Among the Trees

Snow Bear Chalets, brought to life by 150 craftspeople and complex engineering ingenuity, are recognized as one of Time Magazine’s World’s Greatest Places

By Myers Reece
Snow Bear Chalets on Big Mountain. Photo courtesy of Trevon Baker

Gail Goodwin, a successful real estate developer and entrepreneur, gazed into the trees on Big Mountain a few years ago and had an idea. Her next project, on an undeveloped parcel of land originally owned by the family of Whitefish Mountain Resort cofounder Ed Schenck, would be different than all the others. It would be unique, enduring and lofty in the most literal sense.

Goodwin couldn’t have predicted that within a year of opening her luxury treehouse accommodations, called Snow Bear Chalets, Time Magazine would name the rentals on its list of the World’s Greatest Places 2018, an honor bestowed on only 100 destinations across the globe.

Dubbed the “world’s first slopeside, ski-in/ski-out luxury treehouse chalets,” the Ponderosa, Tamarack and Cedar chalets are perched 25 feet above the forest floor and situated directly adjacent to Chair 3 within sight of the Central Avenue terrain park, allowing chalet visitors to watch as skiers ply their winter trade, including the likes of Olympian Maggie Voisin, who frequents the terrain park on her home mountain.

Voisin is also a fan of the chalets, having left a rave review in the guest book following a weeklong stay to wind down after the Olympics. Other glowing testimonials have come from the likes of Sir Richard Branson and actress Mariel Hemingway.

While Goodwin is always pleased to see happy customers, the responses to the chalets are particularly meaningful, given the amount of creative energy, not to mention manpower and engineering expertise, devoted to developing an imaginative concept into a viable reality.

Luxury abounds in the Cedar’s main level. Photo courtesy of Trevon Baker

“We wanted to offer our guests not just a great property in the best location, but a complete, unique experience that they can’t find anywhere else,” Goodwin said.

The inspiration for Snow Bear Chalets is rooted in Goodwin’s childhood in Pennsylvania during the 1960s, when her father, a general contractor, helped Goodwin and her siblings build a rough treehouse out of scrap lumber in an oak tree near their house.

“It was a place without limitations where my imagination could run free,” Goodwin said. “If I wanted it to be a rocket ship, a castle or a mansion, in my mind, it was. As a child in that treehouse, nothing was impossible.”

Through decades of success in the real estate development industry, Goodwin kept that childhood treehouse in the back of her mind and finally decided to build one.

“At some point in our lives, I think we’ve all dreamed of living in a storybook treehouse,” she said.

Visitors can relax in their own private hot tub after a long day of skiing. Photo courtesy of Max Elman

The trick was finding a piece of property that would be ideally located and suitable for building a decidedly non-traditional structure on it. After fruitlessly searching for months, Goodwin came across an un-zoned parcel on Big Mountain. The family of Schenck, the resort’s cofounder, had owned the land but never developed it. Since it was un-zoned, she was free to pursue her treehouse ambitions, literally feet away from the resort’s slopes.

“We’re so grateful to have found this parcel, as we believe it’s the best location on the mountain,” Goodwin said.

And so her dream project was launched, with Goodwin committed to building something that would honor Schenck’s legacy. Goodwin drew up original plans and then hired a local draftsman to complete drawings for the chalets. As the project moved forward, Goodwin later enlisted Malmquist Construction to tackle the complicated logistics of constructing structures 25 feet in the air.

The chalets aren’t actually built on trees. Goodwin said the coniferous species in the area couldn’t support the weight, and furthermore she didn’t want to harm the mature trees.

“They’re in the trees but not on the trees,” she said. “My whole point in doing this was not to cut the trees down.”

The chalets rest on complexly engineered and heavily reinforced pillars constructed of helical piers and I-beams, covered in a realistic-looking “bark” material that squirrels frolic on as if it’s real.

“If it fools the squirrels, I’m good with it,” she said.

The loft bedroom sleeps four in a king and two bunks under stunning architectural details. Photo courtesy of Trevon Baker

Goodwin modeled the project after her Glacier Bear Retreat, which she constructed five years ago in Glacier National Park. Though the accommodations are “storybook inspired,” Goodwin approached the challenging endeavor with a meticulous seriousness honed during her nearly 40 years of real estate development.

In both the design and interior’s composition of high-quality materials, Goodwin was guided by a philosophy of mixing “super luxurious” with whimsical, asking the question: “If Hansel and Gretel got together with Harry Potter and built a house, would they put this in there?”

Goodwin named the three chalets, which sleep anywhere between six and 10 people, after the types of trees located on the property.

“We wanted to honor the trees,” she said.

Between the time of groundbreaking in August 2016 and completion in September 2017, Goodwin estimates 150 craftspeople altogether worked on the chalets, battling harsh winters. She raved about Malmquist Construction, as well as Three Rivers Bank, which lent unwavering support to a difficult, offbeat project, as did her husband, Darryl Slattengren.

Drew Fortner of Basecamp Coworking space in Whitefish. Justin Franz | Flathead Living

“I can’t say enough about Malmquist,” she said. “And none of this would have happened without Three Rivers Bank. They stepped in and said, ‘We believe in you and we believe in the project.’”

Bear Barinowski, project manager with Malmquist Construction, says the chalets are one-of-a-kind in their creativity of design and requisite ingenuity of engineering and construction.

“Malmquist Construction has worked on a huge array of structures in our business over the past 22 years in Whitefish,” Barinowski said. “Never has a structure captured our attention like Snow Bear Chalets.”

Dan Graves, CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the chalets “remind me of my childlike wonderment of what it would be like to live in the trees,” which is precisely Goodwin’s goal. She said adult visitors tend to get caught up in the chalets’ fairy-tale whimsy as much as their children and grandchildren do.

Goodwin’s father, a homebuilder and contractor who planted the seeds for her own development career, passed away without seeing the chalets come to fruition. But Goodwin felt his presence, and still does.

“He didn’t see it happen,” she said, “but I like to think it happened because of him.”