such as Siberia, Australia or South Bowl, where steep and deep are the rule. Kathy’s Yard Sale and Glade-iator, two gladed runs in the North Bowl, opened last year to rave reviews. Conditions are as varied as the terrain. They’re downright gruesome on the rare days when 6 inches of “Pend Oreille premix” fall (it makes a great base!), but perfectly awesome after a 2-foot dump of 10-percent powder.
“I think Schweitzer is tremendous,” says recent Telluride transplant and Olympic skier Reidar Wahl. “The configuration of expert, blue and green is great.” An expert skier can enjoy 100 percent of this mountain.” Wahl and his wife “Dyno,” moved here from the high-octane atmosphere of Telluride, Colo., for a variety of reasons. Dyno, who grew up in Hawaii, needed a place that had water and a great ski area. They also wanted to raise their children in a down-to-earth environment. Sandpoint met all their criteria. “Raising kids in a strictly resort town gives them a limited view of the world,” says Reidar. “Sandpoint offers a lot more opportunities for kids.”
Many of those opportunities are a result of volunteer energy. Here, volunteerism is the backbone of a vital social and cultural community. Volunteers fuel the library, Festival at Sandpoint, Pend Oreille Arts Council, Panida Theater, youth sports, Bonner County Sportsman’s Association and Search and Rescue. North Idaho Pathways is linking the Sandpoint area with a volunteer-built and grant-funded bike path system.
Sandpoint is also a place of geological change. The lake becomes the river here, and the Selkirks come to their southern end. Harbor and the new residents discovering Sandpoint are bringing fresh ideas onto the scene, which makes some people nervous. But those people remember that Schweitzer itself was a new idea once, and that it was a combination of new ideas and old values, newcomers and old-timers, that put up the first lift. Newcomer Coldwater Creek is as vital a part of the economy as old-timer Litehouse, and tourism, which predates them both, grows bigger each year. People move here to change their lives. The question remains, however, will their lives change Sandpoint?