Requiem for George Dobis

George Dobis was one of Mt. Baker, WA’s greatest characters. Although he himself did not snowboard, his daughter Marcella became one of the sport’s premier racers in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, placing consistently at the top of that era’s World Cups. Along with wife, Bobbi, the family started what would become one of snowboarding’s most hallowed sites: The Mt. Baker Snowboard Shop. Mentoring folk like Craig Kelly and Dan Donnelly on mountain conditions and wilderness survival, George become the unofficial tribe elder for a growing culture. With his recent passing, writer (and frequency: TSJ publisher) Jeff Galbraith takes a moment to recall this legendary individual.

George Dobis: Fireworks, Honeybees and The Last Mountain Man

It’s taken over a month for me to be able to even consider writing something about George. I missed the initial wake at Weege’s place with the requisite keg of Coors. I missed the private “bro” wake at Glen’s spot a couple weeks ago, as well. It’s clearly selfish and protective, but I’ve just hit a space where I only have the capacity for a single public grieving session for any of my friends. And George was an amazing dude and good friend.

The first time I had the opportunity to meet George Dobis, I was still a teenager, coming down from the mountain in Eric Janko’s tan VW Rabbit, packed in with Jeff Fulton, Joe Dockery, and Carter Turk and our attendant gear. We slid into the drive at the small home in tiny Glacier, and within a matter of moments were audience to this smiling and completely animated man. Quick to offer to this young crowd homemade plum whiskey, George launched into one tale after another, most ending with his running off of some overly aggressive Forest Service agent into the hinterlands of the North Cascades.

I wasn’t sure why we were stopping, with no clear purpose or intention when we pulled into Marcella’s drive that day. Five minutes into meeting the man, however, I knew exactly why we were there. Stopping by to visit with George became, over the years, an increasingly significant ritual.

As we seek to tame the mountains, to subdue their rivers with dams and cover their hillsides with planned communities, George was one of the knowing Old Worlders, who understood and celebrated the wild: The idea that the woods and the mountains belonged to no man, but to all. That nature is the ultimate authority and that the streams, the old growth and the creatures within, are in our individual stewardship was a strong ethos with George that had sprung from a childhood in Slovakia’s High Tatras Mountains. Additional toughness, as if it were needed, was supplied from surviving under a communist dictatorship.

Sometime after my initial kitchen roundtable encounter, I was debriefed on his story, or at least what we, as kids, were able to piece together: Escaped the iron curtain, swam The Rhine into West Berlin with daughter and wife in an inner-tube-and in the other hand, a pistol, firing back at the guard towers.

Upon arrival, finally, in NYC, as George would describe it years later, he stopped in his tracks to gaze upon a large alpine mural in Grand Central Station. Staring at the rugged flanks and crevasses of the Washington’s Mt. Shuksan, George said, “I knew that I had to go there.” Years later, after two tours in Vietnam as part of his citizenship pact, and making his family’s way to the Northwest, he ventured to the Mt. Baker region and happened to see the real life massif he recognized from years prior.

He settled in the region and became one of the community’s main pillars for more than three decades. Although at times in confrontation with the local Forest Service, sheriff, and other badge-holders, George was always reasonable, but keenly aware of the consequences of authority run amuck-and especially of the dangers of giving up public rights.

But for any episodes of disagreement with The Man, there were countless instances of selfless giving to hundreds (if not thousands) of kids over the years, who walked through the doors of The Mt. Baker Snowboard Shop, looking for a binding part, a washer, or a secret wax tip for the Banked Slalom.

He welcomed them all, kids from five to fifty, into the hallowed bowels of his shop, to retrieve that one special item, just for them. This would invariably include a good deal of story telling in that infectious Slovak accent: “Jeffy, dude! – I tell you this…” For the children especially, there were treats, occasional fireworks, and an experience that would leave them wide-eyed and stoked.

George supplied more than his fair share of material for my own writings over the years my first published piece in Powder nearly twenty years ago, was a brief profile of the man. My most recent piece, a freelance article for the Swiss multi-sport title Seventh Sky, focused on George’s belief that increased radio frequencies along the nearby US-Canadian border (read Homeland Security) were killing off his honeybees.

George was a man in the traditions of both Ed Abbey, and every Cubano pitcher ever willing to float the Gulf Stream to get to the Other Side. A dichotomy at peace in the hills.

When I learned a short while ago that he was fighting late-stage lung cancer, I couldn’t quite accept this. This gnarled mountain man who could seemingly cold-cock a panther, would beat this back. There would be time to visit.

There was not time to visit.

To lose Craig was especially tough. To lose George, one of Craig’s most respected mentors, perhaps goes even deeper.

This winter has seemed to hang on forever in the North Cascades, and it is supposed to snow another foot these next few days, even though the ski area is shut down for the year. But even in this extended season, there are signs that spring is fighting to return. The nettles are starting to bud, there are frogs croaking on the few warm evenings.

I had heard George requested that we have a remembrance for him in May, when the spring had returned. I imagine that the rebirth and renewal in the High Tatras is as spectacular-if not more so, than the North Cascades. I imagine him meeting a young lady at the local ski resort, fleeing their world together with a young child and wresting a new life from a new land. I imagine having to fight a ground war for two years in brutal conditions. I imagine that the return of the living, the warm soil, the songbirds and salmonberry flowers would mean even more. I guess he simply said, “We’re going to have a get-together, and I’ll be there along with Craig, and Scott Stamnes, and Teal and Mikey P.”

We’ll all be there, George.

My prayers and meditations go out to Bobbi, Marcella and the whole community of Glacier. A friend asked the other day who the hell was going to keep the tin-badge holders in check in the woods now? I couldn’t begin to answer he was the last of his kind.

To George Dobis, the King of Mt. Baker: Cheers, skol, and thank you.



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