Sacred Snow

Montana's remote Rocky Boy Reservation, home to the Chippewa Cree, might seem an unlikely place for skiing. But on the slopes of Bear Paw Ski Bowl, powder meets purpose.

By Drew Pogge

Photos By Ryan Krueger

"Rack the boards, rack up some runs. Rack up some fun and ski knee-deep, cheap, at the steep-and-deep Bear Paw Ski Bowl!” 

The local radio ad comes on just as we turn onto the main drag in the small northern-Montana ranching and railroad town of Havre, where the skis on our roof seem a little ridiculous, surrounded as we are by muddy diesel pickups, farm vehicles, and rust-streaked grain elevators.“Conditions this weekend are great, with 12 inches of fresh powder on a boilerplate base. We open at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow—not whenever you feel like it, Melody.”The man on the radio is Bear Paw Ski Bowl mountain manager Big Dave Martens, and even though he just used the word “boilerplate” in a ski-area conditions report and publicly scolded one of Bear Paw’s patrollers, his booming baritone has a grin behind it, as if everybody listening is in on the joke. And given where we are, it’s possible he’s right.

It’s not a stretch to say that Bear Paw Ski Bowl is the most unusual and isolated ski area in the country. It’s in the middle of Montana’s vast eastern plain—140 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front; 60 miles south of the Canadian border; and inside the Rocky Boy Reservation, home of the Chippewa Cree (Bear Paw is one of just two ski areas in the country operating on tribal land). The entire region is so remote, in fact, that it’s still officially designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “frontier,” a place with fewer than six people per square mile.

The ski area is open just two days a week, run entirely by a local nonprofit and staffed mostly by volunteers. A big day might bring 100 people to the hill. The base area consists of an outhouse and a plywood ticket office. Lift tickets are $20 ($15 for tribe members), and don’t even try to pay with a credit card. There’s one lift, serving 900 windswept vertical feet, and even the most ardent supporter of the ski area would call the annual snowfall “iffy.”

And yet Bear Paw Ski Bowl has somehow survived for 55 years. Photographer Ryan Krueger and I are here to see how such an improbable ski area keeps the bullwheel turning and meet some of the skiers who call it home.

The next morning, we sit down to an enormous breakfast at a Havre diner called Char’s before driving 29 scenic miles south to the slopes. In the course of the drive, the landscape changes from rolling prairie and pasture to foothills pocked with ponds and trees. We parallel Beaver Creek, where cottonwoods, aspens, and buffalo berry thrive beneath crumbling cliffs. At one point, a large coyote lopes across the icy road and stares as we pass. The last few miles to Bear Paw climb gently into lodgepole forest, and the mountains grow steeper. We catch our first glimpse of the ski runs—dusted by another five inches of new snow on top of the 12 from last night—from a small valley below the streaked north face of 6,916-foot Baldy Mountain, which looms over Bear Paw, visible from every vantage. Unlike the dramatic Rocky Mountains to the west, the Bear Paws were formed by volcanic activity rather than tectonic collision. An upwelling of magma around 50 million years ago pushed the Bear Paws 4,000 feet above the surrounding prairie and created the unique skyline—rounded summits and square-topped buttes—that defines the range. To the Cree, this profile bore resemblance to a crouching bear, with Baldy as the bear’s heart. Its name in Cree is O-che-ah-chi-nahs-ik, or Heart Butte. The peak remains sacred to the tribe and is a site for traditional vision quests and reflection.

We pull into the small parking lot and gear up just as the lift starts turning. At the ticket shack, I ask for Big Dave, and a large, smiling man in wraparound sunglasses bursts from the side door. He greets us with a firm handshake and the same booming baritone from the radio. “So you’re the magazine guys, huh?” he asks, with not a little incredulity. “Welcome to Bear Paw!” Apparently, out-of -town skiers—not to mention ski journalists—are rare at the Ski Bowl. He shouts to a patroller at the lift to wait for us, then sends us on our way. “You’ll figure it out pretty quick,” he says before turning to greet a grinning local skier with a jovial “Hey, ya bastard!”

It turns out the patroller waiting for us at the lift is Big Dave’s son, Little Dave, who has recently returned to Havre to work as a speech pathologist after ski-bumming in Missoula for a few years while going to school. When I ask him to compare skiing here to his experiences elsewhere, he smiles. “It’s different,” he says. “Obviously it’s not a huge mountain, and our snow can be terrible, but it’s not really about that. We’re just lucky to have anything at all.”

Under the double chair, two kids in Carhartts stem-christie doggedly through the powder while someone a few chairs ahead shouts encouragement. We pass the midway unload ramp and continue up a steep headwall to the top, where rows of seven-foot-tall snow fence stand guard against the wind that often strafes this island range on the prairie.

From the top, a 360-degree view stretches to distant horizons. Baldy rises another 1,100 vertical feet to the southeast, while rolling hills dissipate to the plains in the west. Today, the egg-shaped summits sparkle with a foot and a half of fresh snow, and spirits are high. Someone just below the ridge is laughing as we unload from the lift.

