Because there aren’t many options for family friendly fun during the winter months in Polson, a group of residents has been trying for years to build an ice arena in town.
And because the ice arena is going to take a fair bit of money to build, some of those residents, like graphic designer Mike Lozar, sprung into action and started — record scratch — skipping rocks?
“Kevin (Avison) and I sat and had a couple of beers in February and then forgot about it until the second week in May and thought, ‘Jeez, we got to get this thing going!’”
So in the most appropriate way a rock skipping world championship could be started — over beers on a cold February night in Montana — Lozar, Kevin Avison and crew created, then forgot about, then eventually pulled off the first Flathead Lake Rock Skipping Championships in 2015, and the now-annual tongue-in-cheek biggest event in rock skipping returns to Riverside Park on June 2. It is, as one might expect, filled with one giggle after another.
“Who would ever think of a rock-skipping contest?” Ryan Avison, brother of a man who literally thought of a rock-skipping contest, said.
The Avison family, including dad Ken and brothers Ryan and Kevin, owns The Cove Deli and Pizza in Polson and, by Ryan’s own admission, are “considered characters and that’s how we want to keep it.” Ryan moonlights as the funeral director at two local funeral homes, Ken’s been a practicing magician for 50 years, and Kevin’s a teacher who recently took a job in eastern Montana, closer to where the boys grew up. Many years ago, when the boys were young, the family would summer at Finley Point and skip rocks into Flathead Lake, planting seeds for the future.
In 2015, around 20 competitors took part in that first contest and while the field has doubled since then, most of the event’s pageantry has remained the same. Here’s how it goes:
A little before 10 a.m., after the “very serious” rules are read aloud, members of The Great Scots pipes and drums band lead a parade from The Cove to nearby Riverside Park. Following the processional, the band performs both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O, Canada,” since the original Avison clan hails from Edmonton and Canadians have competed in the past.
When the pomp and circumstance concludes, entrants crack open their bag of handpicked rocks — the event is exclusively B.Y.O.R. (Bring Your Own Rock) — and start to get serious.
“There’s some good, friendly trash talking,” two-time champion Bret Richardson said.
There are adult and youth (12 and under) competitions, and each class gets a chance to throw several rocks in front of the gathered crowd and a panel of judges Ryan Avison calls “your excellency.” In fact, Avison hopes to bring in actual practicing courtroom judges this year to add a layer of solemnity to an already important job that doesn’t need to use any fancy technology like video replay or lasers.
“There’s three judges and it’s just their eyes to count the skips,” Richardson said. “You just hope the judges are paying attention when you throw it.”
Disputes with the judges are covered in the pre-competition meeting, with an appeals process spelled out plainly: “If there are questions on the throw, the rock in question must be retrieved and brought before the judges for any further review … Then all challenges will be thrown out.”
The bagpipes don’t end when the competition starts either. Dick Bratton, who owns Alpine Tipi’s across the alley from the cove, is one of The Great Scots and said sometimes the band keeps playing “just to get on their nerves.”
After all the rocks have been skipped, winners are presented with trophies — actually just rocks with “champion” scratched on the side.
But setting aside the entire concept’s inherent silliness, the motivation behind the event is a cause that everyone involved is passionate about. The Mission Valley Ice Arena Association has been raising money for years to try and build their arena and provide Polson residents with something new to do during winter.
“There’s not a lot of stuff going on,” Lozar said. “If you’re not skiing, maybe you’re sledding, maybe you’re ice fishing, but ice sports is curling, it’s figure staking, it’s hockey. There’s a lot of opportunity from that one facility to do more stuff in wintertime.”
The nearest ice to Polson is at Kalispell’s Woodland Park, and the nearest enclosed facility is in Whitefish. Both of those venues are regularly packed during the winter and located more than an hour away. Association members believe a rink in Polson would be just as crowded and are well on their way to making their goal a reality, with Lozar saying an announcement regarding the new arena’s location would be coming soon.
Until then, anyone looking to help the rink become a reality had better start scouring the earth for the smoothest skipping rocks. Richardson, who won the men’s adult competition in 2015 and 2016 but missed last year’s event, will be back in the field this year and challengers will need to skip more than a dozen times to seriously threaten for the prestigious title.
“We consider you a national champion because we haven’t found anyone anywhere who has a rock-skipping contest,” Ryan Avison said.
Registration for the 2018 Flathead Lake Rock Skipping Championships begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 2 at The Cove in Polson. Open to competitors of all ages and skill levels, entrance fees are $15 for adults and $12 for kids, with pizza and drinks included.