When asked why she decided to give snowboarding a try, 16-year-old Felicity McGraw of Pictou Landing First Nation answered without hesitation: “Mark McMorris.”
In 2016 Canadian Snowboarder Mark McMorris attempted a frontside triple cork 1440 and nearly died.
The trick is complicated. A rider must hit the high ramp at top speed, taking off turning forward off the jump. In the air, the rider then needs to do four-full rotations (1440 degrees of spin) while simultaneously completing three off-axis dips (flips) before sticking the landing.
McMorris did not stick the landing. He suffered a broken femur injury, and was airlifted to hospital. Then, in 2017, while snowboarding in the backcountry of Whistler B.C., McMorris hit a tree and nearly died again.
One year later McMorris took home an Olympic medal.
“In my personal opinion, he’s the best snowboarder in Canada,” said McGraw. She and her cousin, Icy Toney were in their home at Pictou Landing First Nation two days before going to work at Ski Wentworth.
Together, they are the first two girls from their community to certify as snowboard instructors in the L’nu Kamakn Ski and Snowboard program. Since 2012 the L’nu Kamakn program has been bringing youth from Nova Scotia’s 7 Mi’kmaq communities to the slopes at Martock and Wentworth.
Cape Breton has a similar program called Unama’ki Riders which brings youth the island’s five communities as well as Paqtnkek to the slopes at Ski Ben Eoin.
McGraw has been involved in the program for the last four years.
“I never thought I that I would be one of the instructors,” she said, “It’s been really cool.”
For Icy Toney, the inspiration to give it a try was a lot closer to home.
“My cousin got into it and she said, ‘hey you should come and join,’” said Toney, 15. Her cousin Presley Knockwood was also in L’nu Kamakn at the time. That was five years ago and Toney has been on the hills at Wentworth ever since.
“When I started I was really frustrated. Someone told me I was goofy footed and so I was riding goofy for the whole year and it didn’t go well for me,” said Toney. ‘Riding Goofy’ refers to a style where a rider positions their left foot at the back of the snowboard rather than the ‘regular’ stance with the left foot forward.
“I spent the whole year getting frustrated with myself because I couldn’t do it. Then, once I figured out what was wrong, I caught on really quickly,” said Toney. “Snowboarding isn’t easy. It’s not easy at all. But once you accomplish it you feel so much better about yourself. It’s something that you can be proud of.”
McGraw’s beginner experience wasn’t any easier.
“I thought at first that I could get the hang of it and I kind of lost self-confidence because I wasn’t as good as the people in my group,” said McGraw. “But I put a lot of effort in. I came every lesson. Every opportunity I was on the hill. I was always trying my best to improve and be a really good rider so I could be as good as the people that I look up to.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a place on the Olympic podium.
For both McGraw and Toney snowboarding offers opportunities that might not have been afforded to them without a program like L’nu Kamakn.
Steve Johnson is from Millbrook. He started snowboarding with the program in 2014. He completed his level-one certifications and now he volunteers with the L’nu Kamakn every weekend.
“Not many people have the chance to snowboard and ski, but with the transportation and funding and everything it really helps out,” said Johnson while watching kids from his community practicing on the Bunny Hill at Ski Wentworth.
“A lot of these kids would never have snowboarded or skied in their life until this program came along. Now there’s tons of people from Millbrook and other communities that are out and it’s good to see,” he said. “You feel better seeing people you know around the hill.”
With their level 1 certifications under their belts, both Toney and McGrath are keen to take their level twos. The level two certification matches instructors with students who are eager to test their skills on more technial runs and difficult terrain. The certification also opens doors for instructors to bring their training experience to bigger hills than what Nova Scotia can offer.
"We’re just trying to get our skills up just so we can free-fire and possibly travel around with other instructors," said McGraw. "Once we get a little better we can go and write our level twos and with our level twos we can travel."
“Honestly, I’d love to go anywhere off of this continent,” said Toney. “It would make me so happy. I don’t even know where. Just anywhere.”
When asked where she’d like to go, McGraw answered without hesitation: “Europe.”