Galena Lodge is owned by the Blaine County Recreation District but is operated as a concession by Don Shepler and Erin Zell.
Express file photo
Erin Zell and Don Shepler weren’t sure what to expect when they took over operation of Galena Lodge in 2006—they just knew that their recreation-oriented work backgrounds had led them to the right spot. Now, they say, it’s still hard to know what to expect from day to day, but they love what they’re doing.
Despite being just off state Highway 75, the rustic log lodge 23 miles north of Ketchum offers a step into the backwoods and a step back in time as well. The lodge is owned by the Blaine County Recreation District, but operated as a concession. The couple runs its trail system, restaurant, ski and bike shop and Nordic ski school.
“We’re our own business to succeed or fail,” Shepler said. “Every year we’ve been here, it’s been profitable. Summer is when we struggle—we just try to cover costs.”
Zell, 38, and Shepler, 40, met in college in Virginia. After graduation, they decided they’d had enough of school and wanted to live as much as possible outdoors. Shepler had aspirations of working as a mountain-biking guide at a resort in West Virginia, but was told he’d have to put in some time in another capacity first, and what they really needed was a head cook. He had some experience working in restaurants, and said he could do the job, but now admits that he was totally in over his head.
He succeeded, though, and his experience there eventually led to culinary school in Portland, Ore., and restaurant jobs for both of them at Timberline Lodge.
“We really didn’t click with the people at Mount Hood,” Zell said. “They liked to party a lot and we liked to ski a lot.”
In 2000, a road trip looking for a better place led them to the Wood River Valley, where they had a friend to stay with while they looked for jobs and housing. Shepler cooked at several restaurants, including a two-year stint at CK’s Real Food in Hailey. Then the Galena concession opened up and the couple decided it would be just right for them.
“I love it,” Zell said. “What I love most is the variety. It keeps me from getting burned out on the service industry.”
Zell said her main task is to “run the front of the house” while Shepler is in back cooking the tasty lunches that have brought the lodge a reputation as a cozy place to eat on a cold winter day. Zell said the two of them share duties in the rental shop and do a little cross-country ski teaching. She also puts in office time planning events and tending to finances. The two also maintain the three “family-friendly” yurts that are a short ski or snowshoe from the lodge and are rented by the night.
When they were interviewed last week, Zell and Shepler were cleaning and baking in anticipation of the lodge’s winter opening on Nov. 23.
“Before you have your own business, you don’t really know how much there is to do,” Zell said. “Sometimes it makes your head spin, but it keeps it interesting.”
Shepler said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how much the lodge operation has involved the couple with the local community—including through cross-country ski races and school field trips and on the board of the Wood River Bike Coalition.
“It’s been really fun,” he said. “You get to help out in many different ways and you also get a lot of support from people in the area.”
Shepler said he tries to use as much locally produced food as he can, including potatoes, burgers, lamb, trout, beans and squash, bought through Idaho’s Bounty. He said buying local has been challenging, but is getting easier as more farmers cater to the local market.
The couple lives in a log house across the highway from the lodge.
“It’s awesome,” Zell said. “Our commute to work is beautiful, and we can hike or ski from our door.”
Zell said that when the two go out to have fun in the winter, it’s for backcountry skiing with their two dogs on good powder days and skate skiing once the snow firms up.
About 10 employees also live around the lodge.
“It’s like a family up here,” Zell said. “It’s definitely more than just working together. You really get to know each other.”
Zell said they also get to know some of the local wildlife, including some pine martens that they have to trap and relocate.
“They’re small and cute, but they’re also conniving and get into things,” she said.
She said a couple of foxes live near the yurts. They’re cute, too, but eat the guests’ food if it’s left out in the snow.
The couple said their long-range plans now are focused on a summer trail system that the Recreation District is planning to construct next year. The network will provide miles of easy biking and walking trails, now in short supply in the valley, as well as more difficult trails farther from the lodge.
“You can come back and have a drink in the sun on the deck,” Shepler said. “There’s no other place in the area that’s a hub of trails.”
Beyond that, they say, they’re just planning on being prepared for whatever comes at them. They’ve had no thoughts about leaving Galena.
“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even guessed that this is where I’d be,” Shepler said. “But I’m not disappointed.”
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org
Galena Lodge will serve Full Moon Dinners on Saturday, Dec. 14, and Monday, Dec. 16, at 6:30 p.m. Dinners will be served nightly from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve, also at 6:30 p.m. Reservations are required for all: 726-4010. For more information, see www.galenalodge.com.