There’s more than one fun season on Central Washington’s summer-break lake.
LAKE CHELAN — The hot summer days are a faint memory.
In winter, Lake Chelan becomes mysterious and otherworldly, a different beast altogether from its rowdy summer-vacation persona.
It’s quiet and beautiful, begging to be explored, from water, from mountaintop, from vineyard — or by attending the Lake Chelan Winterfest in mid-January (see sidebar, below).
For starters, let’s travel its starkly beautiful winter waters.
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“We’re pretty much a lifeline for this lake,” says Larry Majchrzak, captain of the Lady Express passenger ferry, as we rumble northeast from Field’s Point in early December. It’s mid-30s, the skies a slate gray, as we quickly leave the developed southern end of the lake and head northwest, deep into the heart of the North Cascades.
The Lady of the Lake passenger ferry service is the only commercial route serving communities such as Lucerne, Holden Village and Stehekin.
Unlike the daily runs of summer, the Lady Express limits operations to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from January to March, delivering passengers, groceries, mail and other supplies reliably in any kind of weather along the 55-mile-long lake.
“Only once in my 29 years did we cancel a trip,” Majchrzak said. “That’s when we had 80-mile-an-hour winds in Chelan.”
Our ferry has 33 passengers on this voyage, many of them going to Lucerne, where they will ride a school bus to Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center 11 miles from the boat landing.
Donna Krussow, head housekeeper for the village, and her friend Tom Schierman, from the Palouse region south of Spokane, are part of the Holden crowd enjoying the voyage.
“Holden is a magical place,” said Schierman, busily snapping away with his camera from the back deck of the Lady Express. “It’s gorgeous. I visited last September and must have shot 5,000 photos.”
Solitude in Stehekin
We pull into Lucerne and supplies are unloaded as passengers shuttle items up the gangway to the bus.
We wave goodbye and head to Stehekin, the tiny outpost at the end of the lake. In summer, it’s a popular destination for hikers and vacationers, surrounded by the scenic peaks, with a few commercial lodges and rentals, a small store and bakery.
In winter, it’s nearly deserted, with most retail operations closed and the 80-or-so full-time residents waiting on the Lady Express to deliver mail and supplies.
Full-time resident Jim Courtney, whose ancestors homesteaded in Stehekin, sits aboard the Lady Express, patiently waiting to arrive.
“I love coming home,” he said. “I’m always in a better mood coming this way than coming out.”
Once we’re at the Stehekin dock, it’s time to unload again. A few residents come down to meet the boat, pick up passengers and supplies. Patty Schrag, a property caretaker, is one of them.
“This place is not for everyone,” she said, “but I just like being out of the crush of humanity.”
You’ll certainly leave the worldly hustle-bustle in Stehekin. There’s no cellular service, electricity is supplied by a small Pelton wheel run by Chelan PUD or by solar panels, and internet and telephones are available only by satellite. In winter, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing are the main attractions and a few lodging rentals are available.
Her supplies loaded, Schrag leaves in her truck, and then the Lady Express is ready to return to Chelan. This time, only two passengers are on board from Stehekin as we chug along, and we pick up a few more at Lucerne. Before you know it, we re-enter civilization as houses and roads appear along the lakeshore, cellphone service returns and we’re back at Field’s Point.
While the ferry offers the best lake-level view, another story unfolds in the mountains north of the town of Chelan. There, you’ll find alpine and nordic skiing, tubing and snowmobiling.
For downhill skiers and snowboarders, the Echo Valley Ski Area (echovalley.org) offers a platter lift, three rope tows and a tubing hill. Tickets for skiing and tubing are easy on a family budget. The mom-and-pop ski area has been part of the Chelan community for more than 60 years, said Lucas Green, president of the Echo Valley Ski Area Association.
“We’re affordable — we’re charging just $25. Compare that to anywhere else in the business,” he said. Green, who grew up skiing at Echo Valley, said the hill is volunteer-run with just a few paid staff members.
“We’re a nonprofit — we’re not here to make money,” he said. “It takes a village to run a ski area like this.”
For Nordic skiers, Chelan offers some very good local trails. Just beyond the Echo Valley downhill area is the Echo Ridge Nordic Area (lakechelannordic.org), with about 25 miles of groomed trails, along with extensive snowshoeing routes. The trails offer great views of the lake and surrounding mountains, said Paul Willard, recreation program manager for the Chelan Ranger District in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
“We’re a little bit undiscovered,” he said. “Most people know us by word-of-mouth.”
Day passes are a bargain at $10, and the trails offer classic and skate lanes, winding along ridgeline above Lake Chelan, offering gorgeous views of the Enchantments, Pyramid Peak and the Okanogan Highlands.
“It’s one of the best deals for nordic skiing anywhere,” Willard said.
Rentals for both alpine and cross-country skis are available in Chelan or at Echo Valley Ski Area.
Snowmobiles and wine
Snowmobiling is another popular winter activity in the mountains above Lake Chelan. Sharkey’s Watercraft and Snowmobile Rentals in Manson offers two and four-hour guided snowmobile outings leaving from Antilon Lake Sno-Park to the top of Cooper Mountain at almost 6,000 feet, owner Bill Sharkey said.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You look out over Lake Chelan and the North Cascades.”
One of the great things about the snowmobiling, Nordic and downhill skiing is that everything takes place in the same area, making it possible to easily combine activities, Willard said.
Another reason to visit Lake Chelan in winter is to experience the emerging wine scene along the lake. The Lake Chelan viticultural area is relatively new, said Sean Sullivan of Washington Wine Report, but shows great promise, with more than 20 wineries coming on to the scene in recent years.
The area differs from other parts of Eastern Washington because of the “lake effect” — it’s not as hot in the summer and not as cold in the winter. The glacier-carved valley also has a coarse, sandy soil quality that differs from much of Eastern Washington, according to the Washington State Wine Commission.
“It’s early days, but the potential is there to make very good wine,” Sullivan said, pointing to pinot noir, viognier and syrah as the best varietals produced so far.
“Nefarious and Fielding Hills have absolutely spectacular views of the lake,” Sullivan added.
COMING SOON: Celebrate Winterfest at Lake Chelan
Lake Chelan likes a party, and the first one of 2018 revs up in mid-January.
The Lake Chelan Winterfest is Jan. 12-21, with first-weekend activities centered in the town of Chelan and second-weekend activities centered in nearby Manson. You’ll need a Winterfest button (available for $5 on presale, $7 on-site) to access many of the activities, with additional costs for other events.
“The Winterfest button is your all-access pass,” said Olivia Plew, of Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce.
Among the activities on the first weekend in Chelan are wine tasting, ice carving, horse-carriage rides, a polar-bear splash, a giant beach bonfire, fireworks and an ice slide for children.
The second weekend in Manson features apple-bin train rides, more ice carving, a brewers and distillers night, Alefest featuring local beers and ciders, and “The Battle of the Bloody Mary” on the closing day.
Musical acts will perform on Friday and Saturday of the first weekend in Chelan. For a full lineup and additional information, see the festival website, lakechelan.com/winterfest, or call 509-682-3503.