The Methow Valley’s iconic Rendezvous Huts have new owners, Ben and Virginia Nelson of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The couple and their 3-month-old son Oliver have now moved to the Methow, and Rendezvous Huts Inc. is being transferred into their hands from former partners Cathy and Bennet Upper, Carol and Phil Heitman, and Jay Lucas.
“We are very, very happy with the people who are buying it. The huts are such a big part of the valley’s history, and we felt it really needed the right people to continue the tradition. We got the right people for the job,” said Lucas.
Ben Nelson first talked to Lucas five years ago when the business was briefly on the market, but when the partners decided not to sell “we went on with our lives,” Nelson said.
Then in February of this year – two weeks after Oliver was born – a friend of the family told them that the huts were back on the market. Ben flew down two days later to make an offer, he said.
“Of all the people who came to look at the business, [the Nelsons] impressed us the most. In a five-day visit they asked us all the pertinent questions,” said Lucas.
The sale closed a week ago Tuesday for $190,000.
The Rendezvous Huts are five off-grid backcountry huts scattered along 30 kilometers of groomed Nordic ski trails in the Okanogan National Forest northwest of Winthrop. The lodging business operates under a 10-year renewable outfitter permit through the U.S. Forest Service.
Each hut is equipped with a kitchen, propane cook stove and lights, wood stove and firewood, bunk beds for eight people, and an outhouse.
“It’s really civilized camping: warm, dry and comfortable,” said Lucas, “and quite honestly, anyone can get up there,” he noted, recalling providing a snowmobile ride to more than one guest unable to ski due to injury.
The huts are rented on a nightly basis year-round, although the bulk of the business is during ski season, according to Lucas. Most guests have food and supplies hauled in by snowmobile, an additional service of the lodging business. Two seasonal employees help with winter operations due to demand for up to five freight hauls per day in the height of the season, Lucas said.
The Rendezvous Huts freight service has an agreement with the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association to use the Cub Creek trailhead as a staging area, according to Ben Nelson. The Cub Creek trailhead is a partnership between MVSTA and the owners of 1st Creek Ranch, and MVSTA is currently working on a more formal agreement on its shared use, Nelson said.
The huts boast 80 percent occupancy rates in the winter months, and as of March 1 were already 50 percent booked for next winter, Lucas said. “The hut business has grown dramatically in the last five years, and demand during the off-snow season is growing all the time,” he said.
THE NEW OWNERS
The Nelsons are planning on running the business themselves and “being as hands-on as possible,” said Virginia. They expect to continue employing one or two seasonal workers to help with freight hauling on busy winter weekends, and using Central Reservations for bookings.
Ben and Virginia (Parrish) Nelson were both born and raised in Fairbanks, and both are alumni of Lathrop High School and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
The couple has been visiting the Methow Valley nearly every winter since Virginia’s parents Jane and Jamo Parrish, built a home near the River Run Inn in Winthrop in 2005, Virginia said. She and Ben even chose to celebrate their 2010 wedding on the grounds of the River Run.
Ben, an avid runner, coached at Lathrop High School and managed the runners shop at Goldstream Sports in Fairbanks. He ran in last Saturday’s Rattler Trail Run at Pipestone Canyon, and hopes to meet others in the Methow Valley’s running community.
They are experienced Nordic skiers, and are considering expanding the Rendezvous Huts’ services to provide ski instruction as well as guide services, as allowed under the outfitter permit.
The Nelsons recognize the importance of continuity and honoring the loyalty of long-returning customers. “The huts are clearly such an important part of the community’s history. The local loyalty is something we want to keep going,” said Ben.
The Rendezvous Huts have been around since Enoch and Shandra Kraft built the first two huts – Fawn and Heifer – around 1980 on the Diamond T Ranch, according to Dale Caulfield, owner of the business from 1985-1996.
Guests stayed on the ranch at the upper end of Rendezvous Road and skied into the backcountry from there. In 1982 the Krafts obtained a Forest Service outfitter permit and permission to build the third hut – Rendezvous Hut – at its current location in the national forest near Rendezvous Pass, Caulfied said.
Caulfield and Steve Farmer bought the business – three huts, a snowmobile and a sled – from the Krafts in 1985, and moved Fawn and Heifer huts onto national forest land. Caulfield became sole proprietor in 1987 and added Cassal Hut in 1988, “the year that recreation took priority over logging in the Rendezvous,” he said. He added Gardner Hut in 1994, totaling five huts spread out across the area – the maximum allowable by the Forest Service permit.
Dave Dewbrey, Phil and Carol Heitman and Jay Lucas bought the business from Caulfield in 1996, and Bennet and Cathy Upper bought out Dewbrey’s share the following year, according to Lucas.
During the nearly 17 years they ran the business, the Uppers were in charge of running the day-to-day winter operations, Lucas said. The Heitmans took care of physical maintenance and reservations until they turned the latter over to Central Reservations in 2000. Lucas maintained the permitting relationship with the Forest Service and took care of business details, he said.
The partnership between the Heitmans, Uppers and Lucas was “one of those rare things in life that worked really well,” Lucas said.
In the early 2000s the partners discussed moving Fawn Hut from where it sits near Mazama “to a more central location,” Lucas said. Fawn was always the least-used of all the huts, and the farthest from the Cub Creek trailhead. “The original idea was to ski hut-to-hut, European style, but it turned out that most people really wanted to stay in one place and ski from there,” said Lucas, and Fawn was just farther than most guests wanted to ski.
Instead of moving Fawn Hut, they ended up building the last hut – Grizzly Hut – above the Gunn Ranch in 2007. MVSTA has continued to use Fawn Hut as a day shelter, but that hut may be decommissioned soon, Lucas said.
The local business has been a benefit to the entire community, said Lucas, citing “huge local loyalty,” including one group of valley women that has reserved a hut for a week every winter for the last 30 years.
Photo by Laurelle Walsh: Ben, Virginia and Oliver Nelson, new owners of the Rendezvous Huts, at the Cub Creek trailhead.