Faces of the Flathead — Winter

Meet the people who make a trip to NW Montana one to remember.

Any season you visit the Flathead will be one to remember, but you’ll soon find that it’s the people who really make this corner of Montana so extraordinary. In the first edition of our Faces of the Flathead series, we introduced you to a few of the locals who make the visitor experience authentic and exceptional with their Western hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit. With temperatures dropping, we introduce you to a few more folks you’ll likely meet on the snow or over a beer and who will have you falling in love with winter in the Flathead.

Meet Jessi Wood

Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, Lakeside

Jessi with her husband, Marcelle, and their children, Lucy and Aiden.

Just 25 miles south of Kalispell, the carved trails of Blacktail Mountain look out over Flathead Lake. It’s here where local skiers flock for fresh snow, sunshine and time with friends and family. Jessi Wood has been part of the Blacktail family since it was founded 20 years ago. From ski instructor at the beginning to HR manager and snow sports director today, Jessi has literally lived her life on the mountain. Jessi grew up skiing on Big Mountain (today’s Whitefish Mountain Resort), but when her dad, Steve Spencer, then mountain manager of Big Mountain, set his sights on U.S. Forest Service land south of Kalispell to build another ski area where locals could enjoy good snow and affordable prices, Jessi and the family followed the dream.

Blacktail became home. It’s where Jessi met her husband, Marcelle, a lift op at the time she was ski school director, it’s where she brought her babies to work and now it’s where they are learning to ski. You’ll likely see Lucy and Aidan on winter Saturdays in the Young Fawns ski program, and on Sundays all the Woods and Spencers (grandparents and relatives) ski together — the kind of dedication to family and cause that makes Blacktail the only U.S. public ski area founded in the last two decades that is still operating.

Jessi and the Blacktail team welcome everyone to enjoy the locals’ mountain —even if you don’t ski or board, send your kids off for a few runs while you read in the lodge and the whole family will savor home-cooked meals. And each time you visit you’ll be welcomed back by the same familiar faces.

Jessi’s insider tip for enjoying winter in the Flathead Valley:
When the valley is socked in with fog, get outside and up on a nearby mountain that rises above and absorb some rays of Vitamin D.

Meet Aubrie Loroña

Swan Mountain Snowmobiling, Columbia Falls

Aubrie with her husband, Erik, and father, Pat Tabor.

If you’re up for some more speed on the snow, then Aubrie Loroña and her family’s business of Swan Mountain Snowmobiling will get you on a sled and into the breathtaking backcountry of Northwest Montana. But for Aubrie it’s not all about speed and thrill. She has been drawn to the Montana wilderness her whole life even from her beginnings in California. After starting her career as a business analyst in San Francisco, it didn’t take long for Aubrie and her husband, Erik, to pay close attention to her father and the outfitting business in Northwest Montana he had just created from his hobby and passion for spending time in the outdoors hunting, fishing and backpacking. The Loroñas moved north in 2007.

They joined the business and expanded Swan Mountain’s outfitting offerings, initially adding horseback trail rides in Glacier National Park. To make the business viable year-round and keep good guides employed in the off-season, in 2011 Aubrie and Eric added guided snowmobile tours and rentals. Today the winter snowmobiling business holds its own with two-hour, half-day and full-day guided excursions into three different backcountry areas that each offer amazing opportunities for fresh-powder rides and mountaintop views into Glacier National Park and Canada.

Aubrie recommends the two-hour “quickie” tour for people new to snowmobiling or families with children. Their sleds are the latest models, equipped with heaters for maximum comfort and quiet engines so wildlife viewing is possible.

Aubrie’s insider tip for enjoying winter in the Flathead Valley:
Experience the winter alpenglow — shades of pink and purple that strikingly rise and fall over the mountainous horizon at sunrise and sunset. It gets prettier the farther out into the wilds you are. 

Meet Wallis Bianchi

Moose’s Saloon, Kalispell

Wallis with Moose’s longtime bar manager, Pat Murray.

There are few locales that stand the test of time, but Moose’s Saloon on Main Street in Kalispell not only stands strong in its 60th year but maintains one of the best après scenes in the region. All of that is due to a long family tradition, now led by Wallis Bianchi, granddaughter of the founder of Moose’s predecessor the Corral Bar and daughter of Moose and Shirley Miller who in 1957 transformed the bar to the saloon we know today. Wallis has worked at the saloon in some role since she was 13 and proudly carries on the heritage that her father epitomized with his big, caring personality that sprung from growing up in Hollywood and playing football for the University of Montana. It was his idea to create the Old West atmosphere — complete with timbers and wood dust and peanut shells on the floor.

Moose’s offers beer and wine — with 24 rotating taps of seasonal and local brews including microbrews from Tamarack Brewing in Lakeside and Bayern Brewery in Missoula. And the pizza has been the main staple here since the mid-‘60s — winning nearly every best pizza award in the valley since they started giving out such awards. Wallis credits the recognition to real, fresh ingredients and both classic and creative combinations like sauerkraut and sausage.

When you meet Wallis at the bar, be sure to ask her about some old stories, like when Evel Knievel, an old family friend, plotted his Snake Canyon jump one evening at the Saloon. And if you can find a spot, carve your own mark on Moose’s history.

Wallis’ insider tip for enjoying winter in the Flathead Valley:
Get outside snowshoeing or cross-country skiing and experience the region off-the-beaten path. And then warm up and relax with good, fresh, local food and drink.

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