Off and On: Fighting Fire and Studying Hydrology to Afford Snowboarding

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.

The midst of a nighttime burnout operation to establish fire containment lines. PHOTO: Kyle Miller

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.

This seems like a good place to daydream about winter. Kael, at work in the offseason.

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.

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