Veteran liftie Lance DeCora shovels drifted snow out of the unloading area. He and two other tribal lift operators from Rocky Boy are the only paid employees at Bear Paw; part of the deal struck with the reservation was a few part-time winter jobs. “The tribe doesn’t get much out of this at all,” Little Dave explains. “So a few jobs is the least we can do.”

Lance is friendly, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk. He’s got work to do. Dave leads us downhill. We wiggle onto a run called Four Souls—a fall-line pitch that’s steep enough to be challenging and deep enough to be fun—dodging a few groups of kids in various stages of yard sale. A few older skiers swoop down the moderately pitched run-out on skinny carving skis. I see at least two people sporting pants tucked into ski boots. Everyone, however, is thoroughly enjoying the snow and sunshine. It’s a refreshing departure from the greedy, radder-than-thou rat race of larger resorts.

The idea to build a ski hill on the Rocky Boy Reservation took root in the 1950s, according to Alvin Windy Boy Sr., tribe historian and former chairman of the Chippewa Cree. The tribe first built a rope tow at the Ski Bowl in 1960, when the ski area was part of a larger economic stimulus plan that included picnic areas, lodging, and trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. The tribe ran it for almost 20 years. There was a base lodge at one time, but it burned down in the late ’80s. The chairlift was added in 1976.

But then the tribe got out of the skiing business. In 1978, it handed off operations to a group of skiers in Havre, the Snow Dance Ski Association. And that’s when Big Dave and his merry band got involved.

After a few laps we meet Claire Stoner, who has been the president of the Snow Dance Ski Association for more than 20 years. In many ways she’s responsible for keeping Bear Paw afloat, but she’d never tell you that. She’s happy to give Big Dave the credit. “Dave, he’s the glue,” she says. “If it wasn’t for Dave, the hill wouldn’t exist.”

We take a run down Z Trail and join a gang of preteens hitting a kicker built over a length of plastic snow fence. One lands a 360 and a crowd of all ages erupts into applause. Back on the lift, Claire fills me in on how Bear Paw operates—which is unlike virtually any other ski area, anywhere.

In the beginning it was just Dave and a few diehard skiers, Claire explains. And from the beginning, it’s always depended on volunteers. “It’s all for the love of skiing,” she says. “We do what we can with what we have. Everything we make goes back into the ski area—maintaining a fully certified unpaid ski patrol, paying for insurance, electricity, and equipment maintenance. It’s really about the people, the atmosphere. It’s about fun.”

It’s also about giving local kids something to do during the long Montana winters. “We’re sort of keeping the place going for the kids,” Claire says. “Everybody looks out for everybody.” Bear Paw has even produced a mountain celebrity: climber, skier, photographer, and IFMGA-certified guide Kris Erickson, who was born in Havre and learned to ski here. “We had to kick Kris out once,” Big Dave tells me. “He jumped the midway unloading ramp. We can’t have that.”

I ask Claire why there aren’t more skiers from Rocky Boy at Bear Paw, and she directs me to patroller Shannon Howland, who teaches physical education and health at the Rocky Boy elementary school. Shannon tells me she would love to get a weekend ski program started for her students to help encourage healthy, active lifestyles on the reservation. People living on Rocky Boy have the highest rate of heart disease in the state, she says. They’re also three times more likely to have diabetes and more than twice as likely to be obese than non–Native American Montanans.

But she recognizes the challenges. “There’s no gear rental or lessons,” for instance. So to get equipment, people who live on the reservation have to go all the way to Havre. “Plus, even with $15 lift tickets, that’s just money that many people don’t have.” According to the 2011 U.S. Census, the average household income on Rocky Boy was $27,000. And in the winter, when expenses are greatest, unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Lift tickets just aren’t affordable for many people on the reservation.

All of this makes Bear Paw’s survival that much more amazing. Few members of the tribe use or benefit from the ski area, but without tribal support it would be abandoned. “We’re incredibly lucky that Rocky Boy shares this area with us,” Big Dave tells me. “It’s a tremendous gift to the community.” That word, community, begins to resonate particularly strongly at the end of the day. After the lift closes, volunteers gather for beer and conversation in the little warming hut near the base—a tradition they call “Bible study.” It’s a celebration of skiing, and of each other, and of another successful day on the mountain. They welcome Ryan and me as if we’ve been here all season.

Afterward, while walking back to the parking lot with Big Dave, I glance up at the slopes of Baldy, which looms above Bear Paw’s still, silent chairlift. Both are special mountains; both highly valued and important; both deserving of respect.

“I’ll keep doing this until I can’t anymore,” Big Dave tells me, as serious as I’ve seen him. He looks across the tiny base area. “It’s just a great group of people. We’ve got a nice little hill here.”

Drew Pogge is a longtime Skiing contributor, former editor-in-chief of Backcountry, and owner of Bell Lake Yurt in Bozeman, Montana, where he is a ski guide and avalanche educator. His favorite thing about Bear Paw? “People were laughing constantly,” he says. “Everyone up there knows how to have a good time.”



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