LOLO PASS — Outdoor recreation can be a big component of mental health. And this week, Montana snowmobilers are showing it's also a fun way to raise tens of thousands of dollars too.
It was an early morning at Lolo Hot Springs when a huge crowd of snowmobile riders from all over the U.S. gathered for the biggest ride in Montana — and an official Montana Snowmobile Association event.
The Trans Montana Charity Snowmobile Ride has been running for more than 20-years, but is receiving national coverage this year, drawing more than 40 riders.
"All of a sudden people started showing up from Nevada and Nebraska and Colorado and Idaho and all over the place. And Minnesota. So it's it's just been awesome," organizer Mark Smolen told me before the ride starts.
"I have made friends from literally all over the United States now. But it's so much fun every year we all get together. My best friend from Minnesota that comes out he goes 'I just wouldn't miss this' because he's like 'everybody is just so nice'."
"I've seen country and places and done things that I've never would have without this connection," said Jason Ross who drove from St. Paul for his fifth ride. "The people have been awesome for me. All these all these guys, and I consider them friends. It's just the people that's what makes it. The best is all these guys I've met. They're just amazing."
Alonzo Crawford of Nevada was looking forward to the week, although sadly his sled would develop engine problems in the first hour. I'm sure he'll be back.
For the next week, these riders will cover hundreds of miles of mountain trails and they invited me, participating in the thorough safety briefing, and avalanche beacon checks. It's a fun, and forgiving, group. Even when I can't get my dirt bike-ATV-watercraft brain to engage on the first bump of the day. I topple over slowly, hurting only my pride, as I notice the line backing up behind me.
But everyone jumps to my rescue, and offers tips to help me if it happens again. In fact, throughout the ride, everyone was helpful, kind and happy to have a "newbie" along.
Then we settle in. And the country is just gorgeous, an almost spiritual transition from what these roads look like in the summer. Punctuated by fun spots like Elk Meadows, where I learn getting stuck is part of the "fun". But that's where the local clubs come to help.
"If it's doing extra grooming on the trails or the guides and the locals, And of course cater to the local economy so it makes it really really nice," Kalispell rider Alan Deleon explained.
Smolen agrees that the locals made the ride work, "they show us kind of the best. Like you said, the creme de la creme of all the areas so that we get the best views and the best play areas."
But there's a serious side to the multi-day event too.
"We direct our money towards teen suicide prevention and PTSD support for our vets," Smolen notes. "And over the last eight years, we've raised about $110,000.00 through this group this year. We're going to probably, well easily, eclipse $20,000 and hopefully a lot more."
Connie Walter started riding years ago, and now retired from the business operations at KRTV in Great Falls, she and her husband come back every year.
"Mental health is a huge thing in our country right now. And the money we raise for NAMI stays every penny of it stays here in Montana, so that's awesome."
It's a cause to match the country. Our ride is shorter than most but still covered 57-miles, above, below and around Lolo Pass. Imagine doing that over, and over, and over for a week!
"So we're just here to have fun and meet new people, raise money for NAMI, that's the whole key," Walter says with a big smile. "It's the charity."
And even after putting on 6,000 miles across the West this winter, Deleon loves Montana trails, "it's been fabulous. The snow is a little lower than we'd like. But yeah, we've had a fabulous winter already."
"Always nice to ride back home," I note. "Oh, it sure is. Yeah, nothing like it," Deleon concluded.