Pond skim a crowd favorite

It all started with a leaky pond on a chilly spring day back in 2006. Big Mountain Resort (the name change to Whitefish Mountain hadn’t yet been unveiled) swapped the ever-popular furniture races for a new season finale event — pond skimming.
Skiers and snowboarders would be challenged to cross an 80-foot-long splash zone at the bottom of the Middle Fork slope near Chair 1. Costumes were encouraged for this spectator-friendly production.
But a few grouches unhappy with the departure of the furniture races — the resort deemed that long-standing event too dangerous — decided to sabotage the whole thing, recalled resort events manager Josh Knight.
“I remember there was a lot of spite from the furniture races being canceled and the pond [liner] got cut,” Knight said.
The pond began to fail during the event as water slowly leaked away.
“The last couple of racers were in about 15 inches of water,” Knight said.
Yet, despite leak-gate, the contest was revered as a huge success and a new tradition was born.
Hugh Black has participated in all by two of the pond skims, including the inaugural event in 2006. He remembers an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty among competitors in that first contest.
“Nobody was sure about the whole thing,” Black said. “No one had done it before, you couldn’t practice — there was a lot of anxiety about going down.”
So Black rode into the pond the only way he knew how.
“I went as hard and fast as I could,” he said.
He won the $1,000 grand prize as top skimmer. Erik Wilson took second and Jason Robinson third. Best crash went to Garth Shaw, who was awarded $75 and some pie from Loula’s.
The pond skim grew exponentially over the next 10 years.
Participation always fills up fast with a mix of seasoned skimmers battling for the cash payout and others simply out to flaunt a ridiculous costume or go for best wipe out. Thousands of spectators now line the course to watch the spectacle.
“There are always the people trying to lay it all out there and win that $1,000 and there are people who do it once for the hell of it,” Knight said. “Unlike the other pond skims out there, this one is a competition as well as end-of-year fun and wackiness.”
“There’s a core group that does really well every time,” Black added. “You always see the same guys in the final rounds.”
The skimmers have gotten better over the years, in part due to skill and experience, and in part due to the invention of wide rocker-shaped skis and boards. As a result, the resort has upped the challenge with creative obstacles and massive jumps.
“We didn’t even have rocker back in the first pond skim,” Black said. “Back then it was just about getting across the pond, period.
“Now, we’re going backward off angled jumps and riding across switch while being sprayed with a fire hose. It’s come a long way.”
Knight says they’re always trying to do something silly and different to up the challenge.
“One year we tired dry ice — that didn’t work so well for us,” he said.
For the first six years the winners were split between snowboarders and skiers. But skiers have put a firm grasp on the trophy since then. Now, the resort splits the prizes between the top snowboarder and skier. They’ve also lowered the age to allow folks under 21 to get involved.
Black hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to compete this year. He keeps an eye on the weather after getting nipped with a touch of hypothermia during one pond skim.
“A little bit of sunshine is nice,” he said. “If it’s raining, maybe not, but I suppose you get wet anyway.”
The races this year are set for Saturday, April 9, at the traditional location on the Middle Fork slope next to Chair 1. The competition starts at 2:30 p.m. Registration is capped at 60 skimmers and costumes are required. Sign up at www.skiwhitefish.com.