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Why It’s Worth the Effort to Take Your Kids Skiing 

How one Northwestern family makes weekend ski trips to Mount Baker with their three young boys work, thanks to an old camper, some pocket candy, and back-up rain gear.

by Megan Michelson

Pancakes sizzle on the tiny stovetop while snow dumps outside the trailer window and avalanche bombs blast in the distance. Phoebe and Jon Carpenter Eells, along with their three boys—Decatur, 10, Gideon, 8, and Thatcher, 2—are gearing up in the parking lot for a day of skiing at Mount Baker, Washington. Just like they do nearly every weekend during the winter.

The boys grab their ski coats and pants, while Phoebe and Jon scurry around the trailer collecting last-minute items like gloves, goggles, sunscreen, and snacks. Definitely don’t forget the snacks. “I don’t think we would have been able to teach our kids to ski without pockets full of candy,” Phoebe jokes.

This is the Carpenter Eells family’s weekend routine: Load up their old camper trailer on a Friday afternoon with all the necessities (“A checklist helps for packing,” Phoebe says)—ski gear, a pot of split pea or chicken noodle soup, cookie dough ready to bake after a day of skiing, and enough puzzles, books, and art supplies to occupy the boys in case it pours rain and they’re stuck inside the camper. If not, they’ll be outside all day sledding, shoveling, and of course, skiing. The family lives in Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour and a half’s drive on scenic highways from Mount Baker ski area.

Phoebe and Jon, both former middle school teachers, now run and own a brick-and-mortar design and print shop in Mount Vernon called elSage Designs, where T-shirts and hoodies with Northwest-inspired prints pay the bills. They’ve both been skiers since they were kids, learning to slide down snow-covered slopes at Stevens Pass while growing up north of Seattle in the town of Snohomish. (The two are from the same town, but they didn’t meet until after high school.
They got married in 2005 and had their first son in 2008, then another boy a couple of years later. Day tripping to Mount Baker and swapping turns skiing, while juggling napping babies and antsy toddlers in the lodge proved to be more challenging than they thought. “By the end of that first season with two kids, I thought, ‘We’ve got to make this work. We’ve got to figure this out somehow,’” Phoebe says.
 
The answer, it turned out, appeared on Craigslist. The ad, which had no photos, was for a 1999 16-foot camper trailer. “Most people wouldn’t even have called on it,” Phoebe says. “We did and it changed our lives.” The camper was owned by two former teachers named Marcia and Monte, and in 2012, they sold it to Phoebe and Jon, including all of its kitchen items and tablecloths, for around $3,500.
Since then, Phoebe and Jon have added their third son and they’ve recruited other families to join them in the Mount Baker parking lot, where RVs and trailers appear on weekends to create a sort of pop-up, overnight ski community. “Our friends started to trickle in with their rigs. They found old trailers that needed to be redone,” Phoebe says. “Now, we have other families with kids, and everyone goes sledding, or snowshoeing, or running around with glow sticks."

Phoebe and Jon both admit their ski-centric, winter-camping routine isn’t easy—there are the inevitable kid meltdowns, the roadways that close during a storm, the heater that routinely malfunctions, and that one time a jar of marinade fell out of the trailer’s fridge and shattered glass everywhere. “It’s always an adventure,” Phoebe says. “We’ve learned the hard way to let the kids lead, so we can keep it fun for everyone. We want them to love skiing but badgering them about it isn’t going to make that happen.

Because their boys are outside all day—and often literally rolling around in the snow while playing outside the trailer—back-up outerwear, lots of warm layers, and things like extra gloves and spare dry socks are key. Hand-me-downs get passed from one family and one child to the next. “We buy stuff now for the oldest, knowing it’ll go through at least two other boys,” Phoebe says.

But ask them if it’s worth it and they both say, definitively, yes. “We’ve always called the mountains our church,” says Jon. “It’s where our souls settle.”
 
Besides, there may be no better way to spend time as a family than cooped up in a tiny trailer deep in the mountains, where the only thing you can do is enjoy each other and the wilderness around you. “You’re in this tight spot and you end up knowing each other on a much deeper level,” Phoebe says. “There’s this intimacy and also this toughness, of showing your kids that you can’t always have things right when you want them, and that life can sometimes be uncomfortable.”
 
Back in the trailer on that snowy morning, it’s go time. There’s powder to be had and no time to waste. The family shuffles out the door of their camper in ski boots and walks a few steps to the lift. It’s a one-of-a-kind slopeside condo, that’s for sure. “I call it the ski cabin,” Phoebe says. “Unless, of course, it’s parked on the beach, then it’s the beach cabin."
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