An extract from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.
The biggest event of the sports calendar in Revelstoke is the Snow-shoe Snowball Contest held on Valentine’s Day since 1872.
This event combines the stamina required to snowshoe 10km over hilly terrain with the accuracy of a marksman. During the snow-shoe, the participants have to knock over 10 bottles of Kootenay Beer with 10 snowballs that they make themselves. The snowballing takes place at two kilometre intervals. After 2km the bottles are 10m away from the thrower and the distance increases by 5m at every throwing station until the bottles at the finale are 30m away. Any bottles of beer that aren’t knocked over by the contestant must instead be drunk. For this reason registered alcoholics aren’t allowed to enter the contest.
This event produces lots of interest and crowd participation. Snow-shoers must not throw snowballs at each other at any time otherwise they are disqualified. Any contestant ‘taking a rest’ face down in the snow for more than a minute is also disqualified.
The event started when fur-trappers hunted in the backwoods and walked miles each day in pursuit of the animals. In the evening they drank lots of alcohol to rehydrate themselves. One night after a few beers Daniel Taylor bet Bill Custer that he could knock a beer bottle out of his hand from a few metres with a snowball. Taylor missed but when the roles were reversed Custer scored a direct hit. Taylor made the excuse that he’d walked further than Custer that day and was tired. Custer suggested that they both walk the same distance on the following day and then try the beer bottle and snowball test again in the evening. The result was the same but a contest was born,
The first competition was run over a circular course of 2K and pandemonium reigned because the throwing lanes weren’t properly delineated so that competitors threw snowballs at the wrong bottles, while some of the judges were drunk and didn’t remember to move the bottles back by the requisite 5 metres for contestants on their second and subsequent laps. In the end the first prize was awarded to Archie Knox as he was the only person who could stand up at the end of the race.
In 1873 the contest was run over a straight 10km course, the judges were hired from the teetotallers association of Canada, and the throwing lanes were properly marked. The emphasis was still on drinking the beer out of the bottles rather than trying to knock them over with snowballs, so by the 6K mark a lot of people were asleep in the snow or had wandered off into the forest in the wrong direction.
The only three contestants left facing in the correct direction arrived at the 8K mark at more or less the same time. Two of them Ralph Rafer and Walter Shepth started throwing their snowballs at the bottles, but the other, Colin Woolfit, thought he would throw snowballs at both Rafer and Shepth instead. He was disqualified immediately but not before one of his snowballs had injured Rafer’s eye. Rafer was taken to the doctor and Shepth snowshoed on to the 10K mark.
However, he was unable to knock over any of the beer bottles from 30 metres away, so he had to drink 10 bottles of beer to win the contest. He fell into an alcoholic stupor after six and so the contest was declared null and void. Woolfit was subsequently banned from the contest for the rest of his life.
The first person to win consecutive contests was Bill Salmon in 1899 and 1900. He was the first competitor to become a true marksman with a snowball practicing assiduously throughout the winters for the big day of the year. This practice paid off when he went to pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers in their inaugural 1902 season. Salmon reasoned that the less he drank the better chance he had of winning the race and this proved correct particularly in 1900 when he knocked over all 50 bottles of beer. Salmon has been credited with inventing the ricochet shot similar to the curveball in baseball where the snowball is thrown at such an angle that it makes contact with two bottles in one throw.