The airstrip is 3,374 feet long. Sloping gently down to the east, it looks like it empties right into the belly of Flathead Lake, the biggest freshwater body west of the Mississippi. Over New Year’s weekend, 750 feet of the strip will welcome thundering hooves and waxed skis for the nation’s first sanctioned ski-joring event of the season, where teams will compete for the sport’s biggest combined purse.
The inaugural Flathead Lake Skijoring Championships, hosted by the West Shore Visitors Bureau, is scheduled for the weekend of Dec. 31 at the Lakeside Club. A niche sport that involves riders on horseback pulling skiers through slalom gates and over jumps, ski joring marries Montana’s skiing and cowboy traditions.
The West Shore event will feature novice, sport, open, and costume class events, with two different-sized sets of jumps, and winners will go home happy, thanks to the estimated $25,000 purse. The weekend complements the beloved Whitefish Winter Carnival’s World Invitational Ski Joring contest, a mainstay of the mid-winter celebration in the event’s early days that was revived in 2003 by Scott Ping and Dale Duff. This season’s Winter Carnival event will take place from Jan. 27 to 29 at Armory Park.
The primary difference between the two venues is the shape of the track — while Whitefish has favored a horseshoe-shaped track, Lakeside will run a straight track, which often makes for a faster event where power trumps finesse. To level the playing field and test more than the horse’s speed, straight tracks usually incorporate obstacles such as rings that skiers must collect on their arms or with a baton, or else incur a time penalty.
In addition to providing local athletes more options for competition, Lakeside’s new ski joring event aims to showcase the West Shore during winter and to promote tourism even during the season’s shortest, coldest days.
“The purpose of the event is to draw people from not just the region, but across the entire West, to highlight our local community,” West Shore Visitors Bureau spokesman David Fetveit said. “We’re bringing some tourism traffic to the area. The venue has spectacular views of Flathead Lake and the mountains beyond.”
Fetveit said organizers have fielded inquiries from teams hailing from New Mexico and Colorado. Kali Kitchen, owner of Montana Horse Works in Columbia Falls, is among the group of hopefuls preparing to compete.
“It’s a new and upcoming thing, and everybody’s buzzing and excited,” she said.
At Whitefish’s competition last year, Kitchen took home first place overall in the open division, the highest level of competition, with her horse Streaking Spider and skier Chris Wambeke. She said she’s looking forward to the different flavor of challenges mounted by the straight course.
“The faster track, the straight track, (riders will) need a bigger, longer-strided horse, versus your quarter horse, which has a faster takeoff and a lot of torque,” she said. “Whitefish has the turns — this will be a flat-out horse race. But if you have a fast horse, you better have a skier that’s very talented and agile.”
She’s also excited for the reunion of the ski-joring community, which she called a “close-knit family.” After going to her first practice six years ago, she was hooked.
“It’s the hype and adrenaline,” she said. “It’s a good group of people. It’s a mash of rodeo and ski bums, a good mash of very two opposite worlds.”
Tim O’Brien, a local skier who placed fifth in the sport division in Whitefish last year with rider Mike Fredrickson, will also be a contender in Lakeside.
“I like (the straight track) better,” he said. “I think it’s a little more straightforward and faster. We’ll see what happens.”
The event is also drawing newer athletes, including Missoula skier Rachel Parrott and her 13-year-old daughter Marika. Parrott has competed once in Bozeman, and the mother-daughter pair has been practicing behind their four-wheeler.
“For me, it’s really about having fun,” she said. “I think it’s really great for the community, and it’ll be a great family event. There’s nothing like sport and athletics to bring everyone together. I’m looking forward to it — it’s an adventure.”
Admission to the family-friendly event is $5 per person and free for children 12 and under. Free parking will also be available, and food and drinks will be for sale. The competition will start at 12:30 p.m. on both days. A Calcutta auction will be held Sunday afternoon inside the Airplane Hangar Bar, followed by an awards party. Entry fees vary based on the class of competition. For more information, call the West Shore Visitors Bureau at (406) 668-1866.