Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

The Only Constant is Change

35 Years of OSCR

 

Photo provided.

Racers lined up to start the 25K in February 1991. Pictured (L-R): Jim Jaimes, Al Slaight, Ray Fox, Anne Dahl, Mike McGrew, Ann Castren, and Lynn Carey.

SEELEY LAKE – Saturday, Jan. 28 will mark the 35th annual Over Seeley's Creeks & Ridges (OSCR) 50 kilometer (K) ski race. The OSCR has become a local legend in the ski community because of its length, history and reputation for ruggedness and delivering the unexpected. Avid racer and race director since the early 1990s Lynn Carey said the only thing constant with OSCR for the past 35 years has been change.

Prior to the OSCR was the Marathon Ovando Seeley Tour (MOST) race. The course started at the Two Creek Ranch in Ovando and ran 38 miles (just over 61K) to the north end of Seeley Lake. In 1980 out of 41 participants, a high school junior from Bozeman 17-year-old Greg Johnson won the race in 3:34:23 on classic skis.

In 1983 local skiers Steve Clark, Lew Mitchell and Jim Blackburn organized the first Ovando Seeley Citizens Race (OSCR). Thirty-eight skiers finished the race from the Two Creeks Ranch to Seeley Lake.

Carey said it was brutal cold with temperatures around -15ºF. The racers were all standing around trying to decide if they should hold the race but decided since everyone was there they might as well race. "So off they went," said Carey with a laugh.

Local ski enthusiast and racer Mike McGrew said the OSCR started out as a citizen's race in the European tradition. Many people would come out for the race but a much smaller percent were actually racing. The rest were just out for the communal experience finishing the course in six to seven hours.

The Seeley Lake Driftriders snowmobile club helped with grooming the course from the beginning since most of it was on the designated snowmobile trails. Historical records indicate the USFS closed the OSCR course to snowmobiles on race day for several years in the 1980s and 1990s.

Carey said the Seeley-Swan Search and Rescue (SSSAR) has run the aid stations for as long as he could remember. The OSCR pays SSSAR for their help.

The OSCR has always had to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Carey said the first permit was one page, now it is 10 pages. For years the club was not charged to hold the race because they were a non-profit. However the USFS now charges a minimum use fee of $73. If five percent of the adjusted gross income, total race fees collected minus any awards for the top finishers, is above the $73, the OSCR is responsible to pay the larger amount.

McGrew raced his first OSCR in 1984 and has raced in 11, 50K races and 23 total OSCRs. He missed the inaugural race because he did not have the equipment to compete.

"It was the thing to do," said McGrew. "We [Darla Heil, David Kesheimer and Stew Cebulski] were skiing a lot and we were skiing long distances so it was a personal challenge."

McGrew said the course is constantly changing. The Ovando to Seeley Lake route was changed because it was a logistical nightmare to shuttle vehicles and they never knew if there was going to be logging on the course.

Organizers then started the race at the airport and ended at Seeley-Swan High School in 1986. This was the first year the race headed up onto Rice Ridge for the 32-mile course.

"OSCR has never bothered with exact distances," said Carey. "It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 50K. If you are worried about whether it is 48K or 52K, you are in the wrong race."

In 1988, the OSCR course was 90 percent skiable with skate skis. The course climbed 1,700 feet, instead of 1,000 feet, over Rice Ridge with a 14 foot wide groomed trail. The grooming consisted of Ron Johnson pulling a bedspring ahead of the skiers. However four-six inches of fresh snow fell before the race began making it a soft, slow course. While they still set the classic track for a couple more years, the transition to the skate-only course began.

McGrew classic skied the 1988 race. When he got to the aid station at the top of the hill Wade Cebulski told him, "You are the first person to come in here that doesn't look like he's just about to die."

McGrew credits the OSCR's rugged reputation to races like the 1988 race.

"We have OSCR no matter what. There was only one time it was cancelled [2005] and it was because there was not enough snow," said McGrew.

In 1988, the skiers decided to change the name. While they stuck with the acronym OSCR, they had 21 suggestions. Some of the names included "Outstanding Seeley Citizens' Race," "Over Snowy Country Roads," "Outrageous Seeley Citizens' Race" and "Olympic Seeley Cross-country Race." After a public vote, the name was changed to Over Seeley's Creeks & Ridges.

The course moved to the Marshall Loop in 1990. Racers started at the heliport, went up the Mt. Henry Road, came down by Marshall Lake and at the three-way junction, the 50K headed back up.

"It was a brutal course," said Carey. "It was four miles of pure climbing and eleven miles of rolling downhill which was great if you are a good skier."

In 1991 they ran the course backward. "Then it changed to four miles of eye-opening down," said Carey. "You didn't have to work very hard going down."

Carey said race organizers Karen Tanberg and Geanette Cebulski "dropped" organizing the race on him "in 1990 or 1991." He did not dare say no.

Blackburn, who worked at the Seeley Lake Ranger District (SLRD), talked to Carey about forming a club to groom ski trails and the SLRD would upgrade the existing trail system for skiing. Blackburn told Carey the club only needed to agree to do the best they could.

