HAVRE — Driving west down the frozen Hi-Line, passing quickly through the tiny railroad towns that punctuate the lonely tundra of northern Montana, it’s hard to imagine there’s a ski hill out here.
Not that there isn’t snow. It’s been dumping throughout the state for most of the past week, and by now has arranged itself into tiny dunes curving out toward the horizon and periodically spilling onto U.S. Highway 2 to stake a claim to the ice-covered road.
It’s also the reason we didn’t take my aging Oldsmobile the more than 250 miles to Bear Paw Ski Bowl. From Havre, headed south on Beaver Creek Road, the plows venture only so far, and the last few miles of the route disintegrate into a pair of winding ruts carved through more than a foot of fresh powder.
The topography steadily shifts skyward, and Baldy Mountain comes into view, looming over the prairie at more than 6,900 feet, a 50 million-year-old volcanic dome that forms the highest point in the Bears Paw Mountains.
Just west of Baldy, a smaller mountain appears. At its base is a parking lot containing two dozen vehicles. Even in Montana, there aren’t too many ski areas where you can get there a half hour late, on a 15-inch powder day, casually slide into a parking space within 50 feet of the chairlift and then spend the next three hours carving fresh lines in untracked, virgin snow.
What Bear Paw Ski Bowl lacks in accessibility, it more than makes up for in breathability. It is not a large mountain — 900 vertical feet, around 100 acres, one lift — but you’re unlikely to wait more than 30 seconds in line before “Big Dave” Martens beckons you onto the two-seater and sends you back up the slow climb to the summit.
Like everyone working at Bear Paw — aside from a few paid lifties from the Chippewa Cree Tribe, which owns the land on which the ski hill operates — Martens volunteers his time and boundless energy to help keep things running.
The ski area’s manager is a large man, gregarious, showering skiers with greetings and nicknames while sporting a slightly bewildered expression, as though after more than four decades working at the local ski hill he still can’t believe he actually gets to do this every weekend.
“It’s like having your own ski area!” Martens says. “Can you imagine a little town like Havre, and 30 minutes from town, having skiing like this?”
Despite the pitch-perfect conditions to start the day, by afternoon few skiers or snowboarders can keep their feet on the east-facing powder field at the summit. The wind has picked up under a mostly sunny sky spawning whirlwinds of snow, and a crusty wind slab is already forming on top.
The powder day has turned to crud, but to Martens that only adds to the hill’s allure: “No one can ski technical crud like we do.”
Bear Paw Ski Bowl is what’s known as a “family” ski hill. That isn’t to say it’s overly tame — Martens emphatically and repeatedly notes that come March, women in bikinis ski for free — but that it’s a locals’ hill, where a bare-bones, volunteer operation has allowed the skiing or snowboarding bug to be passed from generation to generation since its birth in 1959.
“All the kids of the patrollers learn to ski here,” says Dan Korb, a 52-year-old volunteer ski patroller himself. “We don’t have lift lines, and you can get wore out pretty good. The top is steep, and the bottom’s good for beginners.”
Korb’s wife, a nurse, also volunteers her time on the ski patrol, as did their son when he was a student at Montana State University Northern in Havre. He started his skiing career at Bear Paw in seventh grade and remembers when the lodge, which used to stand on the other side of the parking lot, burned down.
Not much else has changed in the years since he got his start, Korb says, although a few years back they did finally spring for a telephone to relay snowfall totals and warn skiers about the conditions of the access road.
Aside from the chairlift, which about 40 years ago replaced the hill’s original Poma lift, Bear Paw Ski Bowl’s infrastructure is minimal: three lift shacks, a ticket shed, the ski patrol shack at the summit and the warming hut, where off-duty ski patrollers are grilling hotdogs and burgers on the patio.
But it still takes a lot of work to keep the ski area running, says Claire Stoner, president of the volunteer organization that operates the hill. Taking a break from stuffing envelopes to solicit donations from local families and businesses, the Chinook native says she grew up skiing Bear Paw Ski Bowl in the early 1980s.
She got involved with the Snow Dance Ski Association in 1990, and now helps coordinate the two dozen regular volunteers who do everything from grooming runs to fixing the lift to clearing vegetation from the runs during the preseason.
“It takes a village,” Stoner says. “Even if we’re only open eight weekends, we’re here every weekend.”
The same is true of the locals who pay $25 per lift ticket to hit the slopes — many of them from nearby Hi-Line towns like Chinook and Malta. There’s also tribal members from the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, and MSU Northern college students in Havre.
In Dave Armstrong’s case, the 38-year-old St. Louis native moved up here specifically for the skiing. He arrived in Havre by way of his sister’s friend, a Billings-based regional manager of a distribution company who offered him his choice of two job openings.
“It was either here or Miles City. I went on Wikipedia, read that they had a ski hill 30 minutes away, and was like, ‘I’m in!’” he said.
After making the move, he realized the Wikipedia designation came with some caveats: “I’m like, ‘What do you mean it doesn’t open every year?’”
Most of Montana’s ski areas are situated in the Rocky Mountains, where heavy winter snowfall is a given. But the Bears Paw Mountains, a geologically distinct, volcanic formation set apart from the Rockies, has weather patterns more akin to Eastern Montana.
Violent blizzards periodically visit to dump thigh-deep cold smoke on the slopes — but then there are also the warm chinook winds out of the southwest in the winter. They blow along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountain Front and can ruin a healthy snow base almost as quickly as it forms. Nearly 3 feet of snow had already struck Bear Paw Ski Bowl in late autumn, but by the time it opened on Feb. 3, the ski area’s base had dwindled to just over a foot.
Even though the ski hill’s climatic inconsistencies dawned on Armstrong seven years ago, he’s still here.
Reclining on the tailgate with two friends from Havre, sipping a Budweiser Select and watching the lift slowly work its way uphill, Armstrong says he’s found an unlikely home.
“It’s hard to leave here. Everyone is just so friendly,” he says. “You can back up, drink a beer on the back of your truck, and you pretty much know everyone.”
Next to him, Trevor Soloman picks up his snowboard and gets ready to head back up to the summit. He’s 30 years old, born and raised in Havre, and doesn’t miss a beat as he finishes his friend’s thought.
“It’s your own piece of paradise.”