Small Hill, Big Shredding

South County snowboard stars, The Yawgoons, make the most out of RI's modest slopes

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In the annals of winter sports lore there have been some decidedly odd ducks scattered among the Nordic gods of the slopes: the nervous catapultings of British ski jumper/human cannonball Eddie the Eagle, the iceless Jamaican bobsled team, and even the slow-motion halfpipe meanderings of Hungarian freestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyong-Chang come to mind.

And then there’s Rhode Island’s own Yawgoons, the unlikely group of Rhode Island snowboarding superstars, who honed their skills at Exeter’s Yawgoo Valley ski area – all 310 vertical feet of it.

What sets the Yawgoons apart from some of these other powder hounds is ability. Despite the funny name, the Yawgoons are no joke. In fact, they’ve won international acclaim for their innovative tricks and techniques – captured and shared on video, of course – that incorporate every possible feature on Yawgoo’s modest set of ski runs.

Big mountain shredders, you can keep your halfpipes and funboxes: for the Yawgoons, the excitement comes from playing on the ski area’s buildings, idle snowcats, ice blocks, rocks, and even grass (there’s usually plenty of that at a resort that gets an average of less than three feet of natural snow each winter). Rather than focusing on big air, the troupe is known for their slope-carving skills and quirky approach to constructing terrain park features, like a rail made from a boat anchor chain. (They may or may not have also done some tricks off snowmaking equipment and jumped out of an occasional chairlift in their day.)

Like many a Rhode Islander, the “‘Goons” – Gouin, Dylan Gamache, Marcus Rand, Mary Rand, and Brian Skorupski – all learned to snowboard at Yawgoo. Gouin credits the ski area’s owners – Max and Patty DeWardener and Tracy and Clay Hartman – for giving the group the latitude to hone their unorthodox brand of boarding.

“They’re the reason we even exist,” says Gouin, who serves as the Yawgoons’ videographer when he’s not peering into mouths at work as a dentist in Charlestown. “They let us do things that would never be allowed at another ski area.”

The Exeter ski hill is small but mighty, says Gouin. “Yawgoo is probably the best feeder mountain in the country,” he says. “People don’t realize how easy it is to get to, how easy it is to learn there and to practice things like riding the chairlift. It’s got great snow conditions and grooming, and you can go somewhere that’s five minutes away and do things that some people drive two hours for.”

Yawgoo Valley is the perfect match for the Yawgoons, who see themselves as ambassadors for the Rhode Island ski community as well as the accessible aspects of snowboarding, which sometimes get lost in the technical aspects of a sport where big air and ever-increasing rotations get most of the attention.

“To me, they’ve pushed snowboarding in a very important direction, showing again that you do not need the biggest mountain, park, or even film budget in order to stand out,” said Swiss Olympic snowboarder Christian Haller.

“We don’t take it too seriously,” says Gouin. “We know it’s snowboarding – we’re not changing the world. We just want to get people to come out and have fun.”

As it turns out, Yawgoo Valley is more thanbig enough for some old-school creativity on the slopes: in fact, the Yawgoons often just play off the rope-tow served bunny hill instead of taking the chairlift to the stunted summit. Gouin says that even if your local ski area won’t let you build your own obstacles, there are ample opportunities to mimic ‘Goon tricks using natural features like fallen logs and the snow “whales” that pile up near the base of snowmaking guns.

“It’s a different aspect of snowboarding en- tirely,” says Gouin, “We’re not jumping out of helicopters into the backcountry. We represent a style of snowboarding that’s more attainable for people. We’re riding at this dinky hill, but look at what you can do with this.”

Each snowboarder has their own unique skill set. For example, Gamache, who was featured on the cover of Snowboarder magazine, is an artist at carving turns – “kind of a lost art in snowboarding,” says Gouin – and Mary has moved on to a successful career as a professional snowboarder. The core members mostly remain after nearly a decade of Yawgooning, and still carve the slopes at Yawgoo and share their exploits on sponsored trips as far away as Austria and Switzerland. The passion remains despite the ‘Goons transition into se- rious adulthood with “real” jobs, houses, and families: Marcus, for example, works as a stonemason; Skorupski is a lifeguard, and Gamache is a landscaper and aspiring firefighter. Nobody is getting rich being a ‘Goon, but the group has earned some cash and gear with sponsorships from Capita Snowboards, the Rhode Island-based Civil Clothing shop, and the Vans shoe company. Sales of Yawgoons-branded gear help pay for lift tickets, and the group has been invited on sponsored trips abroad.

Rhode Island is a “big fish in a small pond” kind of place, and the Yawgoons draw a crowd when they’re hitting their home slope. “We’re definitely well-known at Yawgoo,” said Gouin. “We hang out and ride with and are among all the young riders.” Even in Austria, the Yawgoons earned some shoutouts. “That really happens all over within the snowboarding community,” Gouin say

The Yawgoons plan to release their twentieth video in early 2019, when Gouin and company will celebrate 10 years of redefining what constitutes fun in the world of snowboarding. Rhode Island and Yawgoo Valley may be a strange place to find snowboarding pioneers, but the Yawgoons say there’s nowhere else they’d rather be on a winter night than riding the Yawgoo tow rope and coming up with new ways to cut, carve, hit, and grind the state’s modest slopes.

“You make the most of what you’ve got,” says Gouin.