A Little Hut with a Big Reputation

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – In November, a little shack is plopped down in the parking lot of Whitefish Lake Golf Club. This, to many people, means the Nordic ski season is about to begin.

This small parking lot outpost is known as the Outback Ski Shack, or simply the “Ski Shack” to many locals. When golf season is over and the snow falls, the golf course turns into the Glacier Nordic Center – more than seven miles of groomed cross country skiing trails. It’s considered the most popular cross country skiing destination in the Flathead Valley.

And each year the Outback Ski Shack is right in the middle of it all, offering skis and equipment for rent and purchase, professional lessons, repair and maintenance services, and advice.

In December, owner Laura Nugent celebrated her shop’s 20th year anniversary. That’s one year for every foot of the tiny shack’s length – at 12 feet wide by 20 feet long, Nugent’s store has stood strong through harsh winters and economic lulls.

Laura Nugent, right, leads a private skate ski lesson for Bob Blair at the Outback Ski Shack in Whitefish. The Nordic center recently celebrated their 20th year of business.

“Other businesspeople come in and say, ‘You probably have the best income per square foot I’ve ever seen,’” Nugent said. “We pack a lot in a really tiny space.”

The name “Outback” predates the current facility, which was constructed in 1997. It goes back to 1989, the shop’s first year. Prior to that first year, Nugent was already teaching ski lessons and helping with rentals at Grouse Mountain Lodge, which is located next to the groomed golf course trails.

In 1989, the lodge constructed a building at the south end of its property to house its Nordic ski services. Nugent said the facility was in the woods, facing a ski trail. When people at Grouse Mountain Lodge asked where it was, they were told: “It’s out back.” Thus the name was born.

After Nugent left that location in 1997, she moved into the small building that still holds the Outback Ski Shack today. Between November and April, the shack sits at the Glacier Nordic Center. The rest of year, it rests in a meadow on Nugent’s property.

“It gets jerked up onto a trailer and moved twice a year,” Nugent said.

Don Hartman, left, and Candy Hartman take off on their rented skis to explore the Nordic trails behind the Outback Ski Shack in Whitefish.

While the Outback Ski Shack is an independent entity, it works with the Glacier Nordic Club, which maintains the trails at the golf course and sponsors a popular youth ski league. Customers can inquire about the Glacier Nordic Club and sign up for its services at the Outback Ski Shack.

Though space is limited, the shack’s rental and retail offerings are surprisingly substantial. Top brands in skis, boots, clothing and other equipment are offered. Of particular value to customers, Nugent said, are the ski demos. People can sample a number of different brands and sizes of touring and skate skis until they find what suits them best.

“They can justify whether the $150 or $200 difference is really worth it,” Nugent said.

The Outback Ski Shack is respected for its lessons, both private and group. Nugent is a longtime instructor and her two employees – Kathy Colucci and Jessie Opel – also are instructors. During busy times, Nugent has other instructors available.

Nugent also offers special group clinics. These clinics range from business groups to birthday parties to special programs for home schools. With custom clinics, a group – say a wedding party – can coordinate its entire day as it wishes, with lessons, skiing, demos and the whole works.

Laura Nugent founded the Outback Ski Shack in Whitefish, which is celebrating its 20 anniversary.

Nugent has an extensive skiing background, or as Colucci says, “if you can do it on skis, she’s probably done it.” Nugent was a downhill ski instructor at the Mammoth and Telluride ski areas in the 1970s before she got into cross country skiing. Not one to wade into anything half-heartedly, Nugent eventually began competitive Nordic skiing, entering a number of races and participating in a world competition in Norway in 2004.

“There were 65-year-old women that blew past me like I was standing still,” Nugent said of the world competition. “It was an eye opener.”

Today, Nugent is focused on her lessons and her business, sharing her wealth of knowledge with locals and tourists alike. When she finds time for herself, you can usually bet she on skis somewhere.

“I’m a powder hound,” she said.

Outback Ski Shack is located at the trailhead of the Glacier Nordic Center at 1200 U.S. Highway 93 West in Whitefish. It can be reached at (406) 862-9498.