LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County — Shane Wilder sits at his computer screen, clicking through footage of two lanky young men climbing Mount Stuart, the craggy Cascades peak 13 miles southwest of town. His clip will be part of a movie premiering April 6 at the inaugural Leavenworth International Film Festival. And despite the popular impressions of Leavenworth gleaned from a drive along Highway 2, lederhosen and faux-German architecture are nowhere to be seen in the footage.
Wilder, an outdoors photographer who moved to Leavenworth 15 years ago, founded and runs the local recreation-film hub, www.Icicle.tv. His site plays host to summer footage of stand-up paddling, kayaking and rock climbing, in addition to snow sports in the winter and periodic updates from the town of Leavenworth. The screening of adventure-sports films is an outgrowth of enthusiasm for his online project. Wilder doubles as the driving force behind the new film festival, with outdoor-themed movies to be hosted at the downtown Festhalle.
He sees the area’s move toward more alpine recreation as long overdue. And he’s not upset that so many recent arrivals to this town, pop. 2,000, are following — sometimes literally — in his footsteps.
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From the mountain bikers who ride trails beneath summer lifts at Stevens Pass, to the whitewater kayakers flooding the town with spring’s high water, Leavenworth is attracting a new crowd of residents and visitors for whom natural architecture — that of the mountains, canyons and rock crags — matters a whole lot more than the Bavarian facades that have made tourism the town’s main industry.
These young adventurers aren’t interested in the antique shops and polka music downtown, but in finding a way to make ends meet living on the Cascades’ eastern fringe.
“I find myself driving over here at least twice a month in spring and fall,” says Graham Zimmerman, a rock climber and self-described “mountain-obsessive” based in Edmonds. “It’s got everything for a climber, from bouldering to big peaks, and the weather is icing on the cake.”
But for many like Zimmerman, Leavenworth’s downside is the lack of jobs beyond seasonal, service-industry work in the tourist trade. Many of the town’s new residents work in the medical field, either at the newly renovated Cascade Medical Center in downtown Leavenworth, or for one of the two hospitals in nearby Wenatchee. But for others, the recreation and social scene are worth sacrificing job prospects.
“Leavenworth is Washington’s only mountain town,” says semiprofessional skier Tom Murphy, when explaining the impetus for his December move to the area.
Murphy has been a longtime kayak guide during the summers but spends his winters chasing snow.
“There are great outdoor recreation options in every season, rafting and climbing and biking in the warmer months and phenomenal skiing and mountaineering in the winter.”
Educated and well-traveled
Murphy embodies many of Leavenworth’s enthusiastic new residents. He’s college-educated, well-traveled, and chose to make recreation opportunities and a community his priorities in finding a new home. “The proximity to activity might be the lure but the people that live there are the hook.”
And the people of Leavenworth are active in making the most of their community and environments through social organizations:
• The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club (www.skileavenworth.com) is a nonprofit that manages the area’s network of nordic ski trails in the winter, with terrain groomed for classic and skate-skiing, as well as marked routes designed for snowshoes.
• The Leavenworth Mountain Association (http://leavenworthma.blogspot.com) is a recently-formed community nonprofit that hosts presenters and educators to encourage safe participation in everything from alpine rock-climbing to backcountry snowboarding. The 11-member board of directors is currently working toward creating a beacon park, for practicing use of avalanche transceivers in winter, and an indoor climbing gym to facilitate year-round training.
Leavenworth’s business scene has reflected this change in recent years. A downtown bike store now stands amid the antique shops and German bakeries that tour groups have come to expect. Das Rad Haus (German for “The bike shop”) hosts weekly rides during summer months, with shin guards, not lederhosen, the standard outfit on display (www.dasradhaus.com).
But during much of the year, especially the shoulder seasons for traditional tourism — like right now — the Icicle Brewing Company exists as the unofficial hangout for those reveling over a day’s exploits or seeking partners for a new adventure. Since opening their doors in the spring of 2011, owners Oliver and Pam Brulotte have made a point to host skiing, climbing and recreation-themed movies and presenters at no cost to the public. Following a vacation to Germany with their three children, the Brulottes, who already owned a local restaurant, realized that a brewery could be a family destination back home. Their Tuesday evening “leisure nights” now attract as many children as beer drinkers with the community coming down for all-ages music, free popcorn and projects to benefit local charities. And, “There’s nothing more Bavarian than the idea of having a brewery in your own town,” say the owners.
Especially if your town, and the alpine attractions nearby, comprise the Northwest’s increasingly authentic Bavaria.
Climber and freelance writer Blake Herrington lived in towns across Washington before moving to Leavenworth in 2011. See his outdoor blog at BlakeClimbs.blogspot.com. See more of Leavenworth photographer Garrett Grove’s work at www.garrettgrove.com.