Whimsy on High

Developer adds three playful tree houses to vacation rentals on Big Mountain

By Molly Priddy
Snow Bear Chalets at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 15, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

There are few places in this world that evoke childhood freedoms and fun more than tree houses, those clubhouses up above it all where the kids rule the roost.

Gail Goodwin remembers this feeling well from her own childhood, when she, her siblings and her father, who was a contractor, built tree houses together.

“I grew up pounding nails with him,” Goodwin said on a particularly chilly December day at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

She stood in the skeleton of what will become one of three tree houses for adventurers of all ages, called Snow Bear Chalets. Situated directly next to Chair Three, the tree houses are a whimsical mix of classic alpine architecture and the structures found in fairytales. Nearby, snow machines worked tirelessly, and skiers and snowboarders whooshed by.

Snow Bear Chalets at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 15, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Snow Bear Chalets at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 15, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

More than a few heads turned on the chairlift and the gliding passersby when they spotted the tree houses, set as high as 30 feet off the ground. The swoopy shape of the roofs is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, and the turrets turn the tree houses into castles.

“I wanted to do something whimsical and fun,” Goodwin said. “I want people to be able to come here and be a child again.”

The first house will be completed in about six weeks, then another in eight weeks, and the final house in 12 weeks. Reservations for the first house, which will be available in March, are already pouring in, she said.

Goodwin’s desire to create interesting places for people started about three-and-a-half years ago, when she and her husband, Darryl Slattengren, bought an in-holder cabin on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Creativity was at a premium for what would eventually become a very popular vacation rental spot, called Glacier Bear Retreat. A bookcase hides a secret ladder to a ceiling full of fiber-optic stars, for example.

So when the couple bought the land on Big Mountain, Goodwin had free reign. Working with Bigfork architect Keith Beck, she dreamed up the tree houses so they wouldn’t have to completely deforest the lot.

Gabe Thomas at GT Builders started making the dream a reality, with funding help from Three Rivers Bank, Goodwin said. Her son and daughter-in-law, Max and Kristan, have also helped bring the tree houses to life.

The chalets are relatively small, with two of the three settling around 825 square feet and the largest at 1,425 square feet. Everything on the inside and the outside has been done with intention, Goodwin said. The steel girders holding up the houses will eventually be covered in a mix of recycled plastic, recycled rubber, and bark to mimic the trees around them.

Inside, Three Dog Down blankets will cover all the beds, ranging from king size to bunk beds for kids. Each window placement — and there are plenty to choose from — is specific so that people can get the best views from most points.

The master bedroom bed is cantilevered out from the wall, reminiscent of three-sided pop out on an RV, so visitors can wake up to an unobstructed view of the forest floor, 30 feet below.

Goodwin plans on filling the kitchen with top-line appliances and Cambria quartz, while the sitting room looks directly onto Chair Three. Outside on the deck, visitors won’t have to worry about shoveling a path to sit in the six-person hot tub, because the deck is heated.

So too will be the covered suspension bridge that brings people from land to the door.

All told, 22 people could sleep in all three tree houses, Goodwin said, which are named Ponderosa, Tamarack, and Cedar.

Building a house 30 feet in the air isn’t all fun and fairytales, though. Goodwin said they’ve faced considerable challenges during design and construction, because they had to take into consideration an average of 300 inches of snow annually, wind sheer, seismic activity, and more.

Safety is the priority, Goodwin said.

But fun is a close second. In the turret, a ladder will lead wanderers to a secret little room, on the ceiling of which will be 600 fiber-optic stars, set in the constellation patterns we see in Northwest Montana.

“I think of it as a mix between ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel,’” Goodwin said. “I won’t do boring. I just won’t.”

For more information on Snow Bear Chalets, visit www.snowbearchalets.com or call 406-848-1771.