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Sacred recreation

By Daniel Mediate
Photos & Multimedia by Devin Schmit

It's early Saturday morning and the sun is creeping above the rocky skyline of the Bears Paw Mountains on Rocky Boy's Reservation in northcentral Montana. Lance DeCora, Dwight Spang and Paul Garcia pass through Rocky Boy Agency on their way to work. The quiet reservation town yawns around them. They pull into the parking lot at Bear Paw Ski Bowl, about 15 miles east of town, ready to work as the hill's only paid employees.

Dave Martens and Jon Stoner, volunteers from the off-reservation town of Havre, about 30 miles from the ski hill, are readying the slopes, grooming the snow and firing up the chairlift. Soon the lone chairlift is up and running, streaming above the snowy knolls. A handful of young skiers and snowboarders stand mumbling in impatience as they wait to load the lift.

DeCora supervises the bottom chairlift, Spang watches the midway station and Garcia manages the top unloading area. Bear Paw Ski Bowl is small—one chairlift and 24 runs—and nestled in the shadow of Baldy Mountain, a 7,000-foot peak. The crown towers high above the rolling plains, capped with snow and laden with sacredness.

"It's God's country," DeCora says.

Lance DeCora keeps an eye on a loaded chair from the base station. Throughout the work day, DeCora never misses a load, and slows each chair for skiers as it whips around the bull wheel.

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Bear Paw Ski Bowl is one of two ski hills in the nation located deep in the landscape of an Indian reservation. The Bears Paw Mountains are a cornerstone of natural resources to Rocky Boy's Reservation, though very few Chippewa Cree people use the ski hill. DeCora, Spang and Garcia are the only native presence there. Volunteers from Havre man the rest of it—management, maintenance and ski patrol—after the tribe gave up the rights to run the hill in the 1970s due to financial issues.

With challenging runs seasonally blanketed in hip-deep powder, Bear Paw Ski Bowl offers a ringside view of a frozen tidal wave of granite, the Bears Paw Mountains. Often called the Bear Paws, the mountains surface majestically amid the high plains of northern Montana.

An average of 75 people make elongated Ss through the fluffy snow each winter weekend on a $20 lift ticket. The facility operates on weekends between January and March, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ski hill offers a couple dozen trails compacted into 80 skiable acres. There are no ski rentals, lessons or running water, yet people from across the Hi-Line come to test their skills on its storied slopes.

The idea for a ski hill sparked in the late 1950s. The tribe funded the installation of a rope tow in 1960. Rocky Boy's tribal government ran the hill for just shy of two decades, installing a two-seater chairlift in 1976.

A patroller makes turns off of the summit in his final sweep down the mountain.

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"Initially, the start was to create some type of recreational, economic development venture for the Chippewa Cree tribe and one of the ways was to create a ski hill—a ski hill that would offer not only recreation for the Chippewa Cree tribal members, but the surrounding area of northcentral Montana," says Alvin Windy Boy, tribal historical preservation officer and former chairman of the Chippewa Cree.

At the ski hill's inception, the area encompassed more than just slopes for downhill skiing. There were tepee villages, picnic areas, and trails for hiking, cross country skiing and snowmobiling.

Windy Boy says the tribe was looking at avenues for economic development and thought recreation was a promising venture. But it didn't work out as planned. In the mid-1970s managing ticket sales became contentious after a few tribal members erected their own ticket booths, according to Claire Stoner, president of the Snow Dance Ski Club, a group of skiing enthusiasts from Havre. The operation proved to be more of a financial burden than a bonus. In 1978 the tribe decided to hand over operation of the ski hill to the volunteer group.

"We're very fortunate Rocky Boy shares this area
with us."
Dave Martens

"The ski hill is a gift from the tribal council to the people of Rocky Boy and the people of Havre," says Martens, manager of the ski bowl and a member of the ski club. "There are many people from the Havre area that call the Bear Paws home. We're very fortunate Rocky Boy shares this area with us."

Martens, a native of Havre, graduated from the University of Montana's School of Forestry in 1974 and has been helping out at the ski hill ever since.

Now profit from the lift tickets goes into footing the electric bill, the lease for a snow groomer and the three employees' paychecks. Under the agreement with the tribe, the only paid employees are tribal members, and the rest of the money must be put into maintenance.

