published Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Rail Jam is 6 tons of cool: Faux snow draws real daredevils

Joe Brogdon attempts a back flip on the snow board jump at Rail Jam Saturday.
Joe Brogdon attempts a back flip on the snow board jump at Rail Jam Saturday.
Photo by Jay Bailey.

In the Mellow Mushroom parking lot, Michael Mitchell plopped a helmet on his head, buckled his boots and hopped. Then he slid down a 10-foot slope of snow and ice.

The descent was not graceful. Mitchell rolled from his feet to his left shoulder, to his lower back, and then to his belly. Finally stopped at the bottom of the slope, Mitchell popped up to his knees, smiled and raised his hands above him, pleading for cheers from the crowd that lined the faux snow Saturday.

This isn't his game. Mitchell, 24, doesn't do tricks off ramps. He prefers long trail rides in West Virginia or North Carolina.

"But if there's snow in Chattanooga," he said, "I'm going to ride on it."

When Mitchell found out Friday at a bar that the pizza restaurant in East Brainerd was hosting a snowboarding competition called the Chattanooga Rail Jam, he didn't believe it. He thought it was just bar talk. How could you snowboard with temperatures in the 50s?

Well, first you buy 6 tons of ice, said Boomer Oyler, a managing partner at the Becket Agency marketing firm. Then you hire a company in Atlanta called Snow Kings. They take the ice -- in 300-pound blocks -- and feed it into a