The drive from Park City, Utah, to Steamboat Springs easily is five and a half hours - longer if there are a lot of elk on U.S. 40 between Massadona and Maybell. Chris Gilbertson made the drive this week for what must have seemed like the thousandth time. It was that important to get home and hang out with his son, Gunnar, at the 94th Winter Carnival.
Gilbertson is a coach with the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team and spent most of the week training elite athletes for the Nordic World Championships, which begin Feb. 22 in Sapporo, Japan.
The world turns its attention to Nordic skiing once every four years during the Olympics, but skiers know the world championships are just as meaningful.
Few things can compare to preparation for the world championships in the career of a ski coach, but on Friday afternoon, the "Bumps, Jumps and K18 Ski Jumping" event at Howelsen Hill was one of those things.
"This is more fun," Gilbertson said. "Watching Gunnar ski jump and get into the air."
Gunnar is just 4 years old, and you might think being the son of a U.S. Ski Team coach at Winter Carnival would be too much pressure for a tyke. But the truth is, Gunnar is oblivious, and Gilbertson is way too smart to push a little boy to compete.
"It's all fun," said Gilbert-
son, a huge grin splitting his face. "The big joke for us is that he won't grow up to be a skier. He'll be a computer geek or a member of the chess club. I guess I'm doing all the wrong things and encouraging him to try all of the skiing events."
Jimmy Colfer, 7, described the appeal of ski jumping quite nicely.
"It's kind of scary," Jimmy said. "It's kind of like jumping on a trampoline."
His coach in the Little Vikings program, Mike Kerrigan, has instructed him to crouch low on the ski jump inrun because otherwise, "all the air hits you in the chest."
Samantha Terranova, 9, was ski jumping for the very first time on Friday. Her friend, Natalie Bohlmann, talked her into it.
"I like how you go in the air," Bohlmann said. Watch for Natalie to get airborne once again at 9 a.m. today, when a horse and rider will tow her down Lincoln Avenue at a full gallop in the "donkey jump" event.
Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen organized Steamboat's first Winter Carnival on Feb. 12, 1914, on Woodchuck Hill where the campus of Colorado Mountain College sits today. Howelsen taught many of the town's youngsters to ski jump.
In 2007, Harry Jenkins,10, is helping to carry on the tradition. As a participant in the Winter Sports Club's "mountain challenge program," he is being exposed to several snow sports by coaches Frank Lawhead and Eric Armbrust. Along with ski jumping, Harry has tried snowboarding and telemark skiing this winter. However, he says Alpine is his favorite way to slide down the hill.
One of the intriguing things about hanging out at Howelsen Hill on a Winter Carnival Friday is it's impossible to look at all of those little skiers and guess which ones will go on to a career that reaches national and international levels.
For now, all that matters is having fun.
Gilbertson's family moved to Steamboat when he was 8 years old. He can recall his own father, Warren, encouraging him to take to the air.
"I remember my dad making me go up the jump on cross-country skis and crashing every time and still wanting to do it," Gilbertson said.
When you reflect on it, Winter Carnival is a Steamboat tradition that has been self-perpetuating for 94 years.