Recent years’ experiences affect tourism, wedding biz
Summer in the Methow started with a pall of anxiety that hung over the valley, kind of like the smoke that’s clogged the August air the past few years. People in the tourist and wedding industries were fretting about whether the Methow’s growing reputation for smoke and fire would spoil another summer. Some locals left town.
Anne Andersen, director of teaching and learning at the Methow Valley School District, took advantage of the academic schedule and went hiking in England. “I literally made plans for the first two weeks of August because I didn’t want to deal with what August would be like,” Andersen said.
People in the tourist industry couldn’t jump ship, but lagging August bookings made them nervous. But a busy spring and fall — and what’s proving to be a very pleasant August — have more than made up for it.
“I’m pretty close with others in the event business. We all felt a strong sense that July and August weren’t as busy. Smoke kept brides from choosing July and August,” said Mandy Schmekel, who owns Methow Moments Tent & Event Rentals with her husband, Paul. A glut of weddings in June, September and even October more than compensated, Schmekel said.
When Kyrie and Kathleen Jardin purchased Methow Reservations (then called Central Reservations) nine years ago, August was the busiest month for connecting visitors with accommodations in the valley.
The last time that happened was 2013. Now, August is the sixth-busiest month, behind January, February, July, May and December, the Jardins said. Part of the reason is the increased interest in winter activities. But the August decline can also be attributed to concerns about how fires and smoke might affect visitors’ experiences.
“People aren’t scheduling as many week-long visits in August,” Kathleen said. And more people are making last-minute reservations, depending on the expected conditions.
“People used to plan ahead more. Now they’re more spontaneous,” Kyrie said.
“My August is kind of goofy — it’s off,” said Steve Devin, owner of the Mazama Ranch House. August used to be the busiest time for weddings, but this year they had none. In general, August bookings in the past two years have shown a marked decline compared to the past two decades, Devin said.
“I think everyone released from their clench position after a little bit of rain — kind of like manna from heaven,” said Stuart Rasmussen, manager of the Winthrop KOA, where summer weekends have been full. People come regardless of fire, since July and August are when families have time for vacation, he said.
“What I’m feeling and seeing is a lot more people — particularly international travelers from as far away as from Aruba, Abu Dhabi and South Africa,” said Marlene Temple, information clerk at the Visitors Information Center in Winthrop. “I think it’s because we haven’t had fires and smoke this year, so people can go out and hike or bike.”
Tourist traffic has been consistently busy throughout the week, not just on weekends. “It’s a mixed bag of happier people, because they can actually breathe and not be disappointed,” Temple said.
Last year was another story.
“We still get questions all the time about fires,” said Dawn Reed, general manager of the AbbyCreek Inn. “Last year we were affected a lot, with a lot of cancellations.”
“People would show up and say they couldn’t handle the smoke. We totally understood and gave refunds,” Reed said. The inn ended up renting rooms to firefighters.
Methow Reservations handled 68 cancellations attributable to smoke last summer. “We have to deal with emotions, and refunds,” Kathleen Jardin said, noting that owners of rental properties are concerned about the fall-off of August visitors.
Smoky summers are hard not only because there’s less business. “The smoke puts people in a bad mood — and it’s difficult for employees,” said Lauren Kurtz, manager of Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe in Winthrop.
“Last year was pretty tough with ash falling. We couldn’t wash the tents — it was hard to keep them looking pretty,” although no weddings were canceled, Schmekel said.
“I haven’t gotten a single call about smoke this year. The past few summers I got daily calls about air quality” at the visitors center, Temple said.
At the KOA, calls aren’t about air quality. “They’re more concerned about whether they can have a campfire,” said a campground clerk. (They can, through an exemption from the countywide burn barn from Okanogan County Fire District 6 that allows campfires as long as winds are calm and there are no fire-weather warnings.)
And some tourists are undeterred by smoke.
“We weren’t worried about smoke and fire at all. We love to be east of the mountains,” said Roni Graham, who was camping at the KOA with her husband and friends. “Last year, there was smoke everywhere, but you’re vacationing, so you don’t really care. It is what it is,” she said.
Roger Kinney and his family have been loyal KOA customers for 10 years. “We’re kind of hard-core every August,” he said. They spend at least three days in the valley en route to a hiking trip.
“It doesn’t change our plans at all if there’s a fire. We feel part of the local group if we experience struggles with them, like brushing ash off the truck,” Kinney said.
When the fires first hit last summer, there was a big drop in business [at Sheri’s], but there was smoke everywhere, and people got used to it,” Kurtz said.
The Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival decided not to take any chances and moved the festival to June this year. “People said they weren’t going to come in August and were glad we changed it,” said Liz Johnson, the festival’s executive director. June was chilly, but people brought blankets and hats and enjoyed the lush green mountains and clear skies, Johnson said.
Five years ago, the festival was canceled because of the Carlton Complex Fire. A succession of smoky summers since then prompted some season-ticket holders to leave before the last concert, Johnson said.
“Patrons were uncomfortable. We were tired of no-shows. We were tired of the sword of Damocles — what’s it going to be this year?” Johnson said.
Even though this summer has been pleasant, with more rain than usual, the recurring pattern of wildfires and smoke in the West is on people’s minds. “It’s just basically a ticking time bomb. Everyone’s a little gun-shy in the valley after years of fires,” AbbyCreek’s Reed said.
“I’m thrilled the community has had a normal August,” Andersen said as she was gearing up for the school year. “Everyone had it in the back of their mind. People with small kids didn’t want to expose them to smoke.”
The “stress level” among locals seems somewhat diminished this year. “The Methow heart rate is a little lower this summer,” said Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop.
Schmekel and many caterers enjoyed a rare weekend off in early August. “It was kind of nice — to have a little break and get away with our families,” particularly after weekends in June with five weddings, she said.
Don Nelson contributed to this story.