Welcome to Thunder Park

With support from Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, Browning dedicates its inaugural skateboard park

By Tristan Scott
Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament in Browning in 2015. Beacon file photo

BROWNING – They used to skate on a couple of scabbed-together ramps over at the old bingo hall on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, mastering tricks and proving their mettle through dogged determination.

They earned their chops the hard way, trading all-or-nothing riding on rough, gravel-studded pavement in exchange for a grit of talent that doesn’t come in spoon-fed varieties, seeking out whatever street features they could muster and divining moves out of sheer imagination.

That is, after all, the spirit of skateboarding, the purity of the sport drenched in stoic suffering.

And even after all that blood and sweat, it never occurred to them to ask for something better. They certainly never imagined they’d have a world-class skatepark right in their own backyard.

But on June 26, at the grand opening of Thunder Park in Browning, 150 skaters converged on the park that stretches over 12,500 square feet and replicates the classic, long-defunct Big-O Skatepark in Orange, California, one of the most famous pools in skateboarding history.

For a remote reservation town not accustomed to receiving much recognition, the Browning community hosted a monumental party at the park’s official opening, with none other than Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament in attendance – not to play bass guitar with his legendary, Seattle-based rock band, but to skateboard with some new friends.

Thunder Park was funded in large part through a $250,000 donation from Ament, who has been doling out cash for skateparks on and near reservation land all over Montana in an effort to inject active, creative outlets for young people in depressed economies.

“This all started when I was skating in St. Ignatius and I met two kids from Browning and they were just ripping,” Ament said. “I asked them if they had a skatepark, and they told me about these two ramps at the bingo hall.”

The Thunder Park skate park is the newest to go online, and although it was finished in October 2014, it formally kicked off June 26 with a competition that attracted dozens of skaters.

Ament, 52, who owns a home in Missoula and grew up in Big Sandy, helped judge the competitions, and although he was wearing a knee brace after injuring it while skating the previous day, the satisfaction in watching scores of teenagers rip it up in the gleaming new bowls was evident.

“It’s so exciting for me to be a part of this,” he said. “We thought if we could get 10 to 15 kids who would skate here and become stewards of the park, and here we have 100 kids that are ripping and showing the true spirit of skateboarding.”

Anyone who has skateboarded knows how humbling it can be, and anyone who skates well has been humbled.

But not many successful rock stars are as sincerely humble as Ament, and in donating the park he wanted none of the limelight.

Ament has been involved in building several skate parks in Montana in recent years, with phase 2 of a skate park in his hometown of Big Sandy about to begin, and construction of another soon to get underway in Havre.

He footed the $250,000 bill for the project mostly from the support of the Pearl Jam Foundation, an organization the band founded to fund philanthropic projects by collecting $2 from every concert ticket. Ament also pitched in his own money to cover the extra costs for the Browning park.

To build the behemoth structure, he enlisted the expertise of Billy Coulon of Evergreen Skateparks, a company based in Portland, Oregon that specializes in the development of large parks. He has also brought in Mark Scott with Dreamland and Mark Hubbard with Grindline, two other skilled developers who have built some of the most famous parks in the country

Coulon said he’s worked on 50 skate parks and that the Browning park stands out as the best.

The dedication of Thunder Park also featured a name-giving ceremony by Chief Earl Old Person, who explained that Blackfeet tradition holds that sacred medicine bundles are only to be opened after the first thunder strike of a storm.

Old Person also gave Ament a Blackfeet name, calling him “Holds Water” and explaining that the name is associated with members of the Beaver Bundle Society, the oldest known Blackfeet ceremony.

“I’m honored and surprised and I can’t tell you how happy I feel right now,” Ament said. “I thank you from my heart. I’ll hold this feeling with me for the rest of my life.”

The skateboarding competition was sponsored by Joe McKay, a tribal councilman whose son, Joe Weaselfat, started out skating in Browning before moving to Lethbridge, where he skates for the company Borderline.

Weaselfat recently had success competing in the Canadian National Amateur Skateboard Championships, and McKay said the competition was dedicated to him.

“He started out skating in Browning. The kids used to skate around the school because they didn’t have a skatepark,” he said. “One of the things he always wanted to see was a skate park in Browning.”

The tribal leaders said Thunder Park would appeal to the future generations of Blackfeet who would eventually be community leaders themselves.

One of those future leaders is Toby Crawford, 7, who only recently learned to skate, and is already busting tricks that would put most skaters to shame.

His coolest move at the park’s grand opening?

“Probably a frontside grind in the bowl,” he says nonchalantly.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.