Photo courtesy of MARK LAROWE

AN EFFORT OF THE PEOPLE

A snow crisis is not stopping skijoring

One of Big Sky’s most exciting snow focused events comes in the midst of a snow crisis. Lack of new snow coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures presents unique issues for Big Sky Skijoring Association’s 3rd Annual Best in the West Showdown. Organizers say current challenges would be unmanageable without community help and the many donations of time, equipment and money from area businesses and community members.

This weekend, skiers, horses and cowboys will band together to bring Big Sky the high adrenaline, high risk, action- packed and crowd pleasing sport.

“This year we have the perfect location. There is not a better place on the planet to watch skijoring,” Patrick McVey, volunteer equipment operator who is helping build the skijoring course said.

There might not be anything more encompassing of the Montana people and spirit than skijoring, as teams of ski bums, cowboys and horses partner together in an attempt to best a challenging trek. The horse and rider pull a skier through jumps and gates on a horseshoe- shaped course. Maneuvering the jumps while being propelled by horses at full gallop means skiers sometimes morph into gumbys with spills, narrow escapes and thrilling saves.

Local skijoring teams will go against competitors from all over the west, with five groups traveling from Colorado, organizer Justa Adams said.

The event has been taking place in Town Center for the last three years and has been growing consistently. Ninety-two teams last year brought in what Adams estimates at about 500-1000 fans despite subzero temperatures.

Yet behind this impressive two day event stands a handful of local organizers who have been hard at work since December, a slew of local businesses who have contributed and volunteers who have already been working their tails off.

Skijoring is an increasingly popular and intensely competitive sport – not only amongst competitors, but for host communities. Competitors consider many things before signing-up: Is there a big purse? Is there enough lodging or are they going to be sleeping in campers or horse trailers with heaters? Is the event well organized? Is the course fun? Highly strategic planning comes into play for these competitions that serve as major economic boons for small mountain communities.

The Big Sky skijoring planning committee dream team consists of Adams who functions as organizer and fundraiser; Audrey Williams, who organizes for the skijoring side with rules, regulations, food, etc.; Meghan McVey, who according to Adams, is an administrative bulldog; Patrick McVey who operates equipment and helps build the course; and Frank Rask with Dick Anderson Construction has been instrumental in planning and helping get equipment.

Last year, longtime skijorer Colin Cook became one of the many human assets who makes the Big Sky event possible. He has experienced every kind of course across the American west and Canada. He has been to more skijoring competitions than he can count. Cook has won over 15 buckles with the sport and retired from skijouring this year – out of concern he might sustain an injury that could keep him from his first love – hunting. He also happens to be the superintendent with High Mountain Excavation.

With his knowledge of courses, horses and dirt he became the prime guy to design the course and mold earth and snow.

He said the three things that create a good course are creativity, time and commitment. Since December, he and Patrick have spent countless hours at night preparing the land offered for the event by the Simkins family.

Their work just became a lot more difficult with lack of snow and unseasonably warm temperatures.

Strategic issues have surfaced as temperatures remain in the 40s and are set to creep toward the 50 degree mark just before the competition: great news for drawing a crowd and bad news for creating the course.

Course inspection on Sunday night revealed that the track where the horses are set to run had turned into a solid sheet of ice. Cook and McVey had to dig down to the dirt since a base layer of ice – no matter what is placed on top – equals bad news for the horses.

The sport is dangerous and Cook knows that intimately – since he has seen many humans and horses go down. The stands went silent at a skijoring event in Whitefish last year. Cowboys, skiers and thousands of attendees openly cried as Flyboy, touted as being one of the finest skijoring horses in the world, was euthanized after taking a nasty spill. Tarps were extended around him to block fans from seeing his end.

"Horse safety is number one because they don't have a say," Cook said. "Poor courses have cost horses their lives."

Precautionary steps to create teh safety course with the best ase possible means boatloads of extra work for volunteers. "We basically ahve four dump tracks all day today moving snow just to the course," Adams said. In fact, volunteers are moving well over 1,000 yards of snow to the track. Erik Morrison with Town Center and Love Street Media helped the group get another, and safer, access route to snow this morning. On Tuesday, Dick Anderson Construction offered a loader that is being operated by a volunteer from Delzer Diversified. Sime Construction also donated a rock truck that basically holds double what a dump truck will hold, with an operator and TMC donated a dump truck and operator.

“They are bringing all this snow to the track but are not going to spread it until Friday night. So, Friday night is going to be a 20 hour night for Patrick and Colin both,” Adams said. 

Salt became a necessary ingredient for the course as the salt helps preserve the snow, she explained – adding salt to the snow helps ensure it does not melt too fast or turn into an ice sheet. 2,200 pounds of salt donated by Ace Hardware will be mixed with the snow. 

Cook said he is taking safety a step further and altering the course itself. He is going to make the gates tighter, so the riders have to slow the horses down for the skiers to make the gates. 

“There are three heartbeats on skijoring teams. A lot of racers are relying on one – just the horse. I personally like it to be more of a technical course. It’s nice to slow it down – to make it more technical – to keep everybody safe,” he said. 

 

A group meeting was recently held at the home of Justa and Brooke Adams, with Meghan, Patrick, and Cook in attendance and Williams calling in. They had a working dinner, eating pizza as they discussed coordination of the fire and police departments, organization of the competitors, the music, the food, generators, the use of a timing chip, water for the horses. It is an exhaustive list that Adams has rolling in a color coordinated spreadsheet, created by Meghan, in Google Docs. 

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