People driving through Havre may not realize that 29 miles south of town is a ski hill good enough to be featured with photos in the November 2001 issue of Skiing magazine. People who have skied nationally and internationally say they like the runs at the Bear Paw Ski Bowl as well.
Jim Chenoweth said he learned to ski at the Bear Paw Ski Bowl and since then has skied at almost every venue in Montana, at other slopes across the country and even skied in Germany for two years. Now he just stays at Bear Paw.
"It's close and it's just as fun skiing out here," Chenoweth said. "It's challenging and I can get a lot of skiing all day."
The ski bowl is located on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, next to Mount Baldy, a sacred site to the Chippewa Cree Tribe. The tribe owns the slopes and the ski lifts, and the nonprofit, all-volunteer Snow Dance Ski Association operates the ski bowl.
The only paid employees are five residents of the Rocky Boy reservation the association hires to work there.
The Eagle Creek Ski Patrol at the ski bowl has been getting accolades of its own. It was rated the best patrol in a five Western-state region in 1999, and the husband-and-wife team of Herman and Judy Handstede were awarded the Outstanding Ski Patroller of the Year award by the National Ski Patrol Northern Division for 2001-2002.
But the skiers, snowboarders and people riding inner tubes on the Screaming Beaver Tube Run know what they like best - the slopes.
Rylee O'Connell, a senior at Havre High School, said she has been skiing at Bear Paw since she was in about sixth grade. She goes out about once a week every weekend it is open, and said she would probably go more if she didn't have other activities like swimming.
O'Connell said she has skied at other locations, like Showdown outside of Great Falls and Big Mountain by Whitefish, but she is happy with Bear Paw.
"They're a lot bigger, but for the size of the hill, it's pretty good," she said.
Convenience is also a factor.
"It's not very far from Havre and the others are very, very far away," O'Connell said.
Montana State University-Northern students Kellen Smead and Bill Uthman were both at Bear Paw for the first time Sunday.
Smead, who is from Kalispell, said Bear Paw doesn't really compare to Big Mountain for the number of runs - 24 instead of 90. But for the price, $12 instead of $58, it's a value.
"For 12 bucks you really can't beat it. I'd pay 12 bucks any day," he said.
Uthman said he has mostly skied at bigger hills, like Showdown. He was a little surprised at the variety Bear Paw offered, he said.
"Once you get up there and see it, it's actually pretty good," he said. "Twenty-four runs, that's not bad."
Claire Stoner, president of Snow Dance Ski Association, said it is the volunteers who make the operation work.
The work starts in October, with trimming the weeds on the 24 runs. They try to trim the weeds as close to the ground as possible so none will stick up through the usually light snow, she said.
"It's a pretty major project to cut the weeds," she added.
The association also cares for the buildings and the ski lift, doing maintenance, repairs and improvements. The association has recently moved some of the buildings, repainted them, added new windows to the booths the lift operators work from, and added hand sanitizers to the restrooms.
"Any of those little improvements, they really help," she said.
Stoner said that between the money from the lift tickets and sale of gift items and food and donations by people and businesses in the area, the ski bowl just breaks even. Donations of cash, time and equipment are what make the difference.
But what the ski bowl really needs is more volunteers, she said.
Last fall 10 members of the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team and a coach came out to spend a day cutting weeds, for which Snow Dance donated about $160 to the wrestling team. Stoner said having that extra day of work made a huge difference.
Dave Martens, manager of the ski hill, said an average of 120 people come to the hill each day during the season. The skiers are a good mix of ages and backgrounds.
The hill is seeing more and more people drive to Havre to get there, he added.
Martens said that last Saturday a couple from Wolf Point drove up and skied, then stayed the night at a Havre hotel. The couple said they planned to come back this weekend, he said.
Another person called him from Helena to ask about the skiing, Martens said, and told him he planned to come up and ski soon.
People seem to be more interested because the prices are getting so high at larger ski hills, he said.
"It's so expensive to ski now," he said. "The skiing organizations pretty well priced themselves out of the market for most people."
Martens stressed that the ski bowl exists only because of the help of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. The tribe operates the Pah-Nah-To Recreational Park that includes the ski bowl, the inner-tube run, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The tribe opened the ski bowl in the 1960s.
The tribe also provides services like plowing the roads, and installed a chair lift in the late 1970s.
But Martens echoed Stoner about the importance of having volunteers.
"It takes a lot of folks to keep this thing going," he said.