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Hi-Line Living: The roots of skiing: Bear Paw Ski Bowl


Ryan Welch/Havre Daily News

The Bear Paw Ski Bowl is not a typical ski hill.

There's no posh resort tucked into it. It's not operated by transplants who've moved to the area just for the skiing. And it's one of only two ski hills in the U.S. on an Indian reservation, the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

The book, "Montana Skiing, The Last Best Place" says the Ski Bowl is "unquestionably the most unique ski area in the state." In addition to its location, the Ski Bowl's novelty includes its January to March weekend operation hours, the warm shack without running water or rentals to distribute, and its inconsistent snowfall.

Some years, "Montana Skiing" says, there isn't even enough snow to open for the year. Locals certainly know that to be true. 2018 has been the first time in three years the Ski Bowl has opened.

"We didn't have any snow. Global warming," Hill Manager Dave Martens said of previous years.

"The last two years when we didn't get any snow and we didn't open, I think it hurt us a little bit and people started going out of town," said Ed Hill, who works ski patrol. "But now the word is getting out that we got a lot of snow and we got a really good base and everybody is having a lot of fun."

Attendance has been "really, really good," Martens said.

"We've been getting skiers from all over the state. We don't see a lot of skiers from out of state because we don't really like to advertise and have people poaching our pattern. We like to keep it local. Now they're coming up and poaching our powder."

It's no secret Montana has had record snowfall all over Big Sky country. While that snow has caused a lot of issues, mostly relating to traveling, it’s been good news for winter sports enthusiasts.

The Ski Bowl was brimming with activity Saturday. A large portion of those enjoying Bear Paw powder were from somewhere not Havre.

Mark Switek drove from Anaconda to complete his Montana ski hill checklist.

“Part of the goal for coming here is this is the last Montana ski area that I have not skied,” Switek said. “I’m skiing with a friend from Wisconsin who is in the exact same scenario. He’s skied all of Montana ski areas with the exception of this.”

Switek has done quite a bit of skiing this season already.

“I think day is day 94, day 95, for the season,” he said.

For Switek, Bear Paw is a unique blast to the past.

“This has been a spectacular day, my only day here. I wanted to come here for years. This is the roots of skiing. I grew up skiing in places just like this. It was totally volunteers doing this and that, the county parks would run ski areas. It’s so cool to get back to the roots of skiing rather than the glitz of resort skiing. I don’t enjoy resort skiing anyway,” Switek said.

A lot of people brag about skiing in Aspen or Jackson Hole, or other fancy place, Switek said. But he’s not impressed.

“Who cares? I’ve been to Bear Paw,” he said, breaking a wide grin.

Justin Salois drove almost three hours from Conrad.

“I wanted to get out of the house and see something different,” he said. “It’s a pretty cool little hill.”

Brittni Martens, who became a Martens when she married one of Dave Martens’ sons, came from Asheville, North Carolina, to ski Bear Paw.

“Bear Paw — it’s like amazing, all the snow they’ve had, it’s unusual, so it’s been great,” Brittni Martens said. “I can believe the amount of snow, it’s so great.”

There was no shortage of locals, either.

Eighteen-year-old Brady Ophus of Havre had grown up speeding down the Ski Bowl slopes, he said. Ophus continues a skiing tradition he said he started dabbling in when he was 10 — jumping off the roof of the warm hut with a snowboard strapped to his feet. He did it again Saturday, with a small paparazzi crowd snapping pictures of his feat with their cellphones. Ophus lunged off the roof and splashed into the crisp snow, causing it splatter up. He then stood up, removed his hat, shook the snow out of his long hair and walked inside to sit by the warm hut wood burning stove.

“A kid named John Stoner, he was a kid that grew up out here and he did that stuff too, so it’s just kind of like tradition, just ’cause I’ve been raised out here,” Ophus said, keeping his hands above the stove.

Ophus acknowledged that jumping off a roof can be dangerous, but the risk can be mitigated with the right mindset.

“I mean, yeah, it’s kind of dangerous, but I guess if you know what you’re doing, it helps. I guess if you’ve done it before it helps.”

Ski Patrol member Hill said skiers and snowboarders are prone to various injuries.

“We see all kinds of different injuries,” Hill said. “A lot of the snowboarders have wrist injuries, upward extremity injuries. The skiers have more of lower injury stuff — knees, things like that.”

The Ski Bowl, and everything it encapsulates, is a gift, Martens emphasized.

“This ski area is a gift from the Chippewa Cree Tribe for the skiers of Havre,” Martens said. “It’s their ski area, they let us run it, and it’s a gift. It’s a gift from them to us. It’s an incredible gift.”

Martens said he had been managing the hill about 40 years, minus a few years here and there in between. He said he needed a job after graduating from University of Montana.

“I came back home cause I was broke and I got the Rez to hire me to run the ski hill.”

Like Switek, and others, Martens sees the many advantages of taking in the Ski Bowl slopes.

“Big resorts, they have powder, but you can make like one run at it, and it’s all skied off. At Bear Paw, you can make 100 runs,” he said. “You can go off the backside and ski at waist-deep powder.”

Martens continued:

“We have a double-wheel loading chair lift; there’s a midway station; mostly everything from midway down is green and blue, which is intermediate type skiing. ... We have something for everyone.”

For locals, the hill is especially advantageous.

“If you leave your ski boots in town, you drive back to down, you’re back in an hour,” Martens said.

Ryan Welch/Havre Daily News

The Ski Bowl is run by locals and it’s family friendly.

At the base of the hill and everywhere around, parents and children were scattered about Saturday, some kids being pulled in sleds by their parents. The warm hut tables were packed with families chowing down on burgers made just to the west of the entrance.

The Ski Bowl opened in 1960, when a Poma lift was installed on Black Mountain. A double chair was put in the top of the 6,322-foot summit, giving Bear Paw a 900-foot vertical drop.

“Montana Skiing” says, “When the snow does fly does fly at Bear Paw, the skiing can be downright phenomenal.”

As Switek said, “I’ve been to Bear Paw.”


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