Carey along with five other ski enthusiasts agreed. They started grooming the trails in 1992 after the Blackfoot River Coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) at the time Woody Baxter arranged for the club to purchase an old, retired double track skidoo from the Fish and Game for $1. They nicknamed the snowmobile "The Walk-a-Homa."

"There was a reason that snowmobile was retired," said Carey. "The groomers always made sure they had their skis with them when they would head out to groom."

Blackburn told Carey that if the ski club could come up with $2,000 the USFS would pay the rest to purchase a new Polaris workhorse snowmobile for grooming. Blackburn suggested that because the ski club did not have any money, that he could pay for it with the OSCR.

"I said yeah, but OSCR and the ski club aren't the same thing," said Carey. "He said well you've got the OSCR checkbook don't you? I said yeah. He said well then what's the problem."

Carey said OSCR had $2,600 in the account. He wrote the check and the club got a 1993 Polaris that they cost-shared with the SLRD for maintenance and gas. It was basically at this point that they merged the two. Now OSCR is the Nordic Club's major fundraiser.

The OSCR course was held on Archibald in 1992 and started on the Seeley Lake Nordic Trails in 1993. The course was three loops on the trails while the 25K race did one and half loops. When on the ski trails the Seeley Lake Nordic Club did all the grooming.

Following the race, participants would go down to The Filling Station. Everyone would buy their own food and drinks and the 50K winner would receive $100-150. Carey said one year Alden Wright stood up and said they should use the money for grooming instead of giving it to the winner.

"We thought about it for a minute and thought, that's a good idea," said Carey who said the winner didn't care.

Now the overall winners either receive a ribbon, medal or this year they will receive a baseball cap with the 35th OSCR on it. Those who complete the race either receive a t-shirt or other prize. Every five years is a stocking hat and last year they gave away insulated water bottles.

"Who needs 35 years of t-shirts," said Carey. "It's just one more thing about OSCR that always changes."

Carey recalls how poorly the trail was marked in the early years. He said people were always getting lost. Moving it to the ski trails did not help fix the problem of people getting off course.

"No matter how many signs you put out there, people get lost," said Carey.

In 1999, the OSCR offered an early start, at 9 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. for those that wanted to do a 50K but could not complete it in four hours. They continued to offer the 20K and 10K for racers who are not up for the 50K challenge.

There was no race in 2005 because of no snow. Carey tried to move the course to Marshall Lake but the trail was torn up by snowmobiles and full of rocks. Carey said it would have ruined skis. The roads on the eastside were all glare ice. Carey said he tried pulling the drag up east Morrell and he spun out.

Since the t-shirts were already ordered for the 2005 race, everyone who completed the 2006 race received a t-shirt that said 2005.

After 14 years of the course looping on the Seeley Creek Trails, in 2007 the OSCR returned the course to climbing Rice Ridge and dropping down into Morrell Creek. That is still the course, with some variation, that is used today.

While there have been several skiers who have won men's and women's 50K several times, Mark Hollinger and Annie Creighton each hold the record for winning the most. Both Hollinger and Creighton have been the first overall men's and women's finishers 10 times.

Carey said the addition of the Seeley Lake Regional Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS) yurt at the trailhead has been a great addition. The OSCR also started using chip timing in 2016 and the Nordic Club officially became a 501(c)4.

"No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't eliminate the mistakes," said Carey. "It got to the point when we were at the awards ceremony and there was a mistake I would just hang my head."

While Carey never thought the OSCR would last 35 years, he thinks it is because of the growing popularity of Nordic skiing and because of the support from the Missoula community.

"We are one of the only places in Montana that grooms everyday [generally]," said Carey. "[Missoula skiers] know they can come to Seeley Lake, get a 50K workout on perfect grooming and be home in time to watch the afternoon football game."

McGrew also credits the outstanding grooming that has brought success to the Seeley Lake Nordic Trails.

"We have top-notch equipment that is designed for working [four tractor-like snowmobiles]. We have the grooming tools to do anything that needs to be done out there [ginsu for the ice, rollers for powder, drag and track settlers]," said McGrew.

Pathfinder file photo

A group of Seeley Lake skiers who were out training for the 1987 OSCR. Pictured (L-R): Jim Blackburn, Geanette Cebulski, Ernie Lundberg, Renee Lundberg, Jim de Herrera and Jim Jaimes.

This year all of the 50K racers will start 9 a.m. Saturday morning, Jan. 28 at the Seeley Creek Trails. Carey wants to make sure everyone can be at the Seeley Lake Community Hall at 2 p.m. for the chili feed and awards ceremony. Finishers will all receive a Sauce stocking hat that Carey said will be light enough to train in.

Nordic Club member and skier Karen Pratt compiled a book of OSCR history, news clippings and photos that will be available to browse. She is looking for any information on the 1999 OSCR.

"The thing about OSCR is, it's like Forest Gump's box of chocolates: you never know what you're [going to] get. Rutted ice, fresh powder partially packed and chewed up by snowmobiles, transformed snow at the bottom and fresh at the top or a perfectly groomed skier's delight," wrote McGrew in his Compulsive Skiers blog about the 2015 OSCR. "Regardless, skiers keep coming back for more punishment."

Next week: 35 Years of OSCR Stories

 

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