Liam Baxter, 11, caught some of the biggest air during Sunday's donkey jump at the 101st Winter Carnival. Baxter couldn't stick the landing but pumped his fist to the cheering crowd after his fall.

Photo by Ben Ingersoll

Liam Baxter, 11, caught some of the biggest air during Sunday's donkey jump at the 101st Winter Carnival. Baxter couldn't stick the landing but pumped his fist to the cheering crowd after his fall.

Ben Ingersoll: Welcome to Steamboat

101st Winter Carnival example of town's charming reputation

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— Locals and tourists, ask yourselves something: What was your welcome-to-Steamboat moment?

I thought mine was when I turned to my buddy at Howelsen Hill and said, “Only in Steamboat,” while covering my first Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ski jumping competition in December.

photo

Ben Ingersoll

A few months later, though, it’s plain to me that things like ski jumping and other winter sporting events aren’t exclusive to Steamboat; you can find those in dozens of wintry cities across the United States.

But after the final horse-drawn float passed by me during Sunday’s Diamond Hitch Parade, I realized I just covered something that is truly an only-in-Steamboat type of event.

Yep, the 101st Winter Carnival was definitely my welcome-to-Steamboat moment.

I mean, how many towns across the United States have hundreds of people line its streets to watch 6- to 14-year-olds get dragged on skis behind horses into jumps or through a slalom course?

Moreover, how many of those kids who soar 4 feet into the air and wipe out on that jump pump their fists to those hundreds of spectators whooping and hollering in applause?

My first Winter Carnival experience did something I wasn’t sure was possible.

It helped me define that certain “Steamboat charm” that was explained to me when I asked in a puzzled way back in September what exactly it was that drew people to vacation in — or better yet, move to — this part of the country in mass quantities.

Walking up and down Lincoln Avenue with a camera in tow during Sunday’s festivities helped me realize that Steamboat’s annual Winter Carnival is unlike anything I had witnessed before.

Snow dumped in a heavy, uncharacteristically wet way Sunday, but everyone smiled through the slush. Little boys and girls, some as young as 6 years old — 6! — fell hard behind horses in full gallop, and no tears were shed.

Take 6-year-old Hazel Fernley, for example, who drew cheers from the crowd for stopping short of the finish without even realizing it. Or Liam Baxter, who flew higher and farther than anyone else in the donkey jump — and subsequently fell the hardest. Liam's fist pump after his fall was another crowd favorite.

Perhaps Steamboat’s inescapable Western heritage may only be outdone by its toughness. Heck, my dad couldn’t keep me from kicking and screaming when I was learning to ride a bike at that age, let alone get dragged along packed snow by a horse going 30 miles per hour.

But the best part of all is, most of those youngsters didn’t even fall. Signs all along town at bus stops, on tavern walls and outside Howelsen Hill proudly proclaim that everyone here skis.

And after the 101st Winter Carnival, it’s obvious to me why everyone here also can’t seem to get enough Steamboat — or Ski Town USA.

It’s Steamboat events like the Winter Carnival that remind you why seeing a horse should feel as common as seeing a car, or why tennis shoes can be replaced aptly by cowboy boots. And why dumping a thick layer of snow on the town’s busiest street and hosting a carnival all weekend is cool, not an annoyance.

I was so impressed with the town for putting on such a uniquely fun event, and with the kids who provided hours of entertainment. Hats off to all who made my first taste of this annual tradition such a rousing success.

This Northwest Colorado town is as authentic and charming as you can find, and I’m as hooked as all of you are. After Sunday, I feel more than welcomed to Steamboat.

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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