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Don Shepler and Erin Zell Offer Parting Words Concerning Galena Lodge
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Sunday, January 29, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

They endured an invasion of pine martens. And they joked during the pandemic that they must be in a version of “The Shining.”

But no matter what Mother Nature and the rest of the world threw at them, Don Shepler and Erin Zell greeted guests at Galena Lodge with a smile. 

The Blaine County Recreation District threw a party toasting the couple’s 17 years at Galena Lodge at the Limelight Hotel this past week. And 200 people crowded into the Silver Creek Room to pay tribute, even as a long waiting list kept others who wanted to be there away.

“Even when the lineups were out the door, never have I seen Don and Erin without a smile and always ready to greet you as you stepped into the lodge, and even try to have a chat when super busy,” said Jenny Busdon, who was part of the hiring committee that chose the two to run the lodge in 2006. “That was the magic sauce, if you will, to their success and popularity. Hard work and service with a smile.”

Both Shepler and Zell had started out in Portland, Ore., studying to be physical therapists before they moved to Hailey from the Mount Hood area in 2000.

“We didn’t expect to stay—we had a hard time finding a place to live. Like everyone, we worked three jobs, doing a little gardening, a little restaurant work and other jobs,” recounted Zell.

Shepler found his niche in cooking and he immediately put it to work concocting his popular Don Bars and elevating Full Moon Dinners, Star Gazing Dinners, wine dinners, weddings  and festive holiday dinners that became so popular that snagging reservations were akin to winning a lottery.

The couple had been at Galena Lodge for just a year when the lodge was invaded by pine martens in the wake of the 2007 Castle Rock Fire that burned through the backcountry out Warm Springs, and in Adams Gulch and Greenhorn Gulch.

Capturing and relocating the varmints at least six miles away became part of the job description--they captured so many they began spray painting them to see whether they would return.

“We’d find them asleep on the couch, stuffed in a corner,” said Shepler. “If you had a candy bar in your jacket or water bottle holder, they’d tear it apart. Francie and Joe St. Onge said they found one of the spray-painted pine martens in one of their yurts, and someone had one escape in their car.”

The Castle Rock Fire wouldn’t be the last the two had to sweat. The 2013 Beaver Creek Fire seemed on a trajectory to reach the lodge until firefighters corralled it at Baker Creek. And the 2022 Ross Fork Fire advanced to the Frenchman’s Creek area beneath Galena Pass.

When the power went out Christmas Eve in the Wood River Valley several years ago, it went out at Galena Lodge, as well. Wearing headlamps in the dark, staff scrambled to fix the generator so they could get take care of guests on what is one of the busiest days of the year for the lodge. Then Shepler and Zell carried water from the creek across the road so they could cook Christmas dinner.

In 2017 the road between Ketchum and Galena Lodge was closed for three days by heavy snow.

“We’ve seen the pass closed but not the road between the Wood River Valley and us,” said Zell. “At first, we were excited—it was kind of fun because we had everything to ourselves. We watched ‘The Shining’ and drank beer. We had great food, could work puzzles, hang out. it was really special. The second day we shoveled out everyone’s cabins, and the third day we shoveled around the lodge and the yurts and packed out the snowshoe trails. I took the snowmobile down the trail with the snow flying over my head. It took a half-hour to go the distance of this room.”

When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, they again found themselves strangely isolated.

“We didn’t go to town for a groceries for month and a half,” Zell said. “We made do and when we opened in summer we still didn’t know whether you could touch things or not. So, it was a hard summer. But summer is easier because it’s outside.”

Shepler and Zell  love that they get the whole gamut of guests at the lodge—from people who have never skied or snowshoed before to NCAA teams from Dartmouth College and Olympians in training.

“People can’t ski the mountain every day so we give them a nice option,” said Zell.

They also were there as the Blaine County Recreation District and Forest Service designed and built 45 miles of mountain biking trails, which boosted summer business tremendously.

“We were 31 when we took over the lodge. We got involved because there was a rumor that Terra or somebody was going to take over. We didn’t expect a lot of what we found ourselves in. We didn’t know what it was like to live where you work, and that becomes your entire life. But it’s amazing how many people we have gotten to know over the years—so many awesome people.”

“I didn’t realize how hard they work until I saw behind the scenes,” said Mark Davidson, BCRD’s executive director. “They both work behind the scenes and they’re out in public constantly.”

In the quieter moments, Shepler and Zell have gotten to watch otters sliding on the snowbanks and a fox beg for food outside the lodge.

“All the good food, the dark skies--so beautiful. It never gets old walking across the street and seeing the mountains every day,” Zell said.

The couple recently bought a home in Smiley Creek. And when the Ross Fork Fire threatened the community last summer, they tried to tell themselves that they could reorient it for better views if it burned.

They say they don’t plan on going anywhere—save, perhaps, for some spectacular vacations which would follow past vacations that took them to France and to Japan to ski the deepest snow in the world.

“The biggest thing we want is nothing next for a year,” said Zell. “We do what we want for a year and figure out what it is we want to do. We haven’t been home to celebrate the holidays in 18 years. We haven’t not had to get up and report to work at 7:30 in the morning for years.”

Zell and Shepler are being succeeded by Kyle and Chelan Pauly Oldemeyer, who have spent the past few years learning the ropes under them. “They are the young and enthusiastic Don and Erin of 2006,” noted Busdon, who also played a role in their selection.

Shepler has a few parting words for his Wood River Valley friends as he does take off his apron: “Don’t take Galena Lodge for granted. I asked Chris Grover, who coaches the U.S. Ski Team to point us in the direction of another Galena Lodge and he said there isn’t one. Don’t take it for granted—keep supporting it.”

DID YOU KNOW?

The Blaine County Recreation Department has sold a record 2,800-plus Nordic passes this year. Passholders have had 78 days of groomed trails to ski and it’s still January.

 

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