Snowmobile Club Opens New Warming Shelter On St. Helens

News Alex Brown, The Daily Chronicle

By Alex Brown / abrown@chronline.com

As cars converged on the south side of Mount St. Helens last Saturday, people hustled across the snowy parking lot toward an inviting structure nearby. 

Inside the big cabin-style building, a wood-burning stove crackled, a Christmas tree glowed in the corner and parents exchanged warm hugs and greetings as children scampered about. A full spread of food beckoned at one of the tables, and paper chains of red and green stretched across the ceiling.

Looking at the festive scene, it was hard to imagine the building had been an empty shell just a few months before, and didn’t exist at all just a few months before that. For almost eight years, this spot at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park was empty, after the cabin that had stood there for decades burned to the ground in 2011.

Saturday’s Christmas party, hosted by the Mount St. Helens Trac Riders, was also a celebration of the new warming shelter — and the snowmobile club deserves much of the credit for getting it rebuilt.

“Every Saturday night we have a potluck in here, and we’ll be here until midnight, 1 in the morning playing games,” said Larry Lamkin, president of the Trac Riders. “When the warming shelter wasn’t here, we’d all be isolated in our RVs our not here because there’s no meeting place. It almost brings tears to my eyes, being able to sit here and watch this. Now we have a place we can call home.”

Lamkin’s club, made up of about 60 families, is more than just a collection of people who like to fly up the mountain on their snowmobiles. It’s a intergenerational web of friendships, a tight-knit group that meets up even when there’s no snow on the ground.

“It turned out to be more a family than a snowmobile club,” said Bob Lynn, who joined the group three years ago when he moved to the area from North Carolina. “They’re the kindest people I’ve ever met. In three years, I’ve become closer to some of these people than people I’ve known for many years.” 

That warmth was evident Saturday, as parents chatted cheerily amid a Christmas gift exchange, and Santa Claus (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lynn) handed out presents to the children. The club, members say, is successful because it’s for everyone. Families can meet up at the mountain, with some setting off for the adventure of the high slopes and others looping around the groomed trails at lower elevation. 

What makes it all possible is the warming shelter. It’s a place for people to gather as they wait for stragglers to arrive, then meet back up for lunch. Parents can bring kids inside to warm up when they start to shiver. And it gives everyone a place to hang out after a long day on the mountain, to play games and trade tall tales of their day. 

“When the (original) shelter burned, the club grew apart,” said Mike Ainslie, a club member who’s also a district representative for the Washington State Snowmobile Association. “The shelter’s a good BS place. It’s a good place to come in and have a fire after you’ve been out snowmobiling all day. When there’s no place to do that, you just drive home. … Now, it feels like home again.”

While seeing the club gathered in the new shelter was poignant for many, it was doubly rewarding because of the effort it had taken to get there. According to Lamkin, club members started fundraising for a new shelter the very day the last one burned down. The years after that brought a lot of “heartache and frustration,” he said, as members realized it was going to be an ordeal to replace their shelter.

The club secured grants and donations, volunteered labor and lined up local companies who donated equipment and time. For years, though, the project was stalled, hung up somewhere in the U.S. Forest Service bureaucracy. Many believed the shelter would never get rebuilt.

“I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life,” Ainslie said. 

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