Words: Ben Gavelda
The night is ablaze with a warm and weary orange light. Six-story tall trees crackle and explode in flame along the rolling mountainsides of Washington's Columbia River Gorge. Forests of spruce, pine, Douglas fir and Red Cedar are consumed by a tornado of fire. In the hazy, carrot glow of night, Johnny Brady pulls breaths of smoke-riddled air. His Pulaski axe picks away at dry, duffy soil to cut the fire line. Like a chain gang let loose in the hills, Johnny and his fellow hotshots sweat and toil the earth along the perimeter of the wildfire.
A few hours west in a lush and verdant drainage deep in Washington's Cascade Mountains, Kael Martin and a slew of scientific gear sit atop a remote stream in a small raft. Kael's paddle cuts through the water's surface then plunges below, propelling the watercraft gently upstream with each stroke. Inside the boat sits thousands of dollars in equipment to monitor environmental transformations. It's a stark balance of the modern and natural worlds delicately afloat.
Far off in the mountains of Western Montana, the hellacious swipe of a Stihl MS461's chain spits the innards of a 40-foot pine tree into a fresh pulp. Under the sweltering and soot-filled sky, Kyle Miller's hands hold the 70cc beast of a chainsaw steady with his right index finger on the throttle. Calculated cuts around the trunk ensure a proper fell as Kyle and his crew of sawyers work in unison, dropping trees to slow the spread of the oncoming forest fire.
Meet Johnny Brady, Kael Martin, and Kyle Miller--a talented trio of sponsored riders that walk the line of career and snowboarding as separate entities. The scenes depicted offer a glimpse at their off-season labor. Each has carved a profession that allows ample time off in the cold months, with just enough funds to make living their winter dream a reality. Each year, they trade days in the field or in a forest engulfed in flames for future ones filled with lift laps, splitboard tours, and snowmobile exploration.
Kael grew up riding with Lucas Debari at Mt. Baker. That big, wet, nasty mountain on the Canadian border and its skilled locals sculpted him into a powerful Pacific Northwest rider. You may have seen him in the Go Boardin! film project or on the periphery of Patagonia ventures. He's had shots in magazines, even landed a cover. Johnny grew up in Reno, riding the plethora of resorts around Tahoe. He's competent in the street and park and has been delving further into the backcountry and big mountains as of late. Johnny's chased snowboarding hard, working at Mt. Hood as a digger, dirtbagging it. You've likely seen him in Keep The Change edits or those produced by Bonfire Outerwear or K2--rosters he's part of as a Global Pro and International Am, respectively. Kyle Miller grew up in Montana and did a long stint in Tahoe. Like the others, he has a number of sponsors and sits on the cusp of professional riding. "Kyle is one of those guys that's always been good at everything, just so talented," says videographer and Montana native Leland McNamara who's watched Kyle grow. Kyle was close with Aaron Robinson; the two rode together a lot. He's has become somewhat of an expert on snowmobile-accessed backcountry in Montana over the years.
Could any of these three be fulltime pros? Possibly. They're passionate, talented, connected, and have the drive and commitment to snowboarding to do so. Each has a unique style. They comprehend the marketing, filming, and photography side of things. But it's the fact that none are riding as a career that defines them and their approach and raises the question: work to ride or ride for work?
Months later in Montana, this time on a classic cold and pale winter morning, our caravan of trucks pulls off the highway. Johnny, Kyle, filmer Sam Tuor, and I unload our sleds and pack for a day of filming in the backcountry. Soon we're tearing up a nondescript Forest Service road for miles before funneling into a trenched-out singletrack trail just wide enough to fit our snowmobile skis through. We brush trees and scratch along the snowy sides of the ditched trail, stopping at switchbacks to heave the machines around 180-degree turns. "I found this spot with some buddies a couple years ago. We put in the trail earlier this year," Miller says. The pinched path continues for miles until finally spitting out into a few small meadows and lakes, in the shadow of multiple massive cliff and pillow-laden faces.
