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Recreation

Despite Izaak Walton’s Winter Woes, Groomer Pledges to Keep Cross-country Ski Tradition Alive

Under new ownership, the historic lodge will remain closed for winter as construction delays stalled plans for renovation. But one man and his pistenbully hopes to preserve the Essex area’s most beloved tradition

By Tristan Scott
Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A year ago, when the Izaak Walton Inn’s new owners told Essex residents they’d need to close the 90-year-old lodge for the summer to complete renovations in time for a winter opening, the locals were mostly understanding. But upon hearing news that financial shortcomings had forestalled the refurbishment, reducing the year-round staff to a small handful of workers and pushing the closure into next summer, there was one pressing question: Who’s going to groom the ski trails?

Michael Reavis answered the call.

Having worked at the Izaak for the past 15 winters, Reavis said he’s “done just about every job other than housekeeping,” and for the past seven seasons he’s overseen snow removal and grooming, a position the Inn’s new owner, the Washington-based hospitality company LOGE Camps, promised would be waiting for him when the snow flies.

“That’s kind of my lifeline up here in terms of work, and I figured they’d need snow removal whether they were open or not,” Reavis said. “When I heard LOGE wasn’t going to reopen this winter, I inquired about the grooming situation. They bought a bunch of diesel and offered me the job, with the caveat that they weren’t going to market or advertise or sell ski passes, and if anything breaks down mechanically there’s no guarantee it will get repaired. Basically, they said, ‘we’re doing this for the locals.’”

The Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Beacon file photo

Built in 1939 by the Addison Miller Company in partnership with the Great Northern Railway, the Izaak Walton Inn has remained one of the few hotels that is open year-round near the park, and its network of ski trails makes it a popular destination in the winter as well as during the summer months. Located halfway between West Glacier and East Glacier Park, the Izaak Walton has even earned a nickname over the years: “the inn between.” Unlike the east and west sides of the park — which can be overwhelmed with visitors during the busy summer months — Essex is a quiet oasis, with most of the wintertime traffic generated by skiers.

With a tiny population of a six dozen people, the residents living in the unincorporated community of Essex are wary of change. So, when the Inn’s former owner, Brian Kelly, announced he was selling the Izaak to LOGE — pronounced “Lodge,” LOGE is an acronym for “Live Outside, Go Explore” — longtime locals were curious about what was in store for the community hub, and whether the company would continue to prioritize grooming the cross-country ski trails.

In January, the new owners laid those concerns to rest at a community meeting, where they assured locals that skiing would remain a focus during the winter and they need not worry about a dramatic “overhaul” of the beloved property. Still, in order to focus on renovating the three-story inn’s interior, including its guest rooms, restaurant and bar, LOGE would need to close the hotel for the summer.

According to Slate Olson, head of marketing at LOGE, the company’s plans to make those improvements were complicated when interest rates surged in the wake of California-based Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse, jeopardizing its financing.

“Securing financing with local and regional banks got a lot more complicated in 2023, and unfortunately it just wasn’t possible for us to complete the work and reopen in time for winter,” Olson said. “We still remain super excited about what all we have accomplished, but I’d be lying to you if I said we weren’t frustrated to not be making good on the promises that we made last winter. The delays were unanticipated.”

Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“But the good news is that the ski trails will be open and groomed and lit, and we hope that helps preserve some of what the people love about this area,” Olson said. “And while I share everyone’s disappointment that we are not going to be fully open and capture a lot of longtime loyal guests who visit the Izaak every year, I am excited that we are going to have everything dialed and dusted off this summer.”

For longtime Essex resident Larry Epstein, who grew up in Cut Bank but spent his childhood summers and winters visiting his grandparents at the cabin they built in Essex in 1929, the improvements are a welcome development at a lodge originally build out of pressboard.

“It was built for railroaders, and prior to Sid Goodrich buying it the place was a wreck,” Epstein said. “The pipes were bad, there was a bullet hole in the ceiling. I’m impressed with how much work the new owners have accomplished in just the past couple months. They’re on it.”

After Goodrich sold the Izaak Walton, Larry and Linda Vielleux owned the property before selling to Kelly. Epstein doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the historic Inn’s past owners who have come and gone through the years, but the ski trails and the lodge’s year-round services have mostly remained the same for a half-century, and locals are protective of them.

“This is our fourth set of owners, so we’re used to change,” said Epstein, who spent his career working as the Glacier County Attorney before retiring to his home in Essex. “I grew up here and helped build the ski trails under Sid Goodrich. There were no ski trails at all back then, but Sid bought the hotel and applied for a Forest Service permit and set about clearing and building the trails in the area. I was in a Boy Scout troop in Cut Bank and the kids would go to Essex to perform their public service projects and clear brush, then Sid would host the kids for a week of skiing. That was our reward.”

The Izaak Walton Inn shortly after it was built. Contributed photo

In recent years, advanced grooming equipment has allowed the Izaak Walton Inn’s fleet of groomers to manicure the ski trails into perfect ribbons of corduroy, a point of pride for Reavis.

“We’ve built such a consistent grooming program out here and it’s only gotten better,” Reavis said, noting that daily grooming reports help visitors plan their ski trips in advance. “It’s really hard for people to drive 60 miles out of the Flathead Valley only to arrive here and there’s no grooming. We had a good thing going and we were starting to get more clientele out here who expected quality grooming. I was worried that people would forget and that we’d lose that head of steam.”

In a recent Facebook post to a cross-country skiing community group, Reavis laid out his grooming schedule for the winter, noting that he’ll prep the trails along Dickey Creek and Essex Road for skate and classic skiing every Friday, barring any unforeseen mechanical issues or major weather events.

“Ski at your own risk and keep your expectations low,” Reavis wrote. “With more interest, I can groom more terrain as the winter progresses. And for the love of all good in this life, don’t hike on the groomed trails please.”

The view from Michael Reavis’ pistenbully on a recent December morning. Contributed photo

Although Reavis has already encountered a scofflaw who drove his truck on the groomed portion of Essex Road, destroying his most recent grooming, he’ll be back at it this Friday and intends to post grooming reports to the Facebook group XC Skiers of Flathead Valley MT.

“He’s my hero,” Epstein said. “When I was a kid, the original grooming program was just three or four of us going out really early in the morning and skiing tracks around all those trails. Then we got a snowmobile and made tracks by dragging a sled behind it. And now Mike’s got the pistenbully to lay track for skate skiing. The owners of the Izaak Walton have always made an effort to improve the cross-country skiing out here. It’s part of the deal.”

According to LOGE’s Olson, no tickets or passes will be sold this season, and skiers should use the honor system to support the grooming operations and ski at their own risk.

“We’ll have a ‘gas jar’ and we’d encourage people to help with cash donations for gas and maintenance and beer money for the guys keeping the trails,” Olson said. “With limited staff it’s likely they won’t be maintaining/grooming to the same level as when we’re fully open but we will have them open and operating – and I suspect in good condition all season.”

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