Penned by riders, creators, industry leaders, and more, Elevating Voices is a series of opinion pieces written by Black snowboarders for whom riding has shaped their lives; an opportunity for the greater snowboarding community to listen to individuals speak about their experiences with race, racism, accessibility, and inclusion within our sport. In an effort to enhance the dialogue of equality and inclusion in snowboarding, SNOWBOARDER Magazine is committed to providing a platform for BIPOC to share their point of view as riders.
For the past ten years, Gus has worked at Loon Mountain, most recently in marketing running the events program. He is an accomplished photographer and has shot both editorial and commercial images within snowboarding and beyond. This fall, Gus’ newest endeavor, Look at This Art Gallery opens in Lincoln, NH. Look at This Art is a place to showcase and share art and photography with the community in the Northeast, a space for events and gatherings, and a way for Gus to further share his creativity and passion for the mountains with those around him.
By Gus Noffke
How are you supposed to interpret the world around you when some of your earliest memories are of racism? I was 4 years old when some neighbor kids pinned me down in my driveway and tried to slit my wrists with sticks because of the color of my skin.
How do you learn anything at school when your peers openly hurl racial epithets at you in the classrooms and hallways? I was in ﬁfth grade the ﬁrst time I was called a n—–. In junior high, I ended up with nicknames like “Half ‘n Half” and “Oreo.” My head was smashed into my locker. Hate from my peers only intensiﬁed as I got older. I have been jumped and choked. In high school, I was told that “I needed to watch my back or I would be hanging from the ﬂagpole in front of school.” And through most of it, I was instructed by the adults in my life to ignore it all and not cause trouble.
Who are you supposed to turn to when no one else sees what you are going through? Growing up in rural Wisconsin, offhand re-marks from strangers in innocuous settings continued to remind me of the color of my skin. At the skatepark, a safe haven for many other kids to escape the stressors of every-day life, I stood out as a threat and would be interrogated by the police, even grabbed and slammed against a cop car, just for existing. A lot of things happened in a very short period of time. Some of it I have tried not to remember. Some of it my mind will not let me remember. Some of it I will never forget as long as I live.
I really wish that I could say that being Black has not been difficult and I haven’t experienced racism. I don’t know how to explain what it is like to sift through all of my experiences as a multiracial American and put a select few on paper in a way that makes sense to anyone, especially when most of it hardly makes sense to me. What I do know is that I am one of the lucky ones. I survived these experiences, and snowboarding has been a big part of how i got to where I am today.
I was born to a 19-year-old white mother in Appleton, Wisconsin on the ﬁrst day of spring in 1986 after a fling with my Black father during the previous summer in Wyoming. I cannot imagine what it was like for my mom as a single mother with an interracial child in an area that is not all that racially cool, less than twenty years after the Loving Act. No one could understand that I was biologically her child. Everyone assumed I was adopted from some place that she had traveled to on vacation or read about in National Geographic. When I was very young, my father returned to the Caribbean and then moved to Vermont, so his Caribbean culture has never been a part of my life.
My mom married my stepdad—who has been my dad ever since—when I was 3-and-a-half. I have three younger brothers who are white. We moved to Wisconsin Rapids—a town of only 18,000 and an area that I have come to refer to as the Deep South of the North—in 1994. Within my family, my skin color was never a thing. At one point my younger brother asked when he was going to turn brown. Within the next couple years, we bought a house, got a dog, and I was called a n—– for the ﬁrst time that I can remember. Living in Rapids, it was brought to my attention pretty quickly that I was different. I am not sure if other kids experienced being chased by lifted trucks (sometimes complete with Confederate ﬂag) or getting stopped by police while riding their bikes, but it happened to me enough that it seemed like it was normal. I have always been a minority, but during this time, I started to see just how outnumbered I was.
From the time I was 5 and realized I could jump my bike off a curb, all I wanted was to go bigger, faster, and higher. From the ﬁrst time I saw snowboarding (I think it was Tom Sims in A View to a Kill), I wanted to do it. I was given the opportunity to try snowboarding on youth group excursions when I was 13 and 14, but that was the extent of my winter sports experiences. My family didn’t have access to that kind of winter activity. For my fourteenth birthday, I wanted a snowboard, but it was too expensive. I ended up picking out rollerblades because I had met a group of kids who rollerbladed and never made me feel lesser because of the color of my skin. Through all of the hardest times in my life, rollerblading was my only consistent source of relief. It was my escape. Somehow, skating big handrails was less scary than walking down the street of my hometown.
