The northern foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains swung into view just outside of Rudyard and I snapped to attention, scanning the straw-colored horizon for evidence of snow. I squirmed in the driver’s seat, wondering if I’d misunderstood the ski report or, more likely, set unrealistic expectations for my weekend road trip. After all, this was the land of prairies and pulse crops, not powder skiing.
But then the radio crackled and I heard the familiar baritone boom of “Big” Dave Martens.
“Howdy skiers and board dorks! This is Bear Paw Ski Bowl with your pre-weekend powder connection. Bear Paw Ski Bowl is located 29 miles south of Havre on the Scenic Chippewa Cree Recreation Area. Take Fifth Avenue South, the trailhead to the Bear Paws, and when the highway ends our slopes begin. First chair up on weekends is 10:30. Chair 2, our mothership and solar-coaster to our mile-high summit, will be the only lift in operation. We are skiing on a 12-to-24-inch base and are rating our conditions from excellent to pretty western.”
For the smallest ski area in Montana, Bear Paw Ski Bowl has the biggest heart. In fact, “big” is an adjective that’s frequently employed to describe the all-volunteer community ski area’s outsized presence on the high prairie, where the rolling foothills of north-central Montana are punctuated by an island range that captures just enough snow to spin a chairlift.
“We’re out here on the bald-ass prairie, not in the big mountains,” said Big Dave, the soul of the ski area since 1974. “We’re lucky to have enough snow to open, and we’re lucky to have an army of volunteers making sure we stay open.”
As one of 15 towns in Montana with a ski area, Bear Paw is pure no-frills fun. A lone double-chair (Chair 2) serves the mountain’s 79 acres of terrain, with a 900-foot vertical range yielding terrific fall-line skiing. A small shed at the base of the mountain serves as the ticket window, where passes are $25 ($20 for students and $15 for tribal members). Located south of Havre, Bear Paw is situated on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation and is owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe, which allows use of the land through the Chippewa-Cree Recreation Area, making it one of only two ski areas in the country located on a reservation (the other is in New Mexico).
Open since 1960, when a single-person Poma lift was installed, Bear Paw has been synonymous with Big Dave Martens and his family since 1974, when Big Dave returned home to Havre after graduating college at the University of Montana, assuming the role of hill manager and primary lift operator — a job he’s held ever since.
“This weekend, the Eagle Creek Ski Patrol will be hosting their world famous food concessions featuring Hermie Burgers and Augie Dogs, and next weekend begins our very popular springtime policy of women in bikinis ski for free,” Big Dave’s radio report continued. “Thanks and remember to hit us up on your giddyup, raccoon the eyes, rack the boards, rack up some runs, rack up some fun, and ski knee deep cheap at the steep and deep, Bear Paw Ski Bowl.”
I count myself lucky to have been adopted by the Martenses as a surrogate son more than 15 years ago, when I shared an off-campus home with Little Dave Martens in Missoula. Since then, I’ve made a point to ski Bear Paw each winter. And although their season might only last a month, I can’t think of a bigger mountain I’d rather be.
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