Heavy Freaking Metal: Freediving in the Well of Duluth’s Dense Boarder-World

Almost two decades later, and Keenan Cawley has landed in MN to cover the rebirth of an iconic Red Bull event.

Heavy Freaking Metal: Freediving in the Well of Duluth’s Dense Boarder-World

Almost two decades later, and Keenan Cawley has landed in MN to cover the rebirth of an iconic Red Bull event.

January 19, 2022
Words By Keenan Cawley Events
Rob Roethler | Photo: Mark Clavin

Red Bull Heavy Metal 

Cascade Park, Duluth, MN

Story and Photos by Keenan Cawley

This story begins in a little town in western Nevada: Reno.

In the sky. Thinking of Heavy Metals past. It’s been damn-near two decades. I remember drooling over the photos in TransWorld. Pre- everything is a video. Travis Kennedy had an insane photo switch front boarding ‘round a c-rail in Denver. At least I think it was Heavy Metal Denver.. . ‘Cause that was the same contest at the beginning of MFM’s part in love/hate - gap back 270, 270. Broncos starter jacket, unzipped. Lil’ skully. And then before that, what, it was Portland? Someone knows. If I’m wrong it’ll give ‘em a chance to flex ;) Travis Parker in the football get-up, pigskin in hand, back-lipping like only a Texan could. Who else? TJ and BJ? Schneider and Leines. More love/haters. switch back 270 and switch front-lip. Possible glimpses into the polished boarding of the future. And before that one: mayhem. Just a big ol’ center rail. Pile up top. This is where my memory is real mush. I’ll just say I remember images of Clancy grinding like Clancy used to grind. And Scotty Arnold in bloom. Those are sticking out because Grenade had its (garbage bag quality) Misfittens wrapped around my swelling East Coast brain at the time. Skeletal imprinting. It worked. ‘Cause I still think snowboarding is badass. And ‘cause I thought that contest was badass back then and now it’s back and sticking true to form: put badass boarders on top of rowdy steel and see what happens. I’m anxious. And sleep deprived. Shouldn’t do coffee. I don’t know what time it is. Eat a banana. People are laughing behind me. I’m hearing voices. They’re talking about the rail. It’s definitely in my head and not actual riders who might also be on the same flight as me, the last flight of the day from SLC to MSP the day before the event. I’m delirious. Exhaustion-borne self-talk. Perhaps actual chatter. That’s not Jeremy Jones shaking my hand at baggage claim. Where’s Craig? I need my homies. Craig’s here, off we go ;)

Austin and Marty

It was the ride day at Spirit, the local hill in Duluth. Absolutely perfect. Drinking that blue air in, crisp from Superior’s expanse. Fresh wax had us soaring and giddy amongst exceptional company. Followed OE into some chunky pow. Mostly stayed on the lifts because we were trying to go fast and fly but made a point to hit the rope park for a few. Could see the local field is still just as technically proficient as always. The level of talent will pulverize any entitled ego. It’s gorgeous; breath-taking and life-giving. And at the bottom, munchkins crowding around the Red Bull artillery vehicle, politely asking every ~athlete~ to scribble on whatever piece of gear they could get ready fast enough. And what I saw was every John Hancock signed genuinely and compassionately, knowing that these lil’ groms are not too far behind on the metaphorical rope.

We left the mountain for the hotel. I needed to have a meeting.

Benny Milam is credited for the rebirth of Heavy Metal and there couldn’t be a more apt candidate. The young man was bred on the ropes (as far as I can tell) and worked his way up to a unanimous position as a problem in snowboarding. His riding is unreal. His character is kind and unwavering. I see this event as a clear yet subtle message that he rides with Minnesota on his back. Heritage is clearly high on his priority list. Obviously I didn’t invite him to my hotel room. Nor did I invite Mr. Joe Sexton, despite his dedication to the homeland by way of tirelessly assisting the event, and the board culture at large. I needed someone else. A friend, an angel. I needed P.

Benny Milam poses for a portrait at Red Bull Heavy Metal in Duluth, Minnesota, USA on 16 January, 2022. // SI202201170070 // Usage for editorial use only //

Endlessly original and eclectic—the epitome of homie-boarder—and at the epicenter of Duluth’s iconoclastic and underground snowboarding mecca, and in my hotel room, is Andy Pearson. I needed to get some facts straightened out, and I needed to have a beer with him. It had been too long. And ain’t shit changed. Sure, he’s hunkered down with his sweat-pea and their pup but P is still P and what P is is a boarder. (Reference his section in The Reelest Vol. 2, among them all, scored to Codeine Crazy for proof.) This man has clocked in, offering a hand with a shovel, cam, or bevs to assist the youth or out-of-towners in clipping up, all before getting himself one or two. He is a patron Saint of Duluth snowboarding in my eyes. And aside from enjoying his company, he held me down with knowledge.