Martens has done weekly radio and newspaper advertisements over his 30-plus-year tenure at the ski hill. "Ski knee-deep cheap at the steep and deep Bear Paw Ski Bowl," he says on the radio. But his message hasn't attracted many tribal members.

"There's just not a lot of people from the tribe that use the ski hill," says Stoner. "It's a shame."

Martens says it may not only be due to the $20 lift ticket, but there is no place to rent skis at the hill so any reservation residents needing equipment would also have to drive to Havre and back. Windy Boy has a different theory.

"I don't know if there really was an interest to begin with," he says.

The western half of the Bears Paw Mountains feature the tallest peaks, rising high above the tiny communities sprinkled around the smallest Indian reservation in the state. The mountains are thickly wooded, both on the slopes and in the valleys. A mixture of rolling, grassy hills with smaller buttes rising from the valley floors characterize the land east of the divide.

These mountains are a comfort zone, a home for the tribal natives. Rocky Boy's, named after Chief Stone Child, was created in 1916 by executive order of Congress as a home for bands of Chippewa and Cree. It was the last of Montana's seven Indian reservations to be established.

About a quarter of the trees in this area of the Bear's Paw are infested with pine beetles, says tribal head forester William Lodgepole. These trees, adjacent to the ski hill, will likely be thinned in early summer.

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"Even though Rocky Boy, the elder, didn't live to see this reservation named after him … what he saw was a lot of areas that depicted a lot of wildlife, rock effigies," Windy Boy says. "And those are signs that are reminders to us young, upcoming people to be mindful of the land, and the importance of the land, and the importance of our culture, our way of life."

DeCora stands about 6 feet tall, Carhartts draped over him and a stocking cap pulled over his ears. He is a quiet 27-year-old, friendly to all the eager skiers and snowboarders. His dark eyes and soft smile light as he watches a dad scoop his toddler onto the swooping lift.

This season marks DeCora's third year as a lift operator. His older brother, BJ, worked as a lift operator before him and got Lance DeCora the job. BJ died at the end of the season last year from alcohol poisoning.

"I grew up in these mountains," DeCora says. "Everything in these mountains reminds me of my brother."

DeCora has short black hair, an even demeanor and the blood of two tribal races running through his veins. His dad's lineage hails from the Winnebago tribe, native to what is now Nebraska, and his mother is of Cree descent.

"Lance is a good kid, hardworking, and helpful to people getting on the lift," says Mike Ley, an academic counselor at Stone Child College on the reservation and a regular at the ski hill. "People look forward to seeing him at the lift."

The chairlift climbs steeply after passing the mid-station, dropping skiers on wind-scoured slopes with tremendous views of the tribe's Pah Ta Noh recreation area.

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The trees cast longer shadows as the afternoon light begins to fade. Last runs are called and final tracks are carved in snow. After all the skiers leave the slopes, DeCora, Spang and Garcia get their chance to have some fun.

DeCora hops on the lift toting a sled in the shape of a tricycle, only with skis instead of wheels. He meets Spang and Garcia at the midway lift, ready to race. Side by side they line up at the top of a steep trail, each commanding a ski-bike. "One. Two. Three. Go!" Spang yells.

They tear down the middle of the run, torching the snow in their paths with Texas-sized grins planted on their faces.

The trio nears the base area using their feet to brake. They jump back on the lift, ready to go again. The races cap the end of the day for Spang and Garcia, but DeCora isn't quite done. He walks to his truck to grab a chainsaw and heads for a heavily wooded section adjacent to the ski runs. He finds a few pine trees devastated from mountain pine beetles and cuts them down for wood to heat his home

The pine beetle may change the face of the Bears Paw Mountains. And one casualty would be the ski hill.

Paul Garcia jokes with ski patroller Jim Bennett on the summit of Bear Paw Ski Bowl. Lift operators and ski patrollers work closely to keep skiers safe on the upper slopes. Garcia monitors the wind and the chair sway, and shuts the top station down if the gusts become too strong.

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Recent aerial maps show 2.1 million acres across Montana are now infested with mountain pine beetles. But that's just the landscape with trees that have died within the last year. Counting older dead trees that have lost their needles, the beetle infestation has damaged about 5.6 million acres in the Treasure State. In two wooded drainages in the Bears Paw Mountains on the reservation, roughly 25 percent of one has been turned into a rusty brown kill zone, and the other is at serious risk, says William Lodgepole, Rocky Boy's forest manager.