But I still wanted to snowboard—it just always felt slightly out of reach. I remember going to see the movie Out Cold in the theater and walking out thinking about how amazing the snowboarding scene looked in the movie, but also that it was a Hollywood representation and I did not have access to what it portrayed. On a trip to Minneapolis around 2002, my friends and I ran into a snowboard ﬁlm crew at a spot (pretty sure it was Mack Dawg) and I ended up with a bootleg copy of True Life shortly thereafter. That changed everything. I knew what I really wanted to do.
When I graduated from high school, I could not wait to get out of the hellhole I had called home for the last ten years. Through an unexpected opportunity, I ended up in Southern Vermont, working as an innkeeper and with a season pass to Okemo. This allowed me to try to form an actual relationship with my father and spend some time with my sisters. It was there that I also ﬁnally got to really snowboard. During that time, I picked up a disposable camera to shoot some photos of the foliage and fell in love with photography. I ended up buying a DSLR and snowboarding and photography became my main focuses. In, 2007 I went to school for photography. In 2008, my friend TJ James got our little crew in on this multi-mountain, multimedia scavenger hunt called Sofa King New England. I ended up getting second place for my photography. The second year of the contest, I won the photography portion. The awards ceremony was the night before Last Call 10 at Loon Mountain. I stuck around and was completely blown away by the event and the community of people at the mountain. I knew this was where I needed to be.
Two weeks later I was living in Lincoln, New Hampshire. That winter I started working at Loon as the snow reporter. It was a dream getting paid to snowboard and shoot photos of snowboarding. I am pretty sure riding with Tyler Davis was the ﬁrst time I ever snowboarded with a person of color that I wasn’t related to. Loon became this land of opportunity. Over the years, I have been able to shoot regularly with incredibly talented riders like Mike Rav, Johnny O’Connor, Mary Rand, Brendon Rego, Parker Szumowski, Jed Sky, and River Richer. I now had actual press access to events like the US Open. I started getting images on the SNOWBOARDER website and in the magazine. I began splitboarding and exploring the New England backcountry.
Flash forward ten years and I am still in Lincoln. For the past four years, I have worked as the events manager at Loon. I have been so fortunate to get to collaborate with so many other people that love snowboarding as much as I do on contests, camps, and programs that bring people together in the mountains. This fall, I am opening up a gallery space in Lincoln to serve the local area through art and events. The community in New Hampshire is a crucial component to my current situation. I have been able to carve out a life for myself that I am not sure I would have been able to do in other places.
I am one of the lucky ones. These pages of ramblings are the equivalent of snowﬂakes on the tip of the iceberg. Racism has impacted every aspect of my life: dating, education, employment, friendships. I could tell you stories you wouldn’t believe happened in today’s society. Either one of my experiences with police and their ﬁrearms could have easily added another to the number of faceless unarmed Black men killed by police. Any one of the times that I was jumped or beaten up could have become fatal. All of these things could have gotten to me and I could have ended my own life. I managed to get out of my hometown without a criminal record that limited my future options. I have made a life for myself that has exceeded not only my wildest expectations, but has allowed me to see things greater than anything I could have ever dreamt.
Snowboarding is an amazing thing that has always been inclusively exclusive. Apart from being known as “Token” when I first moved to New Hampshire, snowboarding has never made me feel different, even though it is incredibly white. There is still the nod of acknowledgement that is usually shared by Black shredders; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how thankful they were to see another colored face around the mountain and ask me questions because they felt so out of place, not only in a new sport, but in an environment where no one looks like them. I have spent nearly 2,000 days on snow in the last ﬁfteen years and have probably ridden with another Black snowboarder less than ﬁfty times. Two of those days were spent on a Neff trip in Park City riding with Stevie Bell, which felt like winning the lottery on so many levels.
Race is not necessarily the problem in snowboarding, but it also begs me to question a few things. Why does it seem that there is only one pro Black rider in the mainstream at any point in time? Why are there so few minorities in high level industry positions? Why is there so little content produced by minorities being put in major outlets? I am sure some of those answers lie in the issues of access, both geographical and ﬁnancial. I never would have imagined that I would get to go to Superpark to shoot photos. The idea of getting paid to go snowboarding never crossed my mind, and it has been my reality for the last decade. But, why shouldn’t have these things seemed like something I could dream of when I was younger?
Privilege doesn’t mean that you have it easier or better than someone, simply that you do not have some of the same disadvantages working against you. For instance, your race may not even cross your mind if you are the lowest paid person in your department, even though you have been there longer than any of your coworkers, but it may if you are a minority and live in the state that is 47th in wage disparity. Privilege is the ability to be a bystander instead of a target. It is the ability to decide whether or not you want to acknowledge these biases and your level of involvement. If you see something, actually step in and do some-thing. Don’t just post about your outrage on social media. The process of making the real changes is going to take generations. Hopefully our grandkids or great grandkids will have a significantly better life than we did.