Tom Ross: Winter Carnival appeals to skiers, ranchers

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Martha Bender and Katie Haberlan played their piccolos in Sunday morning's parade, and their lips survived to tell about it. It was cold out in Steamboat on Sunday morning -- about 25 degrees. As senior members of the Steamboat Springs High School skiing band, Bender and Haberlan were participating in the 91st annual Winter Carnival. The two young ladies have been down Lincoln Avenue more than once in their careers. In fact, they've participated in the Winter Carnival Parade four straight years. Sunday marked a rite of passage of sorts -- it was their last freezing cold parade.

During their tenure with America's only skiing high school band, Haberlan and Bender have picked up some wisdom. For example, unless you want to go home with your musical instrument stuck to your face, you don't play a silver piccolo in Steamboat in February. "Our piccolos are plastic," Bender said. A plastic piccolo is far less prone to freezing to your lips.

The Sailors band played one song several times over during Sunday's parade -- it was a classic from the 1960s surf rock genre called "Wipeout." I've long since forgotten who played lead piccolo for the Surfaris, but 37 years later, the band is still being immortalized by hundreds of marching bands and at least one skiing band.

The skiing band is a significant part of what makes the Winter Carnival tradition so special. We can't escape winter, so we might as well celebrate it. You have to wonder what old Carl Howelsen would make of the Winter Carnival he started 90 years ago.

Jonathan "Quad Man" Hritz made a big hit in the carnival parade. He is Steamboat's only four-legged skier, unless you count dogs. Hritz came down Lincoln Avenue on a pair of oversized mono skis, each of his two pairs of legs clad in ski boots and safely locked into bindings. "I have twice as much fun as everyone else, but they make me buy two lift tickets," Hritz quipped.

Speaking of dogs, there were quite a few in this year's parade. Of all the pooches on Lincoln Avenue, a pair of Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs made the others look out of place. Seven-month-old Cosmo brought his owner, Roger Moore, and ladylike Madison brought owners Shelby and Ryan Dyer. "Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs are known for being protective, energetic and devoted to labor unions," Madison said. "My owners never feed me as much strudel as I deserve. I demand better working conditions." Cosmo said that as a matter of fact, his breed has a reputation for hard work.

"We've been used in the high Alps as cart dogs," Cosmo said. "In areas where the paths are too rough for horses, we can still pull the carts. When my great-grandfather's owner became ill, he delivered a milk route all by himself.

Josh Williams of Dayton, Ohio, thrilled the crowd gathered along Lincoln Avenue with one of the most spectacular shovel races in the 91-year history of the carnival. For the uninitiated, the shovel race requires helmeted contestants to ride a shovel the handle of which is attached by a length of rope to the saddle horn of a galloping quarterhorse. Williams was pitched from the shovel near the start of his run but refused to let go of the handle and went tumbling and spinning down the length of Steamboat's main drag.

"Letting go is not an option," Williams said afterward. "Besides, I've been dragged behind much worse things before."

Williams explained that in Dayton he participates in the sport of "recycle-binning." It seems that in the great state of Ohio, people are fond of seating themselves in recycling bins attached by a rope to a vehicle -- presumably a turbo-powered garbage truck -- and allowing themselves to be dragged down a snowy street.

Steamboat's Kevin Nerney distinguished himself Sunday by winning the shovel race on a long-handled beauty of a snow shovel named "Rosie." Nerney has customized his shovel by bending the edge of the blade upward to create less drag as he is pulled down the street behind a horse. He also has developed a secret wax formula that allows Rosie to glide over semi-frozen horse manure.

Speaking of road apples -- Winter Carnival wouldn't be the same without horses. The quarterhorses get all the fame because of their participation in street events such as the shovel race. But the draft horses do all the heavy lifting.

Shari Yeager was minding a team of patient Percherons named Bubba and Rip. The sturdy horses had been enlisted to pull the Steamboat Ambassadors float down the street.

People in Steamboat are fond of repeating that Winter Carnival is one time during the winter that the ranching community is brought together with the skiing community. Is it true, or is it just a myth that's been perpetuated for the past 90 years?

Yeager believes it wholeheartedly, and Winter Carnival is important to her.

"It shows people what Steamboat is really about," Yeager said.

And that's no horse poop.

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