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Originally printed in issue #94 (October 2017) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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Making the turn off Highway 2 onto Lost Prairie Road can take you back in time. Back to the days before 24/7 connectivity. Back to a time where boogies were all about the people who were there, present, right in front of you, not about those at the other end of your Facebook or Instagram feed. Back to the times of ubiquitous DC-3 jump planes, 10-way speed meets, round parachutes and baggy suits.

For the 50th Annual Lost Prairie Boogie, 750 souls took a ride in that time machine, showing up in a giant field in northwest Montana to set up camp for up to 10 days, far away from the so-called real world. Oh, sure, the real world made itself known a little bit, what with the near-constant haze of smoke from the rampant wildfires in the region hanging over the valley and with the regular visits from the local fire officials making sure we were taking Smokey Bear’s warning seriously that fire danger was EXTREME.

But we escaped our offices, our day-to-day responsibilities, our worries about nuclear brinksmanship, our political sniping, our petty concerns. As Prairie newcomer (and organizer) Regan Tetlow put it: “We are released from the shackles and binds of modern society and telecommunications and the internet and that we are communicating one to one with each other, looking into someone’s eyes and not into their head as they stare into their phone.”

Two twin otters above the runway at Lost Prairie. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

Otters on the prairie. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

A Look Back at Prairie History

The boogie hasn’t always been held in the valley outside of Marion, Montana. It started out at the Kalispell City Airport, about 40 miles away in the nearest “big city.” It moved to its current location in 1979, after Kalispell became “too urban.” The airstrip was built out by Osprey Sport Parachute Club regulars Fred Sand, Dave Tousy and Dick Steinke. Not long after, the airfield was renamed Carson Field in honor of Joan Carson, a local jumper who lost her life in a skydiving accident in 1981.

Joan Carson before her death in 1981. Photo courtesy Pete Scharrer.

Fred Sand, owner of Skydive Lost Prairie, ran the drop zone and the boogie for many years, ultimately handing the boogie to Wayndo Cross and Meadow Peak Skydiving in 2011. ESPN even visited in 2005, picking it as the sporting event to represent Montana in its 50 States in 50 Days SportsCenter tour. 35 ESPN staff showed up to broadcast from the Prairie, including anchor Kenny Mayne. The ESPN crew interviewed longtime jumper BJ Worth (a resident of nearby Whitefish) about his world records and stunt work, and put together a 12-minute SportsCenter segment about the crazy folks jumping out of airplanes in the middle of nowhere.

Many jumpers at the 50th fondly remembered the 40th boogie, which featured Montana womens record attempts, filmed by legendary videographer Joe Jennings. Joe had shown up at the boogie looking to relax and have fun in a lower-pressure environment than his professional jobs as a skydiving videographer and stunt coordinator. Of course, once people figured out exactly who the guy in the bright yellow camera suit was, he was known as Joe Fucking Jennings for the rest of the boogie. Or Chunks, but that’s another story altogether.

Your Montana Family Reunion

Wooden sign that says "Lost Prairie drop zone." Photo by Krisanne Combs.

Photo by Krisanne Combs.

Though it’s evolved through the years, some things at the Lost Prairie Boogie have remained constant. For one thing, the boogie makes an impression on its attendees from the minute they show up. Pat Arthur, currently from Seattle, Washington, made his first visit in 1976. He recalled “nudity and lots of flaming assholes” at his first boogie. Steve Hubbard of Deland, Florida, said that his first Prairie in 2014 “set the standard for boogies in my life.” Dwight Czyz of Calgary marveled of his first visit in 1989, “I was so amazed. I could not believe that people had so much fun that I’ve been back every year and it’s always great.”

Longtime Prairie organizer “Mad” John Dobleman said of his first visit in 1991, “My first jump here I said I’m coming back here for the rest of my life and so far, I have.” Beth Bryan had a similar memory of her visit in 1998: “I remember leaving and thinking that I was leaving home.”

Photo of a wooden sign that says "Osprey Sport Parachute Club." Photo by Krisanne Combs.

Heritage. Photo by Krisanne Combs.

Rafael Manana made his way to Lost Prairie all the way from his home in Montevideo, Uraguay, in 2010 and despite the long trek he hasn’t missed a boogie since. Of his first boogie, Rafael says, “I remember going to pretty much every house here and being welcomed and being made part of the family. I’m very grateful.”