We all know Jed switch boardslid the hog, once to regular and once back to switch. We all know Kritter opened up the gap with a front lip that Mr. Maark Himself would later connect the pavilion to going back 50. Lesser known was who was the first to actually hit the rail. That would be none other than his impaling constituent Aidan Flanagan. And what else - who else - took this burly boy on for size? Surely it couldn’t’ve sat there waiting exclusively for the pros. So P taught me that Jake Aldridge was the first to boardslide through it. Heard Cascade Park is Dan Spooner’s favorite place to snowboard and that he front lipped through the kink. Saw Nick Neeson half cab onto it on instagram. And same place, same platform, learned that Colton Rutledge switch 50’d through it. Talk about higher education.. .

Only got more interesting. I recalled seeing a clip of Nial nosepressing the set but that the rail was different - it was separated; two down rails with a gap between them.

“That was before the flood,” chimed P, all too knowingly. 

Thanks for your time and friendship, Andy ;)

In the early summer of 2012, Duluth got nuked with a rain storm. 10” of rain fell over the course of 48 hours and, given the tremendous pitch of the city’s landscape, the community suffered dramatically. Included in the millions of dollars worth of city-wide damage, on top of the local zoo that flooded, allowing Feisty the Seal’s escape, was none other than Cascade Park. Seems ill-minded to think of snowboarding spots after a city lies devastated, but the question started to buzz shortly after the dust settled: the old rail was gone; would they put a new one in? They did. And the old rail became folklore. ‘Back in my day, there didn’t used to be a kink. Set was there. Boody did a method down it. But there wasn’t no kink.’ Such is life; ever-changing. And life found me, P, and Craig getting hungry. We left the legends in the air for pizza with contemporary legends at Lucé. 

Given some inspiration from Durham late last night, I got up earlier than I’d planned to. I left Craig in the room, got myself a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette, and started hoofing it up some 10-odd blocks in the direction of Cascade. I saw something familiar. Heard it first, actually, over the crunch of my sneakers on frozen concrete. 8:30 on a Sunday morning is an awfully peculiar time to spot jibbers, especially given the day’s agenda. Nevertheless, Austin Visintainer and Marty Vachon were warming up at the Central Hillside Park double kink. Rego was behind the iPhone. And the realest Jeremy, who was set to be judging the event in just a few hours, was strapped in and launching wallies off the front of the bridge. I stopped, introduced myself, and took a few photos that you’ll never see and will later learn why. I kept it moving up the hill. Slow moving. Still cold gray out. Up the hill, up the hill.

I suppose I just wanted to see it. So I saw it. Got my media passes. Putzed around for a minute. And walked down, down the hill. Synced with Craig. Ate a Chuckwagon for breakfast. Shit it out. Walked back up.

Practice was just getting underway. There was a little session going on at the playground set-up. There was a larger session going on at the kink rail. And while most of the occupants were just getting their feelers going, Marty back nosepressed it. To be clear, he tapped going through the flats, but he came off the end. Craig and I exchanged a look, agape. Like, he didn’t do it. But it was evident that he could and that he wanted to. That was enough for me to switch gears. Long day ahead of us.

And it was. Definitely more so for the riders. There were three sessions - three zones: an hour at each. And each one ran at least 15 minutes over the clock. The first was up top at the pavilion; a kicker to launch you through the window to the left and a cannon set to launch you to the right. The second was at the playground where lied a slew of picnic tables to transfer, a jersey barrier that sent you over a fence, and a nice fucking down bar. The third was the kink rail. Just to reiterate: each session was over an hour long. So you start the day jumping down ~20 feet repeatedly to wake up your legs. Then you get your cardio by hiking the picnic tables and downrail. And just as the sun starts to go down and temperatures drop, you start to session a rail that you would film your ender on. Sounds Heavy freaking Metal to me. 

Hey Jake :)

And the event proved to be just that. It was far from the traditional contest; no one ‘put on a demo’. What I mean is that everyone out there tried their hardest not just to show out but just to land shit. To some extent, I think that’s flush with the humbling nature of the Minnesotan rope-tow riders, as well: the terrain at this event demanded a lot from those moving down it. There was no ego on course. There was a broken leg during the first session for crying out loud! And Joey Fava still ain’t walking right and neither is Nial! Lord knows Marty got served up on the nosepress in finals. His fall not only sidelined himself but just knowing that he went down had others bowing out too. But I think that’s sick; the amount of “almost-a-make”s was equally as engaging, if not more so, than the actual makes. Something about watching people work their lil’ buns off trying to accomplish something gets me riled up. Danger in the air. Hyper-focus; heightened sensitivity. Palpable energy. Even the most rogue of all, Zeb, honed in. He was jumping down the whole set à la his preferred method but when the crowd started getting antsy to see someone slide backwards down the bitch, he reeled it in. He tuned in. And he turned it out; Zeb got the front board. And that was after his previous NBD when he 50’d down-flat and went to boardy through the rest of it. Since Benny posted his own NBD earlier - the switch front lip - technically he was the only one to nab a new trick on it. That didn’t stop Benny from backing up himself, though, as he got the switch lip again and the regular lip AND almost nailed a cab 270 through it, too. That ‘almost’ and RP’s ‘almost’ back 3 switch up off the kink were the two that invigorated the entire park. But the fact that those tricks didn’t work out just feeds the fire and folklore.

