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How North Bend, Wash., became a true Northwest mountain town

3 Photos
Julien Gibassier builds bindings at Karakoram's newly-built headquarters in North Bend, Washington, on Sept. 9, 2022.
Julien Gibassier builds bindings at Karakoram's newly-built headquarters in North Bend, Washington, on Sept. 9, 2022. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

NORTH BEND — In March 1993, ski shop owner Martin Volken pulled over in North Bend on his way home to Seattle after a day at Snoqualmie Pass. It was a rare cold, sunny day with a white carpet running halfway down Mount Si, normally too low in elevation to hold snow.

The snowcapped mountain framing a pair of rivers with a village nestled in between reminded him of his childhood in the Swiss canton of Valais. That pit stop sparked an idea. In 1994, the aspiring mountain guide moved his young family to North Bend as an early visionary that the ailing logging town and Interstate 90 truck stop had a future as a true mountain town, a community where outdoor recreation in the mountains is a central part of the culture and economy.

“I was still a small town Swiss mountain boy,” Volken said over a cortado at Arête Coffee Bar on a bustling morning in August.

Today, Volken owns Pro Ski and Mountain Service, a flourishing outdoor gear store and guide bureau. The coffee bar, named for a term that describes a sharp mountain ridge, sits inside the shop. Both the Northwest Avalanche Center and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance recently relocated to offices upstairs, bringing several outdoor nonprofit jobs to town.

Volken and two business partners bought the two-story building, formerly North Bend City Hall and Fire Station, in 2019. To purchase the property, they started a venture whose name speaks to the spirit that Volken has helped cultivate in North Bend, inspired by his Swiss upbringing: Mountain Culture, LLC.

That culture was on display Sept. 25 during the Mount Si Hill Climb — the current iteration of an up-and-down race that Volken started in 2013, inspired by similar races in the Alps — which starts and ends at Pro Ski, with post-race beer from North Bend’s Volition Brewing.

As the racers climbed Mount Si, they used a trail dedicated in 1931. For lifelong residents of North Bend — a frontier outpost once named Mountain View — the town has long been intertwined with the outdoors. North Bend has grown considerably since a building moratorium expired in 2009. New residents and businesses involved in the outdoor industry are a considerable part of that growth, but so are other new arrivals in this community within relatively easy commuting distance of the Seattle metro area.

Mount Si isn’t the tallest or toughest peak in the Cascades, but for North Bend residents, the mountain still offers over 3,000 vertical feet of training out their back door. For Volken, that access makes North Bend an ideal Pacific Northwest mountain town. There are opportunities to rock climb and mountain bike from town, with skiing just 25 miles away.

North Bend may not hold a candle to Moab, Utah, or Bishop, Calif., but Volken and over a half-dozen outdoors-related businesses and organizations who followed in his footsteps to the town, especially over the last six years, have found the raw material for a bona fide mountain lifestyle in proximity to big-city amenities like plentiful jobs and an international airport.

“It’s all about access for an outdoor lover,” Volken said. “It doesn’t have to be world class — it just needs to be good.”

Mountain town backbone

On an August morning, a dozen people work an assembly line as a half-dozen shop dogs roam inside snowboard binding manufacturer Karakoram. By the loading dock, boxes await shipment to France and Japan.

It would have been easier for Karakoram’s co-founders, twin brothers Bryce and Tyler Kloster, to set up shop in Auburn or Kent, where industrial land is plentiful, after the business outgrew their Snoqualmie Ridge condo. But they insisted on staying near the prime testing grounds of Snoqualmie Pass. The area around North Bend is also where the brothers — and judging by the bike rack, many of their employees, for whom Karakoram is an offseason job from the ski resort — spend their summer free time riding mountain bikes.

“It’s where we want to be even outside of work,” Bryce said.

Mountain views alone don’t make a mountain town. North Bend’s growing roster of outdoor businesses and organizations provide the economic and cultural backbone. Across the street from Karakoram, mountain bike coaching service The Line occupies an old auto-repair shop. A half-mile down the road, Seattle Mountain Rescue is working feverishly on the Mountain Rescue Center, a centralized search-and-rescue hub and outdoor safety training center a stone’s throw from the Little Si Trailhead.

