For 18 years, four of which the hill never opened, Lance DeCora has been working the lift at Bear Paw Ski Bowl. His perch atop the hill provides a wide view across the prairie that he calls "kind of crazy." DeCora is a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe.
HAVRE — For the first time in three years, Montana’s smallest ski hill is open for business.
Bear Paw Ski Bowl, a mostly volunteer-operated ski area with a single chairlift that turns just two days a week, opened for the season earlier this month after a pair of weak snow years in the Bears Paw Mountains south of Havre.
“We’ve had probably close to 100 inches now, if you count the stuff that melts,” Dave Martens, the hill’s manager, said. “We would have been open sooner, but it was 47 degrees for two weeks.”
The conditions can be hit-or-miss on the ski hill, which sits nestled in an island mountain range on the the Rocky Boy’s Reservation and about 30 minutes south of Havre.
Technically, Bear Paw has 24 named runs, although several of those serve more as connectors between the main trails coursing down the north and east aspects of the mountain. Just a couple kick-push steps from the parking lot, the mountain’s two-seater lift chugs about 900 vertical feet up the mountain, depositing skiers and snowboarders at the summit.
The mountain is only open Saturdays and Sundays, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the lift lines seldom requires more than a 30-second wait.
On a 15-inch powder day earlier this month, Havre resident Bobby Jo Naber reflected on her hometown hill during a leisurely lunch break in the parking lot.
“We like how exclusive it is,” Naber said. “We ski at Big Mountain a lot, but don’t like it as much with all the people, and the lines.”
Unlike the state's steadily expanding destination resorts, Bear Paw Ski Bowl is a bare-bones operation that has changed little over the years. There’s no running water, and the outdoor toilets offer only a marginally warmer experience than squatting in the woods. The only non-essential amenities are provided by a small warming hut near the base area, with a patio on which volunteers grill hot dogs and burgers.
The Chippewa-Cree Tribe has allowed the ski hill to operate on its land since 1959, and in return Bear Paw exclusively hires tribal members as its four seasonal employees.
Squinting down the mountain from his perch in the summit’s lift shack, Lance DeCora is a man of few words, but he loves his job. His mountaintop office is only about the size of an outhouse, but it commands a view that includes the distant Upper Missouri Breaks and the towering Baldy Mountain, one of the most sacred sides to the Chippewa Cree.
“As long as this lift’s turning, I imagine I’ll be here,” DeCora said. “I tell them, ‘You can count on me like you can count on snow.’”
Aside from Lance and his two or three co-workers, though, the ski area is run entirely by the Snow Dance Ski Association’s network of volunteers.
“Everybody has the same feeling — the love of the Bear Paws,” said Claire Stoner, the organization’s president. “It’s such a close place to be able to go skiing.”
Those efforts are appreciated by skiers from near and far. While Martens estimates 90 percent of the customers are local, they periodically get out-of-towners bent on visiting all of Montana's ski areas.
Josh Fredericksen, of Billings, said he's been watching the ski hill's Facebook page like a hawk this winter. After waiting for the better part of three years, he can't get enough high-fives at the end of a day carving fresh lines through more than a foot of powder.
"This was my last hill to ski in Montana," Fredericksen said. "Man, what a day to hit it."