Days In The Hood

Sledding Bear Canyon

by Fritz Shallah  |  Tuesday Dec. 1st, 2015

Bozeman has long been a snow dog’s paradise. Winter, the reigning season in this mountain country, has produced a love of the frozen outdoors for generations. Long before “Cold Smoke” drifted its white foam behind the trails of skiers on Alpine runs and capped the peaks of beer mugs, we’ve played in the frozen white stuff as if it ran in our very veins. Cross country skiing meant strapping eight or nine foot boards, reminiscent of 2x4s, onto our feet, and snowshoes were made of rawhide and maple instead of aluminum and high tech nylon.

Bozemanites have spent decades tramping the forests and passes of our homeland, glowing red with both perspiration and the cold. While Bridger Bowl and the complex of ski areas at Big Sky may have put us on the national map, downhill skiing is no new thing to the Valley region. As early as 1913 or 1914, Malcolm Story and other Bozeman residents would set out on long, double grooved, wooden skis, with single ski poles, to trek the cattle trails up into the Story Hills (an area near the current fish hatchery) for downhill fun. Karst’s Camp, a dude ranch property, awarded to Pete Karst in 1901 as back pay for hauling done for the Cooper Tie Company, became a popular Gallatin Canyon restaurant and bar, complete with lodge and brothel, and what was perhaps the area’s first formal ski hill.

Pete, using cable from his asbestos mine, and an old Nash engine, installed Montana’s first ski tow. Students from the “cow college” in Bozeman would head up for the weekends, renting cabins, to exhaust themselves skiing and partying before heading back to classes on Monday. Karst’s ski area closed somewhere post 1938 with the opening of ski runs at Bear Canyon and in the Story Hills.

    As a child growing up here in the 60’s, I first lived with my parents in a log lodge, once an artists’ colony, (now the Silver Forest Inn bed and breakfast), at the edge of the old Boy Scout camp up Bridger Canyon. Our proximity to nearby Bridger Bowl meant I haunted the bunny
slopes of that venerable institution, as young as 6 years old, on a regular basis. Additionally, my sisters and I reveled in the free slope of the meadow below our house, perfect for long runs on a toboggan. Daddy built a contraption of plywood and framing lumber, attached to sawed­off downhill skis, which could hold the whole family but one. We’d start off at the top of Sheep Hill, where Bridger road intersected our driveway, Daddy at the helm, to barrel down the road at speeds upwards of 40 miles an hour, gaily passing cars on our way. A good run would take us three miles or so down toward Bozeman, Mom following in the family Volkswagen, to tow us back up for another run and, I am sure, to pick up pieces from our more than occasional wrecks into the barrow ditches along the way.

My favorite winter memory is of the ski hill at Bear Canyon. Before World War II, legend has it, Adolph Peterson, a Norwegian skier and ski jumper, donated a Cadillac motor to install a towrope at Bear Canyon. In operation at the same time as the Story Hills ski area, Bear Canyon was the more popular area resort, with good downhill slope and a ski jump. The area’s first Ski Patrol, a warming lodge built in 1938 complete with chicken and dumpling dinners around the fireplace, gave Bear Canyon the feel, if not the full amenities, of a modern ski resort.

In 1942, it was written that as many as a thousand cars drove there during the 17 week ski season, with up to 75 skiers a day enjoying the slope and putting up with Peterson’s finicky rope tow system. The development of Bridger Bowl, beginning somewhere around 1948, spelled the eventual end for both Story Hills and Bear Canyon as public ski areas. The Story Hills site fell into disuse some time in the 50s, and Mount Ellis Academy purchased the Bear Canyon resort for a reputed $2,500.00, sometime shortly after Bridger Bowl’s official opening.

By 1966, my family had moved from our Bridger Canyon place to our family farm at the mouth of Bear Canyon. The proximity of the Mount Ellis ski area, as well as its reasonable cost, precluded our regular use of Bridger Bowl for skiing. I never did quite make it off the equivalent of the bunny slope, but many was the day I toiled upward with the tow rope (later a Poma lift, an invention not friendly to clumsy adolescent boys). Truly though, my favorite Bear Canyon sport, aside from my first attempts at flirting with “ski bunnies”, was the tooth­jarring fun of sledding on that rugged slope.

Reed and Larry Peabody, Clint Burkhart and others of us Bear Canyon boys risked life and limb, holding fast to the tow, up to the height of the hill, only to come tearing down, bowling skiers and spectators out of the way. We used an assortment of toboggans, inner tubes, sleds, and other gravity­ driven contraptions for our fun. The hood off a 1942 Plymouth Deluxe, as I remember, was a particularly favorite conveyance of ours.

In the days before PacMan, Donkey Kong and World of Warcraft, kids played with more than a few toys that would give a modern mother nightmares. In addition to BB guns, real bows and arrows, and rickety tree forts, we often invented playthings with whatever we had at hand. That Plymouth hood was no exception. Long and slim, turned­ up end rising into the air like the prow of a Viking ship, its sleek shape fairly shouted of speed. It was rusty and sharp edged, with metal flanges turned in. A frayed piece of manila rope threaded through holes in the front end, and a total lack of padding or any kind of safety gear, only added to its mystique. Scotch caps pulled down low on our heads, jean jackets and vests buttoned tightly, and ragg wool gloves pulled up over our coat sleeves, were the closest thing any of us ever came to helmets or modern snow gear.

The drill went like this. Taking turns dragging the sheet steel behemoth up the slope, a group of us proud wind racers would prepare for descent. Once at the top, winded and breathing hard, we’d jockey for seating in the hood. Of course, the front was a coveted position, both for the feel of the frigid wind in your face, and for the honor of being brave enough to sit there. The rest of us would pile behind, leaving room for one last man, who would give us a great push before jumping in as joyfully as the Jamaican Bobsled team. Unable to steer in any direction but “down”, we’d plummet, nearing terminal velocity, toward the log cabin at the base of the hill, its nearing gauged by its growth in magnitude as we approached. At the last minute, the front man would yell for us to jump, and we would all bail out, attempting in the process to hold on to the monster, before it careened into man or structure with the force to cause permanent damage. Then, laughing and breathless, we’d start uphill to do it again.

I don’t remember any gashes sufficient to require stitches or the ministrations of the Ski Patrol, though I do remember an assortment of contusions and abrasions marked by red streaks in the snow. Whatever bodily injury occurred was, I am sure, quickly forgotten in the thrill of coursing down the hill at near the speed of sound, and diminished in the bragging that followed. We were boys, not rocket scientists, and we were having fun! Hot cocoa in the warming hut always capped a time as thrilling as any modern, head twisting, roller coaster can offer.

I am 60 now, and occasionally known to shake my head in bafflement at my survival of boyhood. Some of my scars I am sure are bumper stickers remaining from the adventures of those winter days. Lift lines and snowboards are the order of the day now, when 75 skiers a minute may more likely be the count at any local ski area. Still, for all the technology and ambiance of modern skiing, I look back with envy at a time when a downhill cow pasture and a rusty car hood transported me and so many others in the marvelous sport of winter.   

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