Some outdoor entrepreneurs are doubling down in North Bend. Former teacher Luke Talbott left the classroom in 2007 to start Compass Outdoor Adventures, which hired ski and climbing bums as instructors for kids activities like introductory rock climbing, biking the Snoqualmie Tunnel and jumping off boulders into Rattlesnake Lake.

This past summer saw 200 campers, with another 200 on the wait list. In 2015, the company added corporate team building events to its slate — a hike up Little Si with a gaggle of Googlers was its first booking — a line of business that doubled in revenue from 2019 to 2022.

Now Talbott and business partner Karin Ayling are throwing open the doors of South Fork, an all-day restaurant and bar catering to the mountain, river and lake crowd.

“What if we could build a place to stop on all your adventures?” Talbott said of the establishment’s concept over a curry bowl lunch last month before paddleboarding home on the South Fork Snoqualmie River. The restaurant is slated to open Oct. 6.

“North Bend is the last town between here and Cle Elum,” Talbott said. “There’s wilderness at the next exit.”

A town on the edge of the wilderness drew in Scott Rinckenberger, who grew up in King County and skied for K2 as a sponsored athlete. He’s now 20 years into a career as a mountain photographer. Rinckenberger’s studio sits on the second floor of a building on North Bend’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it main street.

“Look out the window and you’ll get a pretty good indication why I’m here,” he said.

Rinckenberger spent plenty of time in internationally renowned mountain towns like Tahoe, Jackson Hole and Whistler during his ski model career in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While those towns have large destination mountain resorts with high-end hotels, Olympic pedigree and mass tourism, he prefers what North Bend and the Cascades offer, and set up his studio here nearly seven years ago.

“I like being in wilder, less densely populated mountains,” he said.

Building an outdoor brand

When Volken was trying to persuade his Seattleite wife to move to North Bend in the early 1990s, there were no gear or bike shops, mountain photographers, adventure-themed watering holes or outdoor industry businesses. Not that Volken was the first to see North Bend’s potential as an outdoor gateway.

“It was a town that used to be a logging town,” he said. “The public perception was that it was a backwater.”

Some “Twin Peaks” fans rolled through on weekends to take photos at Twede’s Cafe. Long-haul truckers pulled off I-90 while driving through the Cascades. The town flirted with faux-Bavarian à la Leavenworth — an old motel sign still bears vaguely Germanic script — but never committed. At best, it was known for the outlet mall that opened in 1990 in an early effort to reinvent the town.

Settlers began farming in the Snoqualmie Valley — the traditional home of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe — in the 1800s. North Bend was founded in 1889 in anticipation of a railroad from Seattle, which baked in some day-tripper tourism from an early date. Logging took off in the early 1900s, but eventually sputtered. The last Weyerhaeuser mill closed in 2003. The first cross-state highway opened in 1913 and eventually became I-90. Until 1978, North Bend had the dubious distinction of being the last traffic light on I-90 in Washington, with the horrendous traffic backups to prove it.

“Why do you want to move all the way out there?” Volken said, describing the reactions he got at the time. Even though North Bend is only 30 miles from Seattle — closer than Tacoma, a hair farther than Everett — the urban-rural contrast made the trip seem longer to the couple’s Seattle social circle. “The different mentalities artificially increased the perceived distance,” he said.

The weather was also an obstacle. Without the benefit of the Olympic rain shadow, North Bend receives twice the rain of Seattle. Inland from the cooling saltwater, North Bend also runs hotter in the summer — though the abundance of swimming holes helps.

Volken commuted to his Aurora Avenue shop, ProSki, for five years before realizing he could be a catalyst in North Bend. He opened Pro Ski North Bend in 1999 and added a guide service, the same year he wrote a seminal guide book on backcountry skiing in Snoqualmie Pass. (He sold the Seattle location, which retains the ProSki moniker, in 2005.)

But that same year froze North Bend in amber for a decade. The City Council imposed a building moratorium due to insufficient water rights. In 2007, North Bend struck a deal with Seattle Public Utilities and let the moratorium expire two years later, unleashing pent-up demand for exurban development in growing King County and allowing North Bend to fulfill its obligations under the Growth Management Act. At the time, Volken recalls, a mountain view was a selling point, but more for aesthetics than for ogling climbing routes from the porch.

In 2012, city planner Gina Estep invited Volken to join North Bend’s economic development commission along with other residents in the outdoor industry like Guy Lawrence, general manager of The Summit at Snoqualmie. The commission volunteered its time to conduct a brand audit and asset inventory. Volken finally had a vehicle to push the idea that the mountains, rivers and lakes were integral to North Bend’s future.

