My trip to Montreal was last-minute. Winter has been fickle on the East Coast this year and snow was sparse throughout December. In mid-January, though, temperatures dropped below 0 (Celsius, that is) in the Northeast. Storms started to roll through and snowmaking was turned on. In Montreal, winter was a go, which meant that the second annual Ojo Fest to commemorate the life and legacy of Dillon Ojo was on for Saturday, January 21st–and snowboarders from all over were headed to Quebec.
I didn’t get into town until after 11pm the night before Ojo Fest. By the time I pulled up to the hotel, I was tired, hungry, and a little confused why the outside door to the hotel was locked. But then Tanner Pendleton, whose vision has shaped Vans’ film canon from Landline. to Together Forever, popped open the door and let me inside. In the lobby, I was greeted by Harry Hagan, Jake Kuzyk, Mike Bogs, Justin Meyer, Spencer Schubert, and Parker Szumowski. It had been four years since I’d been Montreal and right away, it felt happily familiar.
First thing on Saturday morning we headed to the Parc Olympique. Jake directed our Uber driver where to drop us off (the park is a massive place). A very short walk from the main road and we were standing at the top of Ojo Park where a few dozen people were already hiking up, strapping in, and hanging out before the event had even started.
Ojo Park sits in front of the Montreal Tower, a massive spire leaning at a 45-degree angle. The tower is something of a beacon for snowboarding. All around its enormous building are spots featured in a litany of video parts. Arriving at Ojo Park feels kind of like a pilgrimage to hallowed ground. Snowboarding in a city-sanctioned terrain park in the shadow of the tower feels momentous.
From the moment I arrived at Ojo Park, the energy was all-out. The crew at Today’s Park had made a ton of snow to add to what Mother Nature had supplied, and built out three tiers of features, including a multi-take off jump at the bottom of the park. Every feature, from beginner dance floor to advanced down-flat-down, was raked with care. At the bottom of the park, friends and industry cohorts gathered around tents from the Dillon Ojo Lifeline Foundation, Vans, and Empire. Adamo was preparing to give out pizza. There was a grom-sized learning area set up with rollers and flags. And the weather was gray but perfect. Cloudy but bright. Cold but a good cold. Very quickly, the park was filled with boarders. It was frenetic energy at its finest. Ojo Park was open.
The last time I had been in Montreal before this trip was years ago. We went to a premiere of Landline. Twenty-four minutes into the film, the crowd went wild when Dillon’s part started playing. Cheers for a hometown rider are always loud, but Montreal premieres reach a higher frequency than in other places; there’s a particular dedication and excitement that is only bred in this cold, eastern province–a particular reverence for snowboarding and the riders who have come up in here. And Dillon, well, his light shone beyond brightly from this infamous proving ground, so the crowd wasn’t just erupting, they were in awe.
Dillon’s snowboarding had that effect on people. It looked effortless in defiance of its complexity. It was emphatic without ever being flashy. It was too good and too rare, underlined by Dillon’s sincerity, his kindness, and his appreciation for others around him.
I remember thinking how rad it was to be there and see his resonance in his hometown. Because it was visible and growing everywhere else in snowboarding, but this was the heart.
Ojo Park was created by the Dillon Ojo Lifeline Foundation and Vans to provide a free, accessible snow park for anyone and everyone to have fun together in winter. The non-profit was founded by Dillon’s parents, Elaine Charles and Francis Ojo, to honor Dillon’s memory by sharing his love of sports, art, and positive social impact through providing youth opportunities and access to sport, art, and organized activities. On Vans side, their support of local communities runs deep, the charge led by both their professional team and the brand staff dedicated behind the scenes. The collaborative creation of Ojo Park is not only a community gathering place, a hub for snowboarders and skiers to ride for free all season long, and a spot where kids and adults of all ages can first experience snowboarding, but also a global benchmark for creating access to snowsports. It’s a beacon of possibility for our entire snowboarding community. It’s a hill of dreams. And the second annual Ojo Fest was proof positive of “if you build it, they will come.”
