Agostini: Snow Fever

12/06/2010 5:33 AM

12/06/2010 7:31 AM

Dodge Ridge started with one lodge, one chair lift, one rope tow and fewer than 50 seasonal employees.

The original plan for the resort was drawn up on the back of a matchbook by Earl Purdy, Dodge's founder, and he acted on that vision.

"All along, while driving from ski resort to ski resort, he had in his mind what Dodge was going to look like," said Ralph Purdy, Earl's youngest son, in the book "Mountain Dreamers."

"And when the final project was completed," Ralph continued, "it looked exactly like the layout on the matchbook."

This winter season, Dodge Ridge celebrates its 60th anniversary at a property Earl Purdy would barely recognize. It has grown from its modest beginning into one of the Sierra's most respected ski/snowboard venues — an eight-chair, 400-employee business that has kept up with the times.

"I learned how to ski on Dodge's rope tow," said Bob Roberts, the executive director of the San Francisco-based California Ski Industry Association. "Dodge is a throwback. You can't help but like the place and what is has meant to our business."

That Dodge's anniversary coincides with its opening three weeks ahead of schedule is only proper and fitting. We like to call it "the closest skiing to home" at that special hideaway near Pinecrest off Highway 108.

Enjoying the good times, however, means overcoming tough times, and Dodge has persevered through the latter. Thousands of winter recreation enthusiasts over the years owe a thank-you to a property that somehow found answers to thorny questions.

If you can't make snow due to insufficient water supply or not-cold-enough temperatures, what do you do? Dodge invested $3.5 million and expanded east in 1998 into Boulder Creek Canyon, where the resort's only quad chair tripled Dodge's ski acreage and offered a conduit to more intermediate and advanced terrain.

What's your next move when Dodge's first headquarters, the historic Mother Lode Lodge, burns to the ground in January of 2005? Two years later, Dodge built the Family Lodge, a 16,000-square-foot tribute to modern amenities. The 22-foot high stone fireplace on the second floor features a mantel made of the same Tuolumne County timber that spiced the old lodge.

What was Dodge's response to about 20 years without meaningful expansion? It thrust itself into the modern era in 1986 by erecting Chair 7 (Prospector), the eventual bridge to Boulder Creek.

All three projects were guided by the Helm family, which purchased Dodge from Purdy in 1976. Frank Helm Jr., 70, the son of a well-known Modesto car dealer and a lifelong outdoorsman, has stewarded Dodge with a kind but aggressive hand.

"When I made my commitment to Dodge Ridge in 1976, I had a strong desire and personal commitment to grow Dodge Ridge," Helm said. "Now after years of hard work and dedication, Sally (his wife) and I are thankful to all of our friends, employees and guests who have helped and supported us along the way."

As corporations continue to gobble up ski resorts, the Helms retain one of the few family-run properties left in the Sierra. To hear them talk about it, Dodge is more than just a business. It is their life.

"Frank had the vision to sustain it over time. Everything we do now starts with, 'How will this improve the experience for our guests?'" Sally Helm said. "It becomes who you are and what your life is about. It's who we are. We were founded by families for families."

The Helms share a bond with Purdy that goes far beyond their respective stints as owners. Both possessed a passion for the mountains, both believed in Dodge as a family-oriented center and both were willing to absorb the pluses and minuses inherent in a business which depends almost solely on Mother Nature.

"They're a successful little operation. When the lodge burned down, they took care of it," Roberts said. "The Helms are class acts. If you want someone to step up and do the right thing, that's Frank and Sally."

History shows that Purdy reacted wisely to the U.S. Forest Service's soliciting bids for development of a ski area at Dodge Ridge more than six decades ago. Equally sound was Frank Helm's carrying Purdy's dream forward.

Two owners. Sixty years. The fun continues at Dodge Ridge.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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