Forty-two years ago, members of a Kalispell skydiving club invited some comrades from Calgary to the city’s airport for a weekend jump. The weekend went well, so they did it again the next year.
Perhaps those original skydivers were merely looking for friends with which to share the Flathead skies, but they were unwittingly building a tradition much bigger – the biggest skydiving event in the Northwest United States. Today the Skydive Lost Prairie Boogie is one of the five largest jump meets in the nation.
In the 1970s, encroaching development forced the original group of skydivers to hold the event somewhere other than the Kalispell city airport. So in 1980, they moved their annual weekend gathering to Skydive Lost Prairie near Marion. Fred Sands, the owner of Lost Prairie, said “the jumping community followed along.”
The event has since grown into a 10-day spectacle that draws more than 300 experienced jumpers from around the world each year and another 300 or so beginners looking to jump for the first time. In 2005, it was featured on ESPN for a segment called “50 States in 50 Days.”
This year’s 42nd annual Skydive Lost Prairie Boogie will be held on July 25 to Aug. 3, keeping in tradition with a schedule that Sands calls “sort of an odd formula.” When the event was just getting underway in the late 1960s, Kalispell organizers made sure the last day of the jump was always on the first Monday of August – a Canadian holiday – to entice their north-of-the-border friends. The scheduling has held, even in the 10-day format.
Sands said the economy is deterring some participants from making the trip, but he’s still expecting between 250 to 300 experienced jumpers and at least as many beginners. The experienced jumpers, who usually camp out at Skydive Lost Prairie, bring their own equipment and pay a registration fee. Beginners can jump tandem with an instructor for $229.
“We’ve been averaging about 300 to 325 over the last 10 years,” Sands said. “Our record was 580 experienced people.”
Sands said participants are welcome to register any time, but earlier is better for scheduling purposes. While many of the skydivers come from Montana, they also hail from across the country, Canada and Europe.
“There’s room for more,” Sands said.
The most impressive sights for spectators are the large free-fall formation jumps in which more than 30 divers at a time jump in unison. They form shapes as they descend and cover large swaths of the sky. Sands said most of the jumps among the experienced skydivers will be free-fall formation, but there will also be solo jumps. There is no charge for spectators.
In May 2007, Skydive Lost Prairie made national headlines when a plane wrecked and killed five people – the pilot, two instructors and two other passengers. The crash was blamed on a loose oil cap that allowed oil to splash up on the plane’s windshield, obstructing the pilot’s view and causing him to lose control, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
One of the instructors who died was a local man named Joel Atkinson. At last year’s jump meet, skydivers paid tribute to Atkinson by designating July 28 as “Jump for Joel” day. There is a memorial garden at one end of the runway and a commemorative monument made of stone at the other end.
This year’s event will also feature helicopter jumps and music on nights to be announced. For more information, go to www.skydivelostprairie.com or call (406) 858-2493. Skydive Lost Prairie is located 34 miles west of Kalispell near the town of Marion.
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