Twenty-four skydivers packed themselves like sardines into a Twin Otter airplane Thursday afternoon. As the aircraft climbed rapidly above Marion, they made the final adjustments to their gear, examining gauges, buckling helmets and preparing mentally for the imminent rush of free fall.
Among them was 75-year-old Dick Rapacilo, of Kalispell, who was seated close to the exit door in a light blue jumpsuit. The veteran skydiver, with nearly 6,600 jumps to his name, was ready to go.
“It’s really [expletive] exciting, even at this point, after 53 years,” Rapacilo said. “The plane’s doing 80 knots, the wind comes in, you put your goggles down — it’s showtime.”
Once the Otter reached 17,000 feet, the jumpers peeled the door back, opening the main bay to the smokey expanse below. In small groups, they gripped the bar above the door, some counting out loud while others bounced up and down, once, twice and on three, out they went. After all 24 skydivers had disembarked, pilot Steve Hill made a rapid descent of his own, turning the aircraft sharply to the left, dropping 10,000 feet in less than two minutes.
As the plane skidded down the runway, the skydivers made their own landings in the grassy drop zone roughly 50 yards away. Rapacilo headed toward the conglomeration of tents and RVs with his chute in hand and a smile on his face. Skydiving may be hard on the knees, but it was good for the soul as far as he was concerned.
“It’s still probably the most exciting thing you can do. I’ve done a lot of other sports — nothing compares to this. I’ve had a lot of injuries, but it’s been worth it. I’ve lost a lot of friends, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “Usually by the time the boogie’s over, I’m licking my wounds, trying to explain to my wife while I still do it.”
The boogie in question was the 50th annual Lost Prairie Boogie — a nine-day summer camp for skydivers which draws hundreds of jumpers from around the country, and the world. From Aug. 5-13, skydivers descended on the 100-acre field at Meadow Peak Skydiving. Some came in tents, others in flashy RVs. Despite their different backgrounds, they all shared one common passion: jumping out of airplanes.
“We’ve got people that are actually in their 80s that are still jumping, all the way down to 18,” organizer Wayne Cross said. “And we’ve got millionaires that have million dollar motorhomes right over here and kids in Walmart $17 tents camped right next to them and they’re going on skydives together — nobody cares.”
The boogie was founded by members of the Osprey Sport Parachute Club in 1967, which operated out of Kalispell City Airport, before purchasing the property in Marion. For roughly four decades, skydiver Fred Sand organized the boogie, until current organizer Wayne Cross purchased the 100-acre parcel in 2010. Over the years, Wayne constructed the necessary infrastructure, including a mainstay building, where jumps are organized, a packing and organization hangar where chutes are readied and a shower house. Planes operate on Carson Airfield, so named for skydiver Joan Crawford who was killed in a skydiving accident in 1981.
“As of last night we had over 597 people on site and we’re expecting well over 700 by the end of the week,” Cross said Thursday.
The Lost Prairie Boogie is one of the largest events of its kind in the West and draws skydivers from as far off as Uruguay and Australia. The boogie hosted various training camps throughout the week on subjects ranging from canopy, or parachute flying and different techniques for maneuvering during free fall.
The only competition at the event was the speed star round where 10 skydivers, plus a cameraman, jumped out of a plane with the objective of assembling themselves in a circular formation as quickly as possible.
“Each member on the (winning) team gets their $2.19 pewter necklace that’s covered in fake gold paint,” Cross said with a laugh. “But it’s mostly bragging rights.”
After a long day of skydiving, the grounds are closed to the public at 8 p.m. and skydivers have a chance to recount their days and let loose.
“The rules are kind of lax — this place has a reputation,” said longtime boogie attendee Sandy Reid. “What happens at the Prairie stays at the Prairie. There’s some pretty interesting stuff that’s happened over the years.”
In the early years of the boogie, the event transpired on the opposite side of the runway from where it takes place today in an area which also included a bar known by some as the Lost Prairie Lounge, and by others simply as the Bar.
“It’s kind of rustic and it’s closed now; there were some of the most hellacious parties I’ve ever seen,” Reid said. “I don’t think anybody ever died — that I know of.”
“They had a naked wedding in their one night,” Rapacilo added. “It used to be really wild.”
Although the nightlife is certainly a part of the boogie experience, Reid said attendees come for the camaraderie.
“I first came here in 1995. I just threw my parachute, my sleeping bag and a tent and came up here and I got a terminal case of Prairie fever,” he said. “You go anywhere in the world and meet other skydivers and they’re welcomed like they’re long lost family... People don’t do it for a death wish — that’s always been bullshit. They do it because they want the experience and they continue doing it because of the excitement and adrenaline that goes with it ”