News & Features

Revisiting Lost Prairie’s Early Days

New documentary examines life of Joan Carson, and her fatal jump

On a Sunday evening in May of 1981, Joan Carson jumped out of an airplane over Marion for the last time. According to witnesses, when her main parachute failed to open, Carson – an experienced skydiver – properly cut away from it and pulled the ripcord on her reserve. But that chute failed to inflate fully, and Carson struck the ground in a clearing near the drop zone, dying on impact. She was 30.

The young woman’s death profoundly affected the tightly knit skydiving community at Lost Prairie. Today the airfield is named after Carson, who was among the handful of initial investors to buy the land near Marion that would eventually develop into one of the top drop zones for skydivers in the country.

Thirty years later, at the annual Lost Prairie Boogie later this month, a Seattle-based independent filmmaker will premiere his new documentary on Carson and the early years of the Northwest Montana skydiving scene. Paul Gorman’s second feature film, “Beagle Boogie Babe,” reconstructs Carson’s life, and explores her passion for skydiving.

The film’s initial screening will be at the McGregor Lake Resort July 29, with only the cast, crew, family and friends invited. The wider screening is scheduled for Sunday, July 31 at 11 a.m. at Meadow Peak Skydiving in Lost Prairie and will be open to anyone attending the Boogie.

“I wanted to really find out what drove her to be a skydiver,” Gorman said during a phone interview last week. “The story takes off in Montana and retraces her footsteps over the places she lived and where she skydived.”

Gorman’s relationship with Carson traces back to high school, where they knew each other, and an unusual dream he experienced later, during the early 1970s, while visiting her in San Francisco. Gorman was managing a band in Seattle and while researching venues in San Francisco, ended up staying with Gorman.

“She had just recently gotten into skydiving,” Gorman said. “She invited me to go skydiving with her and I politely refused, because I was a chicken, basically.”

Carson left to go skydive, and didn’t return that night. Gorman, meanwhile, had a vivid dream that she had died while skydiving. When she returned home the following morning, he recalled, he told her of the dream and she dismissed it, saying she had no intention of quitting skydiving.

Over the next several years, Gorman would run into Carson from time to time at parties. Once, she had two broken wrists from a skydiving accident. Another time, she had a broken leg. Then, in 1980, he learned of her death in a skydiving accident, and Gorman said he was shaken, “to see this dream that I had kind of manifest itself.”

“I think it just kind of nagged at me as to what this dream meant – as to whether it was a premonition,” he added. “It was the inspiration for the film.”

Gorman shot his footage in Marion last summer, interviewing many of founding members of Lost Prairie, most of whom still live and jump there. Because Carson was such a part of it, the film explores those early years of skydiving in Kalispell, when the group referred to itself as the Ospreys and had a rivalry with the Beagle Boogie Boys, who jumped in Medford, Ore.

The Ospreys jumped at the Kalispell airport until the late 1970s, when they outgrew it. And from the interview excerpts in the previews of Gorman’s film, it was clearly a rowdy time.

“They definitely knew how to party,” Gorman said. “A lot of the partying kind of led up to being pressured by the city to move out of the city airport.”

Fred Sand, the owner of Skydive Lost Prairie was among those interviewed, and said he enjoyed reminiscing about Carson and those days for the film.

“The airport is named in her memory, so we think about her quite a bit,” Sand said. “It was good to bring it back up to the surface a little bit and talk to some people who all had that common connection with her.”

He went on to say that the Lost Prairie Boogie, which runs from July 23 to Aug. 1, is an opportune time, not only to check out the premiere of Gorman’s film, but for beginners and experienced jumpers to converge for one of the top skydiving events in the country.

As for Gorman, despite spending so much time around skydivers exploring their motivations, he still has no interest in jumping himself.

“No, and I never will,” he said. “Once a chicken, always a chicken.”

For more information about Gorman’s film, visit: http://beagleboogiebabe.blogspot.com/.

For more information on Skydive Lost Prairie and the 2011 Boogie, visit http://www.skydivelostprairie.com/ or call 406-858-2493.

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