If visiting the 2010 Winter Olympics is too daunting, stage your own winter games at these 5 out-of-the-way spots, from the Methow Valley's Olympic Festival to the tubing slope at Paradise.
Not sure if you’ve heard, but the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. Yeah, it’s true. Come February, those cities to the north will be crawling with cold-weather athletes from around the world: skiers, snowboarders, ice dancers, biathletes, lugers, curlers (curlists?), and many more.
So, why not head up to the Great White North for some winter fun and to try to catch a glimpse of the action? Who knows when the Olympics will again — if ever — be this close?
Yeah, good luck with that.
During the Olympics, which take place Feb. 12-28, there’s a world of reasons to not want to be anywhere near Vancouver. Strict limits will be imposed on parking and road access, and I mean strict. To absorb the estimated 200,000 spectators expected daily in Vancouver and Whistler — not to mention tens of thousands of Olympic athletes, officials and members of the media — many major downtown Vancouver streets will be restricted, closed or turned into pedestrian corridors. And unless you have a permit showing that you have confirmed parking at a home or lodging in Whistler during the games, you can’t even drive your car north of Squamish, which is about 35 miles south of Whistler.
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That’s not to mention the thousands of dollars you could blow on a price-gouging hotel. And that’s assuming you can get tickets.
But there’s no reason to fret. There’s plenty of fun to be had south of the border. Who needs all that glitz and glam, hoopla and hype anyway? In fact, we’ve come up with suggestions for what we’re calling the Unolympic Winter Experience: five out-of-the-way winter destinations and activities wherein you can create your own personal winter games.
1. So, you can’t get to the Olympics. Big deal — why not be in the Olympics? The Methow Olympics, that is. With events throughout the Methow Valley from Mazama to Winthrop to Sun Mountain, the first-ever Methow Olympic Festival takes place during the same dates as the Vancouver Games and offers the public the chance to participate in many of the same activities. As well as some unusual, Methow-esque ones.
Along with ongoing events and activities such as cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, even biathlon (which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting) — some are races, some are tours, some are lessons and clinics — the festival features snowshoe softball (like it sounds), three-legged ski races (like it sounds), and Doggy Dash, wherein teams of one skier and one canine duke it out against each other. Costumes encouraged, both for skier and dog.
“It’s the place to be for people that want to do more than just watch the Olympics,” says Kristen Smith, event director for Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA), which is putting on the events.
“Since the festival runs the same days as the Olympics in Canada, participants can still catch all the Olympic action after they have participated in their own outdoor sports.”
In fact, live broadcast of those Vancouver Games will be shown throughout each day during the festival at the Winthrop Ice Rink, where skating and hockey events will be held. The festival’s first week will feature more of a family theme with free youth skating and cross-country skiing lessons, as well as ice-hockey clinics by the Seattle Admirals youth hockey team and an appearance by the Wenatchee Wild, a semipro squad. Among the events during the fest’s second week, former Olympic cross-country skiers Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall will offer a Nordic Classic and Skate Ski Camp.
“You can ski with an Olympic athlete during the day and then watch the real Olympics with them at night,” Smith says. “That’s pretty cool!”
For information on the Methow Olympic Festival and myriad events held throughout the winter, call 509-996-3287 or see www.mvsta.com.
2. Want to get completely away from the madding Olympic crowd? (Even if it’s just the madding Methow Olympics we’re talking about?) Head for Paradise. Beginning Dec. 19, Mount Rainier National Park offers peaceful, contemplative ranger-guided snowshoe walks from Paradise, that alpine winter wonderland on the big mountain’s south side.
Just think: You get all the winter forest beauty of the Olympic biathlon, without that cumbersome rifle to lug along.
On the walk, you’ll learn about the area’s cultural and natural history including how the area’s plants and animals survive and even thrive in a place that’s dumped on by more snow than just about any other place in the world. The two-hour, moderately strenuous 1.5-mile walks are free (though park entry is $15 per vehicle for a 7-day permit) and participants don’t even need to bring their own snowshoes; they’re available for rent with a $1 to $5 donation.
