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Thursday, January 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:59 PM

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Just Plain fun: Snowmobiles and country comforts in Chelan County

Seattle Times staff reporter

PLAIN, Chelan County — The change began with an owl — a spotted one — and the need for new employment after four generations of logging. No longer would Bill Newell go into the deep woods on the flanks of the Glacier Peak Wilderness area northwest of Leavenworth to make his living.

Hoping not to leave the hundreds of acres that had been in his family since his great-grandparents settled there in 1895, Newell, 60, instead turned to tourism. And in 1990, he built Mountain Springs Lodge and Conference Center in the little community of Plain. That's Plain, as in home of Just Plain Groceries and Plain Hardware and Plain Community Church, where for years not much happened until logging died, tourism was born and Microsoft millionaires built homes along Lake Wenatchee, a few miles to the west.

Located in Beaver Valley 13 miles north of Leavenworth, Plain is an unincorporated area that once flourished as a ranching and logging settlement. Now, its name is synonymous with snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fly-fishing, hiking and backcountry horse touring. And the Newell family has grown into the role of hosts and major employer.

Snow-motion Prozac

On a recent 15-degree day, when the sky was blue and sunbeams danced on ice crystals on fir boughs, Newell's son, Adam, 27, revved up the snowmobiles for a morning tour. If there is one passion Adam Newell has — beside his large, golden dog-pound-blend, Dee — it's snowmobiling. He looks forward to the first snowfall. And he leads tours throughout the day along trails through the family property winding deep into the mountains, with Dee galloping behind or sometimes riding in the saddle.

If you go


A winter adventure

Lodging

Mountain Springs Lodge is at 19115 Chiwawa Loop Road, between Lake Wenatchee and Leavenworth. From Highway 2, turn left on Highway 207, go 3.7 miles to Beaver Valley Road and turn right. At Chiwawa Loop Road, turn left. Individual cabins and lodges rent for $215 to $1,250 per night (the highest rate is for up to 15 people in the large Ponderosa Lodge); suites are $215 to $290 a night. The cabins and lodges have hot tubs. www.mtsprings.com or 800-858-2276.

Beaver Valley Lodging, 18623 Beaver Valley Road, in Plain, offers simple rooms in an old farmhouse for $30 per person ($60 minimum). There's no phone or cable TV, but the rooms are warm, clean and quiet. The lodge is dog-friendly and will board horses. www.beavervalleylodge.com or 509-763-9012.

Restaurants

Blue Heron Dining Room at Mountain Springs Lodge has a set dinner menu — prime rib and salmon, potatoes, salad, dessert and homemade bread for $33.95. Breakfast and a sleigh ride out to feed hay to the horses is $29.95 for adults and half price for children.

Squirrel Tree is a log-cabin restaurant on Highway 2. Traditional breakfasts with eggs, bacon and pancakes in a cozy setting by the fireplace, about $6.

Snowmobile tours

Book tours through Mountain Springs Lodge. Costs range from a one-hour tour at $60 per person (for driver; passengers ride for half-price) to the $160-per-person, four-hour tour to Sugarloaf Lookout at 5,814 feet elevation. Children under 16 ride as passengers for $15-$30. Moonlight dinner rides are $124.95 per person. No experience required, though snowmobile driver must have an automobile driver's license. Snowmobiles, guide, cold-weather clothing and insulated boots provided. www.mtsprings.com or 800-858-2276

Other snow sports

Washington State Parks and Recreation grooms trails for classic cross-country and skate skiing around Lake Wenatchee. You can also ski on the ungroomed U.S. Forest Service roads and at Ski Hill and Icicle Creek in Leavenworth. The latter two are maintained by the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club. For updates, contact the U.S. Forest Service at 509-548-6977 or the sports club at 509-548-5115. Sno-Park permits are required at Lake Wenatchee, the Chiwawa Sno-Park and at all Forest Service roads.

Traveler's tip

Be prepared for very cold weather. Dress warmly, and take quiet-time activities with you — books, games, etc. — for evening entertainment.

More information

www.lakewenatcheeinfo.com

Since those early days, "We've come a long way," Adam said. His dad started the business with 20 snowmobiles. Now there are 60.

Rod and Rita Rolph of Sedro-Woolley had been snowmobiling once before with Adam and had such a good time, they came back with their children, Codi, 10, and, Tannar, 6. Adam outfitted all of us in helmets, boots, snowsuits and gloves so that even with the low temperature, we stayed warm on the two-hour tour.