Things simmered down. The Bombhole called the podium:

Alexis Roland took third. She earned that; she was trying any and every which way to make it through those kinks. Even switch backside at one point.

Jaylen Hanson took second. And she looked smooth as hell doing it.

And Maggie Leon won. She said fuck the kink and grinded the concrete creeper off to the side and it was so sick.

As for the men, Zeb took third. Definitely debatable. He front boarded down Cascade. But how can you call it when above him was Marty who, like his second-place, female counterpart, rode smooth as eggs all damn day? Guess I’m glad I’m not a judge ;)

And that leaves the event progenitor himself, Benny Milam, taking home first. The man knows what he’s doing and he does it exceptionally well. 

Insane judges. Jess, Tommy, and Jeremy

As for those photos you’ll never see…

Post Metal celebration was at Aces On First. There was loud music and lots of smoke. Oodles of boarders. I was overwhelmed. JoeJoe PeePee asked me and Craig if we wanted to go next door to shoot stick with Cody Beiersdorf. Obviously we did. I refrained from blurting out “hardway backside 180 on Harding” because Cody is just as nasty at pool as he is at snowboarding and I didn’t want to distract him. Not that we weren’t already; Craig and I were shooting like garbage and JoeJoe had already snapped a stick over his own damn head. But someone definitely caught me distracted. Or lacking. Or probably I was just outside smoking. Or Facetiming with Max who was at the other bar. Or hitting a cheers with Dylan and Marty over our enders. Laughing ‘cause all three of us were well aware that mine is not quite of the same caliber as theirs. Or almost getting dragged into a street fight. Loads of police. Better go. Gotta grab my jacket though. I go back to the pool table and can’t find it. Drats. Peer around. The crowd changed; no more boarders. Duluth locs. Tough exterior folk. Not much softer on the inside, either. Don’t blame ‘em, really. It’s a harsh climate up there. It’s American up there. Far more traditional and industrial than the coasts I tend to tread. I try to stay cognizant of that as I move through their city. But I still want my jacket. A bearded and fleshy man is sitting on a couch in the back, his partner or prospect draped over his lap, passed out equally as heaped as the pile of jackets engulfing her. 

“Hey I’m looking for my jacket.”

Big Man says nothing. My arm extends to investigate the pile and I ask if he minds. He brushes them off of her and tells me to fuck off. I see that my jacket isn’t there and fuck off to the bar. The bartender asks if I want more Starburst shots and I say no I want my jacket. She doesn’t know where it is and doesn’t really care and I say my favorite hat is in it and she goes “oh” and I say my camera is in it and she goes “that sucks” and I say I know it does suck because I’m covering the Red Bull event here and I need that camera and she stops pretending to clean and takes me to their office where they put anything they find and it’s not there so she takes my name and number and says “I’m gonna find your jacket” because Duluth loves Red Bull even more than Duluth hates my bangs. I’m learning to play my cards. I walk back to the hotel jacket-less trying my darnedest to exude don’t-fuck-with-me vibes with my cute haircut and Batman t-shirt, drunk off yummy pink drinks. I find Craig on the walk and we postulate hypothetical jacket-and-camera whereabouts, make it to the hotel, and fall asleep.

Cool Minnesotans at Lucé

We push it. Sleep in, drive back to the cities, split a cheeseburger and a Gatorlyte, exhaust more possibilities of the fate of my jacket-and-camera. Ride Hyland for an hour - just the jump, fly with Froni, and head to the airport.

I receive a text en route:

“Hey this is ______, the owner of the bar. Did you get your jacket back? I watched the cameras and saw the person that grabbed it.”

I respond:

“Thanks for getting back to me! I did not get my jacket though :\ Could you send me a picture of the guy?” Thinking it might be Cody or JoeJoe.

______ responds:

Unfortunately I do not know the man on the security cam, crouched down, already wearing a jacket, grabbing my jacket from underneath the table. Guess I’ll chalk this one up to a good ol’ fashioned robbery :P Charge it to the game. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he gets the film developed in the camera. Couple bangin’ photos of Jeremy Jones on there, I’m sure.

Photography by: Mark Clavin & Emily Tidwell

Benny Milam | Cab 2 attempt