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The Backwoods Project brings action back to Marshall Mountain
Marshall Mountain shrugged off its defunct ski area status for a single weekend in late January. The chairlifts maintained their eight-year silence despite the season's already impressive snow depth, but the base area buzzed with activity as dozens of teenage skiers and snowboarders from Missoula threw ollies and tail-slides off 19 separate rail features. In park culture, such a scene would earn the distinguished title "sick."
Ride Montana was the first—and so far only—competitive event hosted by the Backwoods Project (BP) this season. BP President Gregg Janecky founded the nonprofit in late 2009 with the goals of establishing a permanent terrain park for Missoula jibbers and teaching local kids how to ride park. With the rapid dissolving of the BP's relationship with Snowbowl, which accommodated a modest setup of freestyle features last year, Janecky feels the Marshall event marked a major step forward for his initiative.
"Marshall has this awesome history of supporting kids in town," Janecky says. "Every time we run an event we hear stories about the cheap lift tickets catered to kids who probably wouldn't normally be able to afford skiing, and that's very much in the Backwoods Project's interest."
Janecky's prime motivation in founding the BP was to offer local kids an accessible, progression-oriented facility for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Missoula currently has no terrain park available; athletes like Kadin Mulla, a 16-year-old Hellgate High School student who helps coach kids though the BP, regularly make the long trip to areas like Lost Trail and Great Divide to practice. Mulla says he and his friends even hit urban rails in Missoula and build jumps in backyards—anything to make up for the drought of nearby freestyle opportunities.
"The movement in Missoula is pretty stagnant," says former World Cup snowboard competitor and 2010 Olympic invitee Sarris McComb, who serves on the BP board and runs the youth nonprofit Montucky Snowboard Team. "People are coming together and forming stuff that's really pushing it, but at the same time it's not something that's going to create a pro. It's not every weekend, it's not every day. If the 'Bowl had a park open to the public every day that was sufficient, more people would go up there. But right now everyone's going to Lost Trail and Great Divide and Big Mountain and Big Sky to get their park in, which is super frustrating."
The BP's budding partnership with longtime Marshall Mountain owner Bruce Doering began shortly after Snowbowl expressed a reluctance to invest in a BP terrain park down the line. Janecky had relocated a rail jam event to the mountain last year when Caras Park proved too small a venue, and his project quickly found Marshall a much easier fit. The deal with Snowbowl necessitated hauling a few rails up the mountain before the first snowfall, but the access to Marshall's base area allows the BP crew to hike park features in from the lot.
"It actually got us closer to our mission of making it accessible to kids, because now the kids don't have to pay the $35 lift ticket," Janecky says. "They pay the $10 to ride, and if our fundraising reaches $3,000 before an event, it's free for the kids to ride at it."
And this year's incredible stash of powder has helped make skiing and snowboarding more high-profile at a time when the BP is struggling for popular and financial support. Mulla strongly believes that if kids his age and younger get exposed to park through Janecky's efforts, "it'll totally take off."
"If there's snow, kids are going to ski for sure," Mulla says.
With the promise of a more stable base of operations at Marshall, the BP's concerns have shifted slightly. Their short-term worries still center around adequate funding—Janecky says a recent donation from a local construction company could help them scrape together another event this season, though they're still $2,000 short. The long-term is a different story.
"I think the toughest part is getting people to come out of the woodwork, people with experience such as myself," McComb says. "I have trouble finding a coach [for the Montucky Snowboard Team]. If I get over 30 kids I'm going to be in trouble, because there's some coaches in town but I'm looking for people with my experience so they can help my kids get to the X Games, to the Olympics."
Despite missing his goal of hosting one park event a month this season, Janecky sees a future for the BP at Marshall. He admits there is some "chairlift talk" among project members about the potential of reopening Marshall entirely, but says the shuttered operation has far too many inherent challenges for that talk to turn to action anytime soon. For now he's content watching BP's park converts shred and ride, an affirmation of his nonprofit's goals.
"This year, I've seen kids walk in who have never ridden a rail before," Janecky says. "In the case of one kid, he went from having never ridden a rail to hitting the rails with the big guys. He only did the beginner division in our [January] contest, but he walked away with it. He won, having not hit a rail before."
For more information on the Backwoods Project, visit www.thebackwoodsproject.org.