We sailed over bumps and swept around curves — turning is simple if you lean into it. We stopped at the turn-around point to view the still serenity of snowbound Lake Wenatchee, ringed in spun-glass trees.

"This is like Prozac for me," Adam said, looking at the blue sky. Then Tannar, apparently tired of snowmobile fumes, brought us back to reality.

"I'm going to throw up," he said. But he didn't, and instead threw himself backward on the snow and made a snow angel.

Back at the lodge, the bloom of frigid air around us, we pulled off helmets and gloves.

The cost of the ride "is so worth it," Rita said.

Weekends bustle with snowmobile tours. Sleigh rides go out every 90 minutes. There are moonlight snowmobile and sleigh rides, returning to the lodge for dinner.

Dinner with friends

Dinner is a treat at the lodge, whether you've driven over Stevens Pass for the occasion, or worked up an appetite snowshoeing along the shores of Lake Wenatchee.

Chef Paula Dalton went to a culinary school in California, where she learned French cooking.

"There was a time I never thought I'd be cooking prime rib," she said. But she does nightly for the winter menu, nestling it on a bed of rosemary and serving it with brine-soaked salmon topped with mango salsa, scalloped potatoes and wild-greens salad.

Even midweek, the tables by the fire were filled with diners. Jim and Carol Adamson were there with friends, celebrating his 83rd birthday. Even though I was a stranger, they invited me to join them.

Carol was born and raised on the property where the lodge is now, and her husband arrived in Plain in the 1940s. After Dalton filled wine glasses, the Adamsons talked about their 58-year marriage and how there "never was a bad day," then mentioned how many cars they'd seen on the Beaver Valley Highway just that day.

Counting cars is the way they note change.

"It used to be you didn't see any," Carol said. Now on the way out to Highway 2, you might see two or three, she said.

As the evening wore on and the fire burned softly, Dalton brought chocolate-truffle dessert. The talk drifted back in time to Adamson's service in World War II and how he was with the first division to liberate one of the German concentration camps.

We were all quiet. Then Dalton, a friend, hugged him and said, "I'm proud of who you were then and who you are now."

A soft spot for hardware

Except for the rising property values in Plain as more people want recreation property there, change is subtle. No one can remember exactly what year the post office closed. The new owners have had the hardware store for some time now. And Plain has yet to see a surge of new business — except for the new winery, Napeequa Vintners, which opened in May.

Early weekday mornings in Plain are much like the early evenings. A dog barks. A snowplow passes. A school bus. So you do as the locals do and go to Plain Hardware for your chat and coffee.

Jody Allen has been in Plain for 20 years; for the last few she's been making Almond Roca lattes and pouring coffee by the potful at the counter in the front of the hardware store.

"Now don't make this place sound too good," she cautioned me.

The coffee crowd begins at 7:30 a.m. Men, dressed for the weather, on their way to or from work, bring news of highway conditions and of the world beyond the valley.

"Really socked in up at Stevens Pass," one said. One of Allen's early customers paused to closely examine a rubber chicken that when squeezed would lay an egg. He wondered whether his wife might like it.

"They're going fast," Allen said. "If she wants one, she'll have to come in within the next couple of days."

Locals like Adamson point to the hardware store with pride. Rob and Gwen Whitten, who both grew up on Hood Canal, were working in Seattle and decided they wanted to return to small-town life. They bought the business and turned it into a store with gifts in the front and hardware in the back.

It's here you can buy a fly-swatter shaped like a hand or a foot, a "snowmobile naked" T-shirt, plumbing supplies, driveway de-icer and crystal earrings — and you can peruse rubber chickens while you sip your espresso. When you're hungry, you can go out to the Squirrel Tree, about 10 miles away on Highway 2, for breakfast. Except for Mountain Springs Lodge, it's one of the few places to eat, and it's a cozy log-cabin with a fireplace and great pancakes.

Then you can snowshoe or cross-country ski. You can wander through the streets of Leavenworth, taking in the galaxy of twinkling lights, find a pub, maybe a German dinner.

Then drive back through the moonlit dark down the Chumstick Highway to the Beaver Valley Highway as the Plain locals do — knowing that someone in a farmhouse with glowing windows has noted your passing in the car-count, marking change.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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