After some work establishing a shuttle route through thick lodgepole pine forest and a snowmobile-swallowing sugar-snow layer, we have access to long runs and a massive mountainside to ourselves. Kyle and Johnny send it off cliffs and pillows, and we ride out the day exploring the snow-crusted and craggy nooks of the area. It's a dream spot for backcountry riding, one many riders and film crews would kill to have in their library. Kyle calls it one of his "retirement zones"--places where he and friends can shred for fun or filming or both for a long time. No pressure, no professional obligations, "just ripping sled pow laps with the boys," as he says. Even in the heat of summer on a fire, Kyle has a keen eye for potential snowboard zones. Time spent roaming the mountains during firefighting and some serious Google Earth exploration has led him to discover places like this. Perhaps it's his relaxed approach and little professional snowboarding obligations that led us all here.
Snowboarding is in an age of surplus talent and limited compensation. There are few professional riders making a livable wage. This isn't the '90s, when it was common for the sum of contracts to reach--and even tip past--six figures. The level of riding has progressed exponentially, yet pros' compensation has done the opposite. "A lot of kids are fired up on just getting a little bit of money, and then you have certain guys that are going, 'Why aren't you paying more? I want to go and film in Alaska, I need twenty grand,'" says Jeremy Jones. "It's like, dude, those days are over. I hate to say it. I mean, they aren't over for Mark McMorris, but they are over for everyone else, for the most part." Snowboarding is an expensive escape, and the basic costs of riding, let alone filming or travelling and competing are not going on sale anytime soon. Being 'pro' and having another profession is increasingly common. You can even work in the snowboard industry and hardly ride. And just getting free gear doesn't cut it, even if you eBay that shit. "I find that snowboarding right now, like the pro snowboarder coming up, you got to have a good summer job," says Jeremy Jones, who painted houses, waited tables, cooked, washed dishes and fished to fund riding in his early years. "Gone are the days of being well-funded. I mean you will always have the superstars. But when I grew up, it was really either you made it and had a big name, or you were a groveling dirtbag. I think that is kind of what is going on right now."
Kyle, Johnny and Kael aren't alone. The list of pros with supplementary professions goes on. Ryland Bell runs a commercial fishing operation in Alaska. Jason Robinson does time in the saddle, horse packing for a Montana outfitter. Curtis Ciszek guides fly fishing. Mark Carter puts in long days cattle ranching in Wyoming. Ben Bogart has a DWD pro model board and works at Spedelli's Deli. Sam Taxwood is finishing up five months of building chair lifts in Montana. Ted Borland recently turned pro for Lib Tech but subsidizes his paychecks with landscaping. Even the legendary Bjorn Leines puts in long days wrenching on heavy equipment for his parents' business back in Minnesota, just as he did when he was coming up. Frank Bourgeois has won silver and gold X Games medals the last two years, respectively, and does hard labor most of the year. "I do concrete work for house foundations and commercial buildings," says Frank. "It's pretty rough; I've been doing it since 2009."
The current state of sponsorship is the result of a greater economic transition far bigger than snowboarding. Snowboarding just happens to be a small, luxury industry dominated by the raw effects of technology, progress and capitalism. Companies aren't handing out additional wads of cash to riders for salaries or marketing projects anytime soon. Sure, a big non-endemic corporation might toss in a chunk of change to stir things up for a while, but few have proved to take long-term interest. The divide between full-blown pro and regular guy--where snowboarding's sponsored middle class sits--is narrowing, but the enjoyment we get from snowboarding hasn't changed.
So what are Johnny, Kael, and Kyle's gigs, and how did they make them happen?
Kyle Miller is a squad leader and saw boss for the Helena Hotshots where he manages all chainsaw operations, cutting fire line and felling dead and fire-weakened snags, among other tasks. He's worked wildland fire for twelve years, toughing out the brutal summer season, then taking the winters off to shred. "My dad designs and builds wildland fire trucks and fought fires as well, so he opened the door for me," says Miller. Fighting fire is a career based almost exclusively on experience, and Miller has worked his way up over the years.