Many actual families have been started at the Prairie (we don’t exactly how many Prairie skydiver babies there are with late April birthdays, although longtime boogie-goer Sarah Skroch admits that she and husband Eric conceived their first son at the Prairie). In addition to baby-making, multiple weddings have taken place over the years, sometimes with couples who first met at the Prairie. Mike and Carolyn Burrill from Jacksonville, Oregon, met during Carolyn’s first visit in 1998, and were married the next year. Kelowna, British Columbia, residents Shannon and Jim Daniels got engaged in the landing area during their second year at the boogie in 2006 and have been celebrating the anniversary of their engagement at the Prairie ever since!

Colin and Charlotte’s proposal. We hope they said yes. {Pretty sure they said yes.} Photo courtesy Colin McAuley.

This Entire State Looks Photoshopped

The spectacular natural beauty has been a constant throughout 50 years as well. Nestled in a valley overlooked by high peaks, the drop zone is a wonder. In wetter years, the valley is a verdant green, but Montana summers more commonly dry the grass to a brownish hue. Still, the green of the pines and the blue of the many lakes in the region create some spectacular views from altitude.

McGregor Lake, the closest of those lakes to the drop zone, has been the site of many an adventure over the years. A picnic area and boat launch are just across Highway 2 from Lost Prairie Road, providing the opportunity for regular afternoon lake trips (or hell, full-day lake trips). On occasion, someone gets motivated enough to organize lake jumps, which always lead to some entertaining spectating. Next time you see him, ask Michael Gregg how he earned his nickname “Missed Lake” Mike. Or check in with Tom Phillips about “bouncing” off the surface of the water in a swoop that might’ve been initiated a little too low.

1980 Lost Prairie water jump. Photo courtesy Pete Scharrer.

It’s not all about the jumping into McGregor Lake. The chilly water provides a refreshing respite from the sometimes-oppressive heat of a Montana summer. Jaime Mamet’s enduring memory of her first Lost Prairie in 2015 involved, “taking my first trip to McGregor Lake in the back of Jeff Sipp’s vehicle and realizing I’d forgotten to shave my muff. He [loaned] me his electric razor to do it.”

Tradition, TRADITION!

For many years now, singing has been an integral part of the Prairie. It started out with the women of the Prairie forming the Crack Choir, serenading the fellas with skydiving-themed parodies of popular tunes. A few years later, the guys thought maybe they could do better, so they formed the Cock Chorus … and were quickly disabused of that notion. Still, their eternal goal is to “suck less,” so they’ve got that going for them.

Some of the lake-related traditions have faded into oblivion in our litigious society. For many years, there was a memorable rope swing tucked away along the shore down a bumpy road. Many a skydiver risked life and limb jumping off the swing into the lake. Most escaped injury, though if you check in with Sean “Monkey” Horton, he’ll probably warn you about the importance of timing your release from the rope swing (spoiler alert: it hurts less if you let go over the water). Sadly, the rope swing and platform have been removed in recent years.

Jumpers at McGregor Lake in 1992. Photo courtesy Dave Mahoney.

Another tradition that is no more is the annual demonstration jump into Lang Creek Brewery, which closed down several years ago. Before the brewery went out of business, John and Sandy Campbell would invite jumpers to skydive into their beautiful brewery a few miles away from the drop zone. An Otter load or two would land in the broad field below the brewery (with a few of the more shit-hot jumpers landing in the small grass area closer to the brewery building). Everyone else would make their way over to the brewery, and indulge as the Campbells opened up the taps of their aviation-themed beers, including Skydiver Blonde, Taildragger Porter and the Montana specialty of Huckleberry and Honey. They even brewed up a mean root beer for the non-drinkers. The 50th boogie did bring a small return to the Lang Creek days, with one load of jumpers participating in a jump into the grounds of the former brewery. Ask pilot Zack how he earned the nickname “Bark” on that jump.

The DC-3 at Lost Prairie 2017. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

The DC-3 at Lost Prairie 2017. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

A tradition from long ago that returned for the 50th was the DC-3. When he took over management of the boogie a few years ago, Meadow Peak Skydiving DZO Wayndo Cross made sure the Skydive Arizona crew (which provides all of the air power for the boogie) included the DC-3 in the plans for the 50th Anniversary. That beautiful old bird flew several loads before running into a mechanical issue that grounded it for the rest of the boogie.

Jumping out of an old bird like a DC-3 is one thing, but three jumpers were even braver than that, and donned old round parachutes for jumps out of the 3. With good spotting and great PLFs, all three jumpers lived to tell the tale, though their pants might be a little too long now as they’ve lost height on those jumps.