And they did. On Saturday, the snow park was was filled with people. So many friends had come to town to celebrate Dillon and honor his legacy while welcoming others to join them. Riders from Utah, California, BC, Alberta, New England, and more joined a legion of Quebecois rippers as the top of the park. By mid-morning, Ojo Park was firing. Seen Snowboarding held a meet up and Kuzyk, Kennedi Deck, and Mikaela Kautzky built the most incredible feature to session, a closet to dance floor that they spray-painted lime green and purple and decorated with Vans shoes and boots (they also brought a disco ball). The closet feature went off first thing during Ojo Fest as the DJ spun vibey disco hits that bounced off the walls of the Olympic buildings. The Seen meet up embraced folks that had never ridden before and helped them acclimate to being on board. Vans provided boots, and more than one first-time-boarder successfully emerged from the closet and onto the dance floor. At one point, as Spencer Schubert, Mike Rav, Kennedi, and a group of Rude Girls decimated the dance floor, I hiked up above to get a better angle and saw Tanner Pendleton standing with two attendees on a gentle area of slope, teaching them how to balance on a board for the first time. How many people get to learn to ride from one of snowboarding’s most talented cinematographers? How often do groms, new riders, and park rats get to hit a dance floor beneath a dangling disco ball held up in celebration of the LGBTQ+ community? How many times can fledgling snowboarders drop in next to Cole Navin, Jed Anderson, Seb Picard, Savannah Shinske, Jody Wachniak, Phil Jacques, and Martyn Vachon? It’s a dichotomy that continues to snowball through Dillon’s legacy: leading the way and bringing others in, all at the same time. Together.
By lunchtime, the field was warmed up and Empire, the iconic Montreal shop, ran a contest, first on the DFD and then the jump. Jacob Krugmire, Taylor Davies, Gian Sutter, Mike Bogs, Quin Ellul, Seb, Jed, Rav, Phil, and a host of talented locals (Quebec is a snowboarding paradise, after all) destroyed both zones. Kennedi was handing out 5-dollar bills for tricks, giving gas money to rippers that had driven from Quebec City, Ontario, Vermont, and NYC. Cole Navin might have been doing that, too, but I can’t confirm because there was so much happening at once. The scene was a narrowly controlled chaos of the best kind; the floodgates on winter had opened up and Dillon’s 1,000-watt smile was on everyone’s minds. A few hundred people–pros, ams, weekend warriors, rookies, groms, families, fans, and more–were glued to the riding going down in Ojo Park in the center of a massive city where everyone could ride for free. It was truly something special and for sure that feeling resonated through everyone at the Parc Olympique.
One of the lovely things about snowboarding is how the mere act of standing sideways can make you feel at home no matter where you are. Whether at an unfamiliar mountain, a new city block, or any variety of intimidating terrain or feature, strapping into your snowboard provides a sense of solace. But the location isn’t really the thing, right? It’s the sense of belonging. Like when walking into a dark hotel lobby at 11pm you are immediately surrounded by friends you’ve known for years. Or when standing in the snow in a public park you’re introduced to people who you immediately jive with and reuniting with others you don’t see nearly enough. The snowboard is the vehicle for the connection, but it’s just the starting place. There’s a shared language, a common understanding, and a way of looking at the world that is symbiotic. It’s something special. But while the rareness of shared understanding is part of what makes it feel so remarkable, inviting others to be a part of things doesn’t dampen the flame–it adds to the blaze. More people means more perspectives, more ideas, more creativity, and more momentum. Sharing your sense of belonging creates more belonging, more excitement, more places you feel at home and more people to feel that way with.
Dillon was a rare individual who forged his own path, but he never did so alone. Anyone who even met him once experienced his enormous smile, his contagious energy, and his care and excitement for those around him. He walked huge in this world and left a big impression not only on snowboarding, but on his city and beyond. Ojo Fest is testament to Dillon and how much he meant to so many people, a number that snowballs every year because of the efforts of his family and friends to carry on his legacy. To bring more and more people in to share the joy of snowboarding and the feeling of truly belonging. At Ojo Park, something so special has been created: a snowboarding oasis in the middle of Montreal where everyone is welcome. All because of Dillon.
As the sun set over the city on Saturday, Montreal Tower was speckled with golden light. Everyone piled into cars with friends to head home and take off their boots. That night, over dinner and espresso martinis, we shared stories and celebrated. When it got late, we made our way over to Apt. 200, where Dillon often dj’ed, and we toasted late into the night. The back room where we were became increasingly packed as the evening went on. By midnight it was shoulder-to-shoulder and you could barely move, but it was good. Coronas was passed by raised arms. There was reunion and tons of smiles. Everyone belonged, brought together by Dillon, this year and for the years to come.
Endless thanks to the Charles-Ojo Family, The Dillon Ojo Lifeline Foundation, Giovanni Vacca, the whole crew at Vans and Vans Canada, and everyone who has worked with so much love to create Ojo Park, Ojo Fest, and provide a place and a time for snowboarding and celebration of Dillon’s continued legacy. #ojoforever