Guided walks are offered at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. daily from Dec. 19 to Jan. 4, and on weekends through March. For more information, call 360-569-2211, Ext. 3314.
Just can’t get the Olympics out of your head? Got a bad case of luge envy? Also free and fun at Paradise is slipping and sliding (intentionally) at the snow-play area. What some people still call “sledding,” even though you generally do it on plastic saucers, flexible foam mats, rubber inner tubes, garbage bags and the like. (In fact, sleds with metal runners are not allowed at Paradise.)
For details on guided snowshoe walks and the snow play area, see www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/winter-recreation.htm.
Or, how ’bout visiting a few of the region’s more low-key, off-the-beaten-path ski areas?
3. With just 10 runs, serviced by a bunny-hill rope tow, a beginner’s hill Poma lift and one quad chairlift, and an old-school, circa-1969 day lodge, Loup Loup Ski Bowl, about 25 miles east of Winthrop, is about as anti-Whistler, pro-Norman Rockwell-painting as one will find in a Washington ski area.
It’s a nonprofit, too, run by a volunteer board of directors and just a single year-round paid employee, general manager Sharla Lynn.
“Our smallness, location and genuine family nature are what make us unique,” Lynn says. “You’ll only encounter a wait at the bottom of the chair maybe twice a year, during holiday weekends.”
Adult lift tickets are only $38 (compared to about $90 at Whistler Blackcomb), and Loup Loup also offers access to about 50 miles of cross-country ski trails.
Be sure to call 866-699-5334 or check www.skitheloup.com before heading over to Loup Loup. It’s located in the rain shadow of the North Cascades, which can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means lots of sunny days, but it can sometimes mean not a whole lot of snow. Last year’s season (2008-09) didn’t actually get going until the last day of February, and the ski area was open for only five weekends. But that’s highly unusual. The ski area’s typical opening date is mid-December.
4. Looking for bigger than Loup Loup but still well off the beaten pass? Try White Pass Ski Resort, which opened last weekend. Some Olympic gold dust might even rub off on you.
Known for its great family-friendly atmosphere — all runs end up at the day lodge at the bottom, so wait around at the bottom of the Great White Express and everyone in your party is bound to show up at some point — White Pass is one of the few ski areas in Washington with slopeside accommodations. The White Pass Village Inn offers 58 condominium units, some of which sleep as many as eight people. Also cool: a magic carpet that’s always free.
“It’s a great place to learn without having to pay for a lift ticket,” says Kathleen Goyette, marketing director.
White Pass is also the home ski area of the legendary Mahre brothers — Phil and Steve — who won gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
While still considerably smaller than nearby Crystal Mountain, White Pass is undergoing an $8.5 million expansion that will almost double its size to some 1,500 acres when the area opens for the 2010-11 season. Located about 12 miles southeast of Mount Rainier National Park, the area is adding 700-plus more acres of terrain, two new lifts, including a high-speed quad, a mid-mountain lodge and more.
5. OK, want to get a sense of what it takes to compete as an Olympian? Between Feb. 21 and 25, members of the United States Men’s Olympic Slalom Team, including 2006 Gold Medalist Ted Ligety and two-time World Cup winner Bode Miller, will be training for the Vancouver Games at Wenatchee’s Mission Ridge Ski and Board Resort.
And while it’s not likely you’ll actually get to ski with team members, before and after they’re training you can ski and board the same runs they practiced on. Most of the time, the team will be practicing on the Chak Chak run, near Chair 4.
“Tumwater and Skookum are homologated (Olympic-approved) for slalom as well and will be open those days,” says Jerri Barkley, marketing and sales director for Mission Ridge. “Of the two, I would say Tumwater is most similar.”
For more information, call 509-663-6543 or see www.missionridge.com.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” (Sasquatch Books) and “Insiders’ Guide Bellingham and Mount Baker” (Globe Pequot). He can be reached at email@example.com. Blog: mcqview.blogspot.com.