With Pilot’s Monument and Bristol Pit in stiff competition for the best vertical in town, Yellowknife’s not really the place to kick off a successful snowboarding career. But with a bit of creativity, lots of shovels and a few trips to the dump, there’s nothing stopping an eager local rider like Andrew Matthews from developing some serious snowboarding chops.
“I can remember, growing up the snow was so dry you’d have to fill up buckets of water to dump onto your jumps so it would hold that moisture in to be able to shape your jumps. It would be literally having a train of people from the sink to the jump and back,” says Andrew, 26. “We’d go to the Yellowknife dump and pick up fridges and set them up in Latham Island Park or in our backyard and session those all day. That was fun for us growing up.”
Andrew, Yellowknife’s “professionally amateur” snowboarder, started riding on a family trip to Quebec when he was eight. By the time he was 15 he was competing in the Arctic Winter Games, and by 16 he’d made it to the nationals after taking a month off school to train with a club down in Calgary. After high school, he worked three jobs to save up money, then moved to Whistler for the winter to pursue snowboarding full time.
His big break came around 2009, when he came second place in a major Whistler competition called the Showcase Showdown. Snowboard gear companies like Westbeach and Spy took notice and signed him, though they were only providing gear and exposure rather than financial support.
“It’s kind of cool, but not what you need to keep your career going. The way I describe it, I’m a professionally amateur snowboarder, because I’m not making money at snowboarding at all. It’s basically all going towards the costs and the travel expenses and stuff like that. People throw around the term “pro” a lot, but it’s kind of a dying breed because the industry is really hurting.”
Pro or not, Andrew seems to be living every X Games-obsessed kid’s dream. For the past six years, he’s been travelling the world, hitting mountains in New Zealand in the summer, training camps in Austria in the fall and living in Whistler and riding the World Cup circuit in Canada and the States all winter. Last December even found him competing in a Big Air World Cup in the centre of Istanbul, where a giant scaffolding jump had been constructed in a soccer stadium. Currently he’s ranked 14th in Canada for Big Air and he’s been in the country’s top 20 in Slope Style for the past five years or so.
Growing up, it may have been a bit tough cutting his snowboarding teeth in Yellowknife. But ultimately, being from a small, supportive city helped him in the long-term.
“It becomes a money game, if you don’t have the funding you can’t go to the contests and you can’t get the points to get to the next step. The community rallied around behind me and I got a lot of corporate sponsors and the high performance athlete grant from Sport North and MACA. I was probably able to get more funding and more support than a local kid from Quebec could get.”
When not travelling to the Southern hemisphere for summer riding, Andrew still spends his summers in Yellowknife, running a kid’s mountain biking camp that he and buddy started ten years ago while still in high school. This year he also stretched his entrepreneurial muscles, starting a morel mushroom business to take advantage of the morel boom.
“Whistler’s kind of a hard place to make money, and money’s always an issue with snowboarding. So I always came back. And it’s nice to keep my roots here.”
What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?
I have a lot of good memories of camping growing up. We always used to go the East Arm in a boat. We’d go out as family for a whole week, and there’d be a convoy of different families, every family on one boat, and we’d end up on some island and be in the middle of nowhere for a week. That was pretty cool. I don’t think you really get that too many other places. In the winter time, growing up, I remember just going outside playing and sliding and stuff. I was a little hyperactive, I had a lot of energy and I played a lot of sports growing up. But I don’t really know why I tended towards the extreme sports in the end.
What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
I think Yellowknife is really unique, like the North in general, and the people are amazing. It’s such a tight-knit community, you go to the grocery store and run into friends and old teachers, and everybody rallies behind people – I don’t know if that would be the same in a big city. I’ve been pretty lucky with the mushroom business, getting to show some friends what it’s all about up here. I had some friends come up from the south, and we came into town for the Solstice Party. Now they’re all pretty jazzed about Yellowknife.
What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?
I’d say the cold, I can’t deal with cold too well, I’m too skinny!
How do you spend your summers?
This summer was different because I was just in the bush for the last two months. We started in Kakisa for a week, but things weren’t really happening there so we moved 45 minutes from Fort Prov, in between Fort Prov and Rae. We were there for a solid month and then at the end we did another move closer to Rae. Then it was right into bike camp, they even overlapped for a couple weeks. I’ll be doing that until mid August.
In general I do a lot of dryland training, cardio and weightlifting. Once we get closer to the season I do a lot of trampoline stuff. Sometimes with the board, sometimes not. Sometimes you just want to get the aerial awareness doing flips. It’s all about being able to spot your landing when you’re in the air. Because, with double corks for instance – that’s two flips and two spins at the same time – you have to be able to spot your landing, to be able to know where you are halfway through the trick and again when you’re finishing the trick so you can bring it to your feet safely. It’s super important to do that on a trampoline before you take that to snow, for obvious reasons.
How do you spend your winters?
Every winter has its own aspects, so I’d have to go with last winter as an example. A big thing with snowboarding is trying to maximize your days on snow, so we’ve organized these camps in Austria in the early season, in this town called Telfes. They usually start in October and I’m a big part of organizing them. There’s not much happening in North America, so that basically gives us an extra month getting ready for the season.
After that we usually go to Colorado in December. That’s because the snowboard parks in Colorado kick off and get really good even before Whistler does. At this level, wherever the best snowboard park is, you just have to go there. A lot of it is about which mountains are open and which mountains are willing to invest in their snowboard parks, because not a lot of them do to the extent we need them to. We need the cats to be in there grooming every day and the park crews maintaining the jumps, all the stuff.
From Colorado I flew straight to Turkey for three days for that contest, and then back in Whistler in January. Most of the winter homebase is in Whistler. I’m in an athlete townhome there, and that’s pretty nice, I get a discount on rent for being an athlete. From there you just start to follow the contests. This year I got invited to the World Cup in Quebec, so I went there in the end of January, and from there it’s mostly Canadian contests. The competitive season usually ends mid-April, but you can get in some good spring riding for a month after that.
What kind of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?
I think Yellowknife has a lot of opportunity for jobs, and crazy opportunity for work experience and things like that. Starting this new business for me has been huge personally. And there’s good programs with ITI and BDIC, to encourage entrepreneurs to start new businesses.
There’s also great opportunities for athletes. To get into nationals the first year, I was really into snowboarding, that was pretty cool. My friends in Alberta, they’d be working their whole seasons to build up the points to get in, and I’m like ‘Hey I’m from the NWT, I just get a spot.’ So the exposure you can get being an athlete up here is pretty amazing. The catch is that it’s tough to be able to compete against the rest of Canada. You don’t have the same facilities, especially in snowboarding. Still, I’ve really noticed in the last five years that sport has really taken off up here, and we’re doing better within Canada. It’s really cool to see all these young athletes really pushing it and doing well.
Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?
Definitely somewhere in my heart I’m a lifer. Whether that will entail me being here all the time or just coming back to visit from time to time, time will tell.