For the 27th year running, a band of intrepid snowmobilers will ride their way across Montana to raise funds and awareness for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana. The Trans-Montana Charity Ride will take 28 adventurers to six different locales where they'll hit the snow before loading up and caravaning to the next destination.
The event, organized by the Montana Snowmobile Association, brought in $10,500 for NAMI last year. Event chairman Ron Albee said the group selected NAMI as the beneficiary for their charity ride because of the organization's local influence and relevant mission.
“The money from NAMI stays in Montana,” Albee said. “The last couple years it's been going to suicide awareness and prevention, it's geared toward the incoming class of freshman in high school and also helped with veterans with PTSD.”
NAMI Montana is the state chapter of a national grassroots organization for people affected by mental illness. Montana is consistently among the top five states with the highest suicide rate in the nation due to a combination of factors including isolation, alcohol consumption and depression.
NAMI Montana works to reduce these troubling numbers through community education, advocacy for individuals with mental illnesses and by promoting community mental health services.
Albee said 100 percent of the funds raised though the Trans Montana Ride go directly to NAMI Montana. Each rider is required to raise or contribute a minimum of $350, and with 28 riders, they're on track to bring in at least $9,800 this year. They also host an auction at a celebratory banquet held Jan. 20 in Helena to raise additional funds.
But the ride is about more than helping out a good cause — it's also an excuse for avid snowmobilers across the state and region to explore new territory, make friends and have a true Big Sky Country adventure. Many riders are local, but some come from states such as California, Colorado and Nevada, and range in age from their 20s and 30s up to 76.
Mark Smolen, of Bigfork, said he participated in last year's ride and “had such a good time and made so many friends and pretty much had to come back.”
He also noted that riding in the wintertime allows he and the other participants to see terrain they wouldn't be able see in the summer months.
Their six-day journey began Thursday in Columbia Falls at the Cedar Creek Lodge. From there, the group divided into three smaller enclaves and took off for Werner Peak and backcountry terrain in the area for a day's ride.
Smolen said he's looking forward to exploring Helena by snowmobile and returning to Wise River, which was a highlight of the trip in 2017.
“They get some just pristine snow and have really wonderful play areas — big meadows in the middle of a forest and you can rip around in there and have a ball,” Smolen said.
To explore new terrain, the snowmobile association enlists the help of regional groups and guides to tour the riders safely around the different stops along their journey. Albee said they typically start at 9 a.m. and are off the trails by 4 p.m. ready to load up and drive to their next destination.
“It's always nice to go to a different area and experience their mountains… It's just the pure joy of it.
I compare it to motorcycling in the summertime — you just have to dress warmer,” Albee said. “I like that sudden rush, the adrenaline when you hit throttle real hard … and climbing in the mountains, getting off the trail and going through the trees.”
Over the course of the Trans Montana Ride, snowmobilers will stop in Columbia Falls, Lincoln, Helena, Wise River, Ennis and West Yellowstone, where the adventure comes to an end.
“We have some guys that are truly die-hard snowmobilers and they're always looking for a different area to ride to,” Albee said. “The main thing is to raise money for the charity, but as a secondary thing, is to get to see six different areas that most people don't see.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or email@example.com.