A man leaning on a rail overlooking the Okanogan River points across the stream. “Here they come,” he says.
Four figures plunge over the rim of “Omak’s World Famous Suicide Hill,” rushing headlong in explosions of sand down the steep embankment.
They reach the bottom in seconds and crash into the river with a splash.
The three boys and a girl - all about 7 or 8 - emerge laughing.
“Let’s do it again,” one of the boys says, and up they climb to run down the hill twice more before pedaling away on their bicycles.
The scene, played out Thursday on the opening day of the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, says a lot about life in this town of 4,200 in the dryland mountains of north central Washington, 150 miles from Spokane.
Suicide Hill - where each year men and horses test their mettle during the stampede - isn’t located in the boonies of Okanogan County.
It’s in the heart of a residential neighborhood on Omak’s northeast side. It’s a place where neighborhood kids come for a little summer fun.
And the race - under attack by some who call it cruel to the horses - isn’t some sideshow at a cheap carnival held solely for the purpose of generating money.
The event is an important stitch in the fabric of life here. It’s a piece of a tapestry woven from Western tradition and Native American culture and community pride.
Twenty cowboys, most of them Indians from the nearby Colville reservation, will compete in the last Suicide Race of this year’s stampede today.
When they direct their steeds over the rim of the hill at 4:30 p.m., race down the sandy bank at a 33-degree angle and rush across the river to the finish line, they’ll be fulfilling a rite of passage that has marked the second weekend in August here for the past 60 years.
“This race is everything,” says Ed Timentwa, a Colville who trains horses for the race. “That’s what put Omak on the map.”
“Cactus” Jack Miller, president of the event’s organizing committee, agrees.
He points to the fact that more than 400 volunteers - nearly 10 percent of Omak’s population - came together to put on this year’s Stampede and Suicide Race.
Some of them drove 40 miles one-way to pull weeds around the rodeo arena, says Miller, a thoughtful-looking insurance salesman and former rodeo cowboy.
Further evidence of the race’s influence here is seen on the windows of local businesses.
The merchants decorate them year-round with scenes of the race and phrases like “Got Enuff Courage?”
It’s an important component of Colville culture as well, says Timentwa, grinning beneath his graying mustache.
The event is part of the tribe’s warrior tradition, he says, where the first man into battle is hailed as the most courageous in the tribe.
Many Indians on the nearby Colville reservation spend thousands of dollars and many hours training for the race, he says.
Winning it means honor and glory on the reservation, he adds.
“This has been a tradition with my people for hundreds of years,” says Timentwa, whose horse Seymour won the race four years ago. “When I won it in ‘91, I got calls from people that I didn’t even know congratulating me. The elders, especially.”
A group from Bellevue, Wash., wants the Suicide Race to end. The jolting run down the hill and the swim across the river are dangerous and cruel to the horses, say officials with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society.
Three horses have died in the race the past three years.
The group has unsuccessfully sued the stampede committee and written letters to sponsors asking them to withdraw their support from the race, which it calls “the derby of death.”
Race organizers and participants admit that the race is dangerous for both horse and rider but say the horses are treated well.
“They’re like family,” Timentwa says. “If they get hurt, you get hurt, emotionally, you know?”
And this race isn’t just about horses, many of which are retired thoroughbreds headed to dogfood manufacturers.
It’s about a way of life and the identity of a town.
Asking Omak to give up the Suicide Race would be like asking Spokane to abandon the Lilac Festival and Bloomsday.
“This allows us to show something of our unique lifestyle and culture,” Miller says.
Homer Carter, a burly 75-year-old cattleman who helps organize the stampede and race, spits out a stream of tobacco juice as he thinks about the race’s significance to those who live in and around Omak.
“It’s Western,” Carter says. “It’s a big part of who we are.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo