A friend once described Manning Park Resort to me as “the land that time forgot.”
When I skied there last February, his words came to mind during my first ride on one of the resort’s 40-year-old chairlifts. It was a mostly sunny Tuesday and the snow was fluffy, but the resort sold just 40 lift tickets.
What to think of having a ski resort nearly to yourself at 11 a.m. depends on your perspective.
First, I hunted for pockets of powder in the trees with Menza Bouwman, the resort’s marketing director.
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“See, we never have lift lines,” she said. “Even on weekends. It almost feels like your own private ski area.”
Later we were joined by Kristine Brynjolfson, a talented multisport athlete and the resort’s accounting supervisor.
“It’s a little depressing to me,” she said.
It turns out Brynjolfson had good reason to be a little discouraged about an otherwise ideal day on the slopes.
By April 1, the resort, buried under an avalanche of debt, was closed and Brynjolfson and Bouwman were looking for jobs.
But this winter marks a new season for Manning Park. It has new owners and is run by general manager Mike Barker and assistant general manager Troy Davis, both of whom are driven to return the resort to a time many have forgotten.
“In the ’90s, the parking lots used to be filled with cars, most of them from Washington,” Davis said.
Barker and Davis say they plan to focus on family atmosphere, affordability and quality grooming. One of their first moves was to double the grooming fleet from two snowcats to four.
“We want to be known for world-class grooming,” Barker said. “We want to give our visitors a really good product.”
OUT OF THE WAY BUT CLOSE
Manning Park might be a tad harder to get to than other British Columbia ski resorts, but it’s closer than you might think.
In fact, it’s only about a 71/2-mile walk from the Washington border on the Pacific Crest Trail.
For the Wolgamot family of Bellingham, it’s not even an hour farther than their home ski hill, Mount Baker.
The family started taking annual winter vacations here seven years ago. They say they love everything about the four-season resort from the recreation to its trademark wooden animal sculptures to the lack of crowds.
“It is a really fun place,” said Sonia Wolgamot, one of the family’s two young daughters. “I like to sled and build snowmen.”
“It’s a good place to play outside and get exercise,” added Elena Wolgamot, Sonia’s sister.
The family calls it their “four sports in a day place.” A typical day starts with ice skating and is followed by downhill and cross-country skiing before concluding with a dip in the saltwater pool. Often, they take time to go sledding too.
“We have three generations here and it’s fun for all of us,” said Susan Moen, the girls’ grandmother.
Manning Park is the only ski area with accommodations located inside a British Columbia provincial park.
Your cell phone won’t work here. The Wi-Fi, a newer amenity, is sometimes spotty.
The TVs will get 10 stations this winter, a serious upgrade from four stations and only two with sound, Barker said.
The mailman doesn’t stop here, so employees drive 30 minutes to Hope each day to mail packages.
“It took some getting used to,” said Bouwman, who worked one winter at the resort. “But I love it. You come here and you are unplugged. That might not be for everybody, but for a lot of people it’s just what they are looking for.”
Barker says the reason the resort fell on hard times is because it tried to become something it wasn’t.
“It was trying to be a champagne resort when it’s really a beer resort,” said Barker, who has worked at Manning off and on for 22 years.
Barker said in recent years the ski area didn’t make a priority of accommodating school groups and lost touch with its core clientele. It invested in more upgrades to the lodge than the alpine and Nordic skiing. The plan didn’t work and by 2009 the resort was in receivership.
“I love Manning, but it’s not a four-star resort,” Davis said. “We’re a solid 3- or maybe 31/2-star resort and we’re quite happy with that.”
Bouwman laughs loudly when she skis. Even when I couldn’t see her through the trees, I could hear her.
On the lift, I asked her about this.
“I can’t help it,” she said. “It’s fun.”
This seems to remind her of somebody.
Ever since I’d arrived she’d insisted I not leave without meeting Jim Read. She was so adamant, I assumed Read must be the owner or a local skiing icon.
He was neither. Read was one of the resort’s shuttle bus drivers. And she just wanted me to meet him so I could see how happy he was.
If happiness is what ski areas are really selling, then Read is proof that Manning Park delivers as well as better known resorts.
Workers and even visitors talk about Read and fellow shuttle bus driver Wayne McKay as if they are folk legends.
“They say Jim Read is always smiling,” Bouwman said. “I hear he’s smiling when he wakes up.”
And Wayne? “He’s happy even when he’s sick?” Davis said. “The happiest person you will ever meet.”
At one point during my visit, a grandmother vacationing with her family approached Bouwman to ask if Read was single. (Bouwman wasn’t sure.)
After a day on the slopes, we planned to spend an hour cross-country skiing then grab a burger and yam fries at the Bear’s Den Pub.
But first I needed to answer a burning question: Who is Jim Read?
“There he is,” Bouwman said as a yellow school bus drove past. We gave chase, slipping a bit on the ice.
As we approached, a man emerged from the front door. He was smiling and wearing a black tuxedo, a top hat, black snow boots and a bright green vest. He wore a tie decorated with what appeared to be dozens of colorful Christmas ornaments, and around his neck hung a teal scarf with red, yellow, orange and purple stripes and black polka dots.
“This,” Bouwman said, “is Jim.”
Read, as it turns out, once worked in Tacoma and spent 30 years dressing to the nines while driving semi trucks. He chose to retire to Manning Park because he loved the area’s four-season beauty. (Barker said he hopes to have Read back on staff this winter and McKay is already on board.)
I only had a minute or so with Read before we were off again. Hardly long enough to determine for sure if he’s truly any happier than the rest of us.
But as we parted ways, I couldn’t help but think that if this tucked-away resort can make somebody so happy that others want to show him off, then it must be worth the trip.