Round parachute lands at the Lost Prairie Boogie. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

Coming in hot at Lost Prairie 2017. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

Lost Prairie 2017: round landing. Photo by Bruce Griffith.

Round jumps in 2017 may be brave, but Camp Go Fuck Yourself denizens Toni Phelps and Jeff Asbach took an even bigger leap of faith this year by getting married in the DC-3, followed by a wedding formation load out of the Otter and Skyvan. Not long after, Fort Washington regulars Colin McAuley and Charlotte Riehl were engaged on the annual pilgrimage to the Meadow Peak fire tower.

Skydivers gather at the fire tower. Photo by Colin McAuley.

The annual gathering at the fire tower. Photo by Colin McAuley.

Kicking It Old School

A highlight of the last several years has been a heated 10-way speed competition at the Prairie, heightened this year by the grand prize: 50th Anniversary sweatshirts embroidered with a multicolored 10-way formation on the back, courtesy of Rigging Innovations. Two-time defending champs Team Suck It Mad John came in confident (some might say cocky). Their time was bested by Team Vendor Row, proving that the booth babes are more than just pretty faces—they actually make a skydive from time to time on the boogie circuit. Vendor Row’s lead didn’t last, though—Team Lost in the Prairie 2.0 brought thousands of jumps and many decades of experience to the table and squeaked out a quicker build to win it all.

Lost Prairie 1993 formation. Photo Courtesy Rich Grimm;.

8-way was the name of the game with WSCRs, with two groups of women earning the 8-way badge thanks to organizer Chazi Blacksher. Erin and Adam Spicer had hoped for a national Society for the Advancement of Naked Skydiving (SANS) naked-way record, with a massive group of willing jumpers that struggled to build a large enough formation to break the national 15-way record. They were still able to achieve an 8-way Montana SANS record, creating a new group of record-holders at the boogie.

Speaking of old school—or just old—longtime Montana jumper Dick Rapacilo organized some Montana Skydivers over Sixty record attempts. No luck on a record, but the old guys (and gals) inspired the rest of us to keep on jumping lest we get old because we stop skydiving!

Lost Prairie 2017 SOS record attempt. Photo by Krisanne Combs.

The Lost Prairie Lounge

Back in the days when the boogie was across the runway at Skydive Lost Prairie, the Lost Prairie Lounge (which may not even be its official name—ask most folks and they’ll just call it “The Bar”) was the center of after-hours activity. Dave Mahoney summed up the bar like this: “The lunacy here was just fucking incredible. That bar. There were no rules. The only rules were don’t pass out in the bar.”

Unless the fire danger was too high, there was a bonfire just outside of the bar, and boogie-goers gathered on the wide porch, or crowded inside the bar area to grab another beer, or maybe to catch someone on their way down from a (often-naked) bar dive. The bar had the only flush toilets on the drop zone and there was often a line not (only) because people were taking forever doing their business, but because they were too busy reading the graffiti that lined the walls of both restrooms.

Michael Bess fondly remembered his first visit to the bar in 1992. “We were partying pretty late, went inside the bar, had to wait in line to get a beer, and we went outside of the bar and it was light and I looked at my watch and it was 6 a.m.”

Lost Prairie Bar, 1992. Photo courtesy Dave Mahoney.

Jack Rumple relayed a story from the late 1990s that’s far too long to print here about Ty Losey talking him into demoing his 3-person pop-up tent … off the bar, which eventually led to the discovery that 14 drunken skydivers could actually squeeze into that clown car of a tent.

The bar has been closed for several years, but on the last night of the boogie, it’s a Survivor Sunday tradition to bring over all the remaining food (and booze!) from your camp and set it up on the porch of the lounge for a giant smorgasbord and unofficial farewell party. The 50th brought a surprise, in that the owners of the bar opened the doors for a brief, dusty nostalgia trip, making Survivor Sunday extra special for those who stuck around.

The Future is Bright

Even though it evolves, Lost Prairie’s not going anywhere. With the new facilities of Meadow Peak Skydiving, and a new cadre of jumpers introduced to the magic and tradition of the boogie every year, the boogie is one of those that inspires nothing less than enduring loyalty in anyone who attends. They head home from their magical “summer camp for skydivers” and talk a few more people into coming, who experience the wonders themselves, and the evangelism continues. Another 50 years for this legendary boogie seem entirely possible!

Photo by Derek Cash.

Only the best reading material at Lost Prairie. Photo by Derek Cash.

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