Steamboat's black powder days

Quirky 33rd annual International Muzzle-loading Biathlon no flash in the pan

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— It's not easy to keep your skiing tempered and controlled with the hefty, octagonal, steel barrel of a rifle gently tapping you on the head.

And if that isn't enough to hinder your pace, there's always the antique wooden skis on your feet to slow you down.

Luckily for participants at Saturday afternoon's International Muzzle-loading Biathlon at Howelsen Hill, speed and technological advantage were hardly a concern.

If anything, the 14 competitors, if you can call them that, were looking to take a step back.

"We like to keep the flavor of a struggle to make it fun," race director Paul Yonekawa said.

The biathlon race had competitors ski four 1-kilometer laps around a course along the west side of the base of Howelsen Hill, between which they had three shooting bouts of three shots each at targets backed up against the BMX track.

Yonekawa outlined the rules before the 30-second interval start - racers had to be at least 18, had to use classic cross-country skis and traditional exposed-hammer, open-sight, muzzle-loading black powder rifles (percussion or flintlock), couldn't use aiming support and would have time penalties added for shots missed.

In addition, to be considered in the traditional rather than the open class, racers were required to have a period outfit consisting of skis, boots and poles circa pre-1940.

When Bill Gilbert started the event 33 years ago as a way to keep the shooting friends from his sporting goods store busy in the winter, he was a little wary when Phil LaLena wore the traditional fur trapper garb and introduced unique event awards.

"I originally didn't want to fool around with it," Gilbert said. "But now people enjoy getting into it, and now I think it's what really keeps it going."

With the exception of his modern sunglasses, Gilbert and the custom flintlock rifle he assembled to specs from Nebraska's Museum of Fur Trade were straight out of the 19th century.

As far as the participants know, the event Gilbert created is the first and only continuous event of its kind in the country.

The interest is even crossing over to the next generation. Yonekawa's son, Yoshi, and Paul Brassell both turned 18 this year and were excited to finally compete.

"I'm just trying not to crash," said Yoshi, decked out in a rifleman's frock he traced to the French and Indian War era. "This is the first time in 10 years I've cross-country skied."

Other than some rusty ski skills, a few racers had a little trouble with equipment already heavily tested by time.

Mike "Woody" Bieron had some wet black powder problems and could get his rifle to spark, but not fire. Dave Schulz, who's competed in the event since 1982, had one of his trusted skis - a pair of vintage U.S. Army-issued skis made for the 10th Mountain Division - break down on his final lap and had to hop through the finish line.

Dan Williams had a pair of custom-made antique wooden skis and managed to clock the fastest lap times as well as hit eight of nine homemade salt dough targets.

To the Steamboat native's credit, he admitted to a slight advantage - Williams skied on the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team from 1987 to 1994.

"I used to come out and do it in my race gear," Williams said. "This is the first time I old-schooled it out - got the coyote fur whipped into a hat and a linen work shirt."

A gust of wind knocked over some of the targets halfway through the race, but no one contested any of the times.

"It's not really a hard-core competition," Yonekawa said. "It's a fun gathering. You're learning about skills, and the reality is that much of this is done because of the individuals who want to have a good time."

Yonekawa also pointed out the competition's ability to draw a diverse crowd.

"There's so many very talented individuals with self-sufficient personalities that can work well with small materials where you can learn about how cultures can deal with so little."

Bob Brassell felt the reenactment component was the best way to acknowledge the area's roots.

"Beaver trapping opened up this area," Brassell said. "It's an important part of our history and our country."

For Gilbert, this shared interest in history translates to the basic need for physical actions that embrace the skills of the past: "Maybe it's just looking to a simpler time."

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