Kael is a computational technician for Pacific Geomatic Services, Inc., where he focuses on hydrology. He's been fortunate to mesh riding and work during his studies in civil engineering. "I combined snowboarding and work by splitboarding to our research sites in the winter. I felt like I had found a dream job for sure." Things evolved even further, keeping Kael in touch with water, snow, and mountains year-round. "Later, I found a research position that combined structural engineering and hydrology to analyze snow loading. When I finished undergrad, the project was still going, and I was offered funding to complete the project as a master's student, which I couldn't pass up. I learned a ton about snow, lakes, rivers, and climate science. It combined all of the things I cared about and made work feel like more of an adventure than a job."
Johnny Brady is a forestry technician for the Baker River Hotshots, but his work was snowboard-based before that. "Most of my summers used to be spent on Mt. Hood as a digger," he says. "At the time, the most important thing to me was working at High Cascade and snowboarding. I've wanted to work in wildland fire since I was a teenager, but I was caught up in the pursuit of snowboarding. I have a few old friends who are awesome boarders and have been firefighters for as long as I can remember. Talking to them over the years, I figured that working for the Forest Service could be a good option to have winters to myself and a potential career with meaningful work."
Back in Montana we return to Kyle's stash, day-after-day, picking off pillow and cliff lines and sessioning a jump the crew built up. The sun rarely shines, but the snow stays cold and light. There's legit filming going on, but there are also party laps, and lots of them. "Having snowboarding not be a financial dependency has been the best for me," Kyle claims. "It's all for the love, and I do it because I love it and need it. I love the aspect of filming and finding new zones; that's been my main focus in pursuing snowboarding on a higher level." Our times out here are serious in terms of safety, getting to the spot and finding features, but it's casual, too. We're not working on a groundbreaking documentary of extreme snowboarding. The approach is the opposite of putting one's body, mind, and future in harm's way for meager pay, if that. There's a sense of removal and riding purely to satisfy the soul, not a marketing campaign.
It's riding for riding's sake, and that's different for all of us. "I wouldn't be fighting fires unless I could snowboard in the winter," Johnny adds. "So in that sense it has made me pursue snowboarding more. I'm so lucky to get the support that I do from snowboarding companies, but it's not enough to live off, much less buy a sled, travel all winter, or invest in some kind of future. Since I've buckled down and worked all summer, it's afforded me more opportunities to snowboard how I want and learn more about being in the mountains."
Pushing a passion into a career comes with change. The once hobby, outlet, or escape can become a contract with obligations, agents, and judgment. This is the line that defines snowboarding for work or for play. Although many are reluctant to admit, any professional snowboarder can recall times where responsibilities overtook riding, whether it was waiting for the light to film, pleasing a panel of judges, full days spent searching for spots, or winter weeks lost traveling the contest circuit. Other times it's the mental moments of focus and skepticism: trying not to impale oneself on a rail, flying and twirling as far and as much as possible without winding up concussed, or ending up on the wrong side of a moving snow slab. It's all part of the game. This is professional snowboarding, and it can be a difficult vocation. Pros are afforded opportunities to ride the best mountains, terrain and conditions the planet has to offer. They're paid to explore and progress, to test the limit of what's possible when strapped in. Their actions keep the rest of us humble, inspired, and awestruck. Is there a point where professional commitments and the demands of riding kill one's spark for snowboarding? It's hard to say. But being compensated enough to live a good life for simply piloting a snowboard down a mountain or through the streets is a fascinating occupation.
Professional or not, those true to snowboarding go to great lengths to stay close to the snow. They sleep in the back of a pickup in a parking lot for the promise of a powdery morning. They work late nights serving food and drinks to strangers, pooling that tip money for a pass. They build houses and mow lawns. They spend summers at sea roping in fish. They tame wildfire. They crunch numbers at a desk. They take weekends and a meager two weeks off to ride, if they're lucky. Some sacrifice it all, and for a rare handful, the pro dream may come true. Or not. So does the winter become any sweeter if you've grinded through eight months of labor? Is each run more valuable or each turn truer? Is the powder lighter, faster, softer, or deeper? When one separates work and play, turning one off and the other on, the line becomes clear. Work is a means of survival, a way to get by. Riding is the simple act it's always been, for you and no one else.