“We can decide what businesses we’re going to recruit and how it will affect zoning,” he said. “With consistent, disciplined execution of an agreed-upon outdoor brand, it will start to take on a life of its own and attract residents.”

In 2015, North Bend revealed its new brand statement, which currently reads: “We are a highly livable small town that is the premier outdoor recreation destination in the Puget Sound region. Easy to reach — hard to leave.”

But Volken realized a brand was worthless without political follow-through. The next year, both he and Trevor Kostanich, a fellow mountain guide and committee member, won election to City Council. The alpinist caucus, as it were, oversaw legislation that requires the council to analyze whether proposed developments will help or hinder the town’s outdoor brand. That question was put to the test as the council weighed a proposed housing development on 32 acres before eventually approving a joint purchase to conserve the land and instead build a mountain bike park.

Volken admits those decisions were a tough sell on the council, as elected officials less invested in the outdoor brand pointed to the loss of some $5 million in impact fees, while the value of a mountain bike park is hard to quantify.

Looking back on the decision, Ken Hearing, mayor from 2004 to 2020, does not believe the debate came down to housing versus recreation.

“It was more philosophical: Do we need to retain more open space?” he said. “Everyone finally agreed it was a good thing.”

Hearing, 71, was born and raised in North Bend. He considers himself an outdoorsman — he hunts and fishes — but worked in a different industry, running burger joint Scott’s Dairy Freeze for over 20 years. While he lauded the economic development commission’s work preparing the brand statement and attests that it has widespread support, he regrets that they did not include any lifelong residents like himself.

“You have to include a bigger variety of people from different walks of life and longevity [in town] in order to get a buy-in from just about everybody,” he said.

Growing pains

To some, the surging outdoor recreation around North Bend is too much.

For North Bend’s original inhabitants the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, who know the mountain as q??lbc?, a competitive mentality disrespects this sacred site.

“Too often q??lbc? is looked upon as a challenge, instead of embracing how unique and special it truly is, how our interaction with place is part of a larger interconnected and dynamic relationship,” the tribe writes on the website of Snoqualmie Ancestral Lands Movement.

North Bend likewise is under pressure to house its newcomers. The residential flywheel is spinning, just as Volken envisioned, though perhaps too fast when it comes to escalating home prices.

In May, Dan Henning and Michelle Howden closed on a 1,600-square-foot house in North Bend. The couple is thrilled to live where they can bike to rock climbing or hit mountain biking trails without having to drive. “It lowers the threshold to getting out there,” said Henning, 40, an emergency physician. Howden is a former EMT and technical rescuer for wildland firefighters now studying to become a physician assistant.

But when it comes to real estate, “This is not a step down from Seattle,” Henning said. They bought for a cool $1.06 million after selling Henning’s Wallingford home for $1.03 million.

The median sale price in North Bend has roughly doubled since April 2020. While new residential construction is almost as constant a sight as Mount Si, local real estate agent Jason Gibbons said the market remains out of reach for many and that “the housing is not suitable for the solo first-time homebuyer.”

The outdoorsy crowd is a “notable demographic” among North Bend homebuyers, but they’re not the majority, Gibbons said, noting that they also compete with folks drawn by larger homes, bigger lots or more conservative politics.

“They just find they can commute to Redmond and they have the money to buy the house. In a lot of cases, they came from outside Puget Sound,” Hearing said. “They came here for the same reason my grandfather came here in 1924: quality of life.”

That sudden lurch into unaffordability pains many.

“Cost of living weighs on us a lot,” Tyler said. “What can we do as a company for our employees to have the ability to live here and buy a home? … With tech money, it’s hard to compete.” Karakoram pays $17-$22 per hour on the production line, but some employees commute from as far as Seattle and Cle Elum, Kittitas County.

“This issue is not limited to North Bend or the Snoqualmie Valley. Today’s housing market is affected by many elements that are out of the city’s control,” wrote Mayor Rob McFarland via email. “While we are pleased to see an array of new, diverse housing options being built right now in North Bend, we acknowledge that affordable housing is a real, immediate challenge.”

“We don’t have enough living-wage jobs,” Volken said.

“I like mountain culture, and you can’t have the culture without the people,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Volken takes the long view. “It’s a better town now than it was 30 years ago,” he said.

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