Ski Joring Hits its Stride

Whitefish competition finds new location, new event announced for Lakeside this winter

By Clare Menzel
Matt Smart rides Rojo past the rings during the Whitefish World Invitational Ski Joring event on Jan. 31, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

This winter, the Flathead Valley, a longtime host of Whitefish Winter Canival’s World Invitational Ski Joring event, will kick off 2017 with the newest event in ski joring, the biggest purse in the sport, and a new location for the Whitefish winter staple.

After hosting the world invitational at the Whitefish Airport for years, Whitefish Winter Carnival event organizers announced today that they have secured a new location at the southeast baseball diamond of Armory Park. The Glacier International Airport Board of Directors voted in May to not allow the event at the airstrip after discovering a clause that strictly restricts usage of the property to airport purposes.

“It should be a really good thing this year,” event organizer Scott Ping said.

The West Shore Visitors Bureau, a promotion group for communities on the western shores of Flathead Lake, also announced this month that it would host the inaugural Flathead Lake Skijoring Championships at the Lakeside Club’s private airstrip over the first weekend of the New Year, from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.

Sending ripples of interest through the nationwide ski joring community, the organizers of the Lakeside event estimate the purse will top $25,000, which would be the biggest combined purse ever in skijoring, according to a press release. The added money is being raised locally, and sponsors including Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply have signed on to support the event.

“With that large of a purse, the Flathead Lake Skijoring Championships has made a statement about attracting the best competitors in the world to this season kickoff event,” Ski Joring America President Laurie Sigillito said in the press release.

While brainstorming ideas to draw visitors to the West Shore during winter, someone floated the idea of ski joring, Steve Patyk, of the visitor’s bureau, said. A fringe sport that involves riders on horseback pulling skiers through slalom gates and over jumps, ski joring sits at the nexus where Montana’s cowboy and skiing heritages collide.

“Our main thing is to bring attention to Lakeside, to promote Lakeside and Western Shore. We knew nothing about it,” Patyk said. “My knowledge was going to Whitefish, and watching with a beer in my hand.”

Still, the idea stuck.

Organizers reached out to volunteers who have worked on the Whitefish event for advice, including Tom Britz, who Patyk says urged the group to consider going big with the event. They recruited others, including Ron Behrendt, who has designed and constructed the tracks for the world invitational event for years.

“I’ve heard lots of good things about it,” Behrendt said of the new event. “I think they stand a chance to do very well. The folks in Whitefish are giving good pointers, and helping them get through the learning curve. I fully expect it’s going to be a really fun event.”

The event has a lot going for it, according to Patyk, who said there’s already been some buzz, even though pre-registration is still in the process of being set up.

“We were hoping that the purse would be an attractive feature, plus the venue itself is a very attractive feature, as well the combination along with the timing of having a long weekend for New Year’s,” he said. “It makes it something that’s worth the trek for a lot of people. We hope to have a very professionally organized, efficient event that’s worthwhile for participants and spectators.”

One major difference between the Whitefish and Lakeside events, Behrendt noted, is that while the winter carnival track has historically been round, the Flathead Lake event will run a straight track, which is popular in Colorado.

“Both will be excellent,” Behrendt said. “The straight track is somewhat of a different event, because it favors horses that are faster, versus horses that are capable of making the turns.”

To level the playing field, and to challenge teams with fast horses, straight tracks often incorporate obstacles such as rings that skiers must collect on their arms, or else incur a time penalty of two seconds.

One advantage of a straight track, Behrendt said, is that he’ll have the space to construct opposing sets of jumps, one suited for the more experienced competitors, and one for the novices.

“That’s something you don’t see on a round track,” he said. “What you end up with is big, exciting jumps for the really skilled competitors, which is great, because that’s what the good folks want, that’s what makes it exciting. But if you have nothing but big jumps, it kills your junior skiers, the learners. It’s discouraging. It’s optimal to have two sets of jumps.”

Overall, Behrendt said, he thinks the event will bring a “lot of good energy” to the area.

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 will be held Sunday afternoon inside the Airplane Hangar Bar, and an awards party will follow. Entry fees vary based on the class of competition, and is discounted for teams who register before Dec. 15. For more information, call the West Shore Visitors Bureau at 668-1866.

The Whitefish Winter Carnival event will take place from Jan. 27 to 29. Admission is also $5 per person, which includes free busing to the event. For more information, call Scott Ping at 261-7464.

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