Rocky Boy's has examined the forest conditions and the effectiveness of various forest practices in combating a mountain pine beetle outbreak in the Bears Paw Mountains. But not much can be done.

"Unfortunately, … in Montana and in general, we're being devastated by a bug that's destroying a lot of timber and this particular mountain is not immune from that," says Windy Boy.

It's a slow-motion forest fire and virtually impossible to prevent.

"A lot of people don't realize the fact that even though we're isolated, a little island out on the prairie, we do have a really, really bad pine beetle problem," Martens says.

The consequence of the beetles' wrath is more than just orange-tinted stands of trees scattered through the hills. The trees on the ski hill provide shade to hold the snow pack on the runs. If the trees have to be cut down, the sun will shine in more intensely on the slopes, melting the snow faster, leaving Bear Paw Ski Bowl with no way to protect its snow cover. The ski hill will also lose its shelter from the high winds that blast across northcentral Montana.

"It's a concern," Ley says. "If the trees are gone, there are two negatives. The sun will come in more intense and the wind will come in."

Ley and his two teenage boys use the ski hill often during the winter and worry about the infestation. "People who use the ski hill would hate to see the pine beetle kill get any worse," he says.

This summer, Ley, who has built a handful of cabins from timber harvested in the Bears Paw, will teach a log construction course at Stone Child College, using the mountain pine beetle-killed trees to build a cabin on the campus. Students will then haul it to a recreation area in the Bears Paw Mountains and auction it off.

Skiers carve down the lower slopes of the hill near closing time. The hill is a modest 900 vertical feet, but features a variety of conditions, from the wide open steeps on top to tight trees near the bottom.

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Though few tribal members ski, Rocky Boy's leaders are taking all the measures they can to combat the feisty and devastating beetles near the ski hill.

Forest manager Lodgepole and his team at the Natural Resources Department have, with financing from the U.S. Forest Service, thinned the diseased trees, set up traps parallel to the ski runs and sprayed Verbenone, a beetle repellant.

But going to war with the beetles is expensive. Each trap is $5 and the repellant, signaling to other bugs that beetles have already hit the tree, ranges between $20 and $200 a tree and loses its effectiveness after a year. The difference depends on how many trees need treatment, how far the applicator has to travel and how big the trees are.

"The reservation is dealing with it the best way they can with the limited resources that they have," says Martens, "and we're lucky that they are battling it.

"If the beetle kill is as bad as they say it's going to be, it's going to take us out until the trees come back."

According to Lodgepole, it would take temperatures of about 40 degrees below zero for three weeks to kill off the beetles. But if cold hits when they are most vulnerable, in the fall and spring, less extreme temperatures can have an effect.

The rice-sized beetles bore through the outer bark of their favorite hosts, lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine, in the fall and each of the females lays about 75 eggs. The budding beetles go through several stages, building up a cold defense compound as they grow.

Once the process is complete, beetles can tolerate long periods of extreme cold. But if temperatures drop below minus-10 before they're ready, the changing beetles freeze and die.

The morning sun streams through a stand of beetle-killed timber near the ski hill.

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Lodgepole says the tribe's management practices have lessened the impact of the infestation.

On the state's smallest reservation, having a track record of strong forest management is an achievement, he says. "I mean, if somebody does the management part of it, you could save the majority of your forest. Management, I think, is key over the lifetime of the forest."

The Bears Paw Mountains slumber beneath a chilly blue sky. A breeze whips across the furrowed trails, and the sun begins its descent toward the horizon. DeCora watches as a handful of skiers load onto the chairlift. He pauses, shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath.

"I like being out in the fresh air," he says. "It beats sitting at home all day."

These mountains are everything to DeCora. "I grew up here. I'll probably be here as long as I can walk," he says.

DeCora watches the weathered chairs on the ski lift glide up and down Bear Paw Ski Bowl. Advertisements are etched on the wooden paneling on the back of the chairs. One reads, "Chippewa Cree." It sits empty, climbing the white slopes.

Daniel Mediate is a junior at The University of Montana School of Journalism..

Devin Schmit is a senior at The University of Montana School of Journalism.