‘It’s what separates us from any other ski town’
Ranchers reflect on years of pulling skiers at the Winter Carnival Street Events and the disappointment of missing it in 2021.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Doug Wheeler has been pulling kids down Lincoln Avenue at Winter Carnival for 52 years. He says he can trace his family doing it all the way back to 1933.
“Never missed a year since,” Wheeler said. “It’s a big family tradition, and this town was built on the Western heritage.”
The Street Events are always one of, if not the, most popular attraction of Winter Carnival. But it is also a connection to the roots that helped build this town that some ranchers who pull at the Street Events say is being lost over time.
The privilege to pull young skiers on Lincoln Avenue is something these ranchers cherish and not being able to do it this year is hard for them. The Street Events will be back next year if they have anything to say about it.
What these events are exactly is hard to explain to someone who has never witnessed them. Lincoln Avenue is covered with snow, people line the streets to watch and young skiers are towed down the street by horses, sometimes off a jump.
“This is what separates us from any other ski town,” said Shane Yeager, who started pulling in 1978. “When we started, somebody had to die for us to get a chance to pull on the street.”
While other towns may do skijoring, it is not the same thing to Wheeler, because Winter Carnival has become all about the children. Yeager said he was just 8 years old when he took his uncle’s place and started pulling.
“It was when I decided that I couldn’t ski no more, and it was time to start pulling kids because I could ride a horse better than I could ski,” Yeager said.
Bobby Yeager was the skier, Shane said. When they were in high school, they got paid to win at the Winter Carnival. In those days, they would practice pulling skiers, and the horse rider’s responsibility was more about speed and less about safety.
“It’s changed from something that was very competitive to now, it is a tradition, and our job is to protect the kids and make it family safe,” Shane Yeager said.
Bobby Yeager started pulling a few years ago.
“It’s kids of families that you know, and some kids you have no idea who they are,” Bobby said. “There are kids that come from the Front Range; there are kids that come from all over the place.”
Wheeler said he gets a lot of enjoyment out of pulling skiers who are often competing for which rider will tow them.
“It’s a cherished moment when you are sitting up there on your horse, and there are 30 kids lined up down there on skis, and they are like ‘I want you to pull me,’” Wheeler said.
With how many locals have gone on to be renowned skiers, Shane said he has probably pulled a few famous ones.
“I wonder how many Olympians I’ve pulled down the street,” Shane said. “We have all been around long enough that we are pulling the kids of kids we’ve pulled.”
Pulling people down the street is an exclusive club. In addition to the Yeagers and Wheeler, the Wilhelm family is the only other ones that do it. It isn’t because others don’t want to, but instead, because they feel they know how to do it safely.
And they say they have become somewhat famous, too. Wheeler said he met someone in New York City that recognized him from a picture of him pulling people in a photo in a restaurant. For Shane, a friend saw a picture of him on a calendar in Germany.
But there won’t be any pictures of them on their horses in downtown Steamboat this year. The large crowds the event draws make holding the Street Events problematic in a pandemic and the ranchers were told it was not going to happen.
Bobby said, as Steamboat has progressed, little pieces of its Western heritage have disappeared, leaving the Street Events one of the few that remain.
“Steamboat was full of Western heritage long before it was full of a ski hill,” Bobby said.
The Street Events are about more than just having fun on a winter day. To them, it is about maintaining a connection to generations of their family. Wheeler said the last year his uncle rode, when he was in his late 80s, it took two people to get him on the horse.
“He made a trip down the street just so he could say he rode,” Wheeler said. “That is how serious it is for us.”
“We don’t want any reimbursement, we don’t want any recognition, we don’t want anything — this is our town; this is us,” Shane said. “We just want to be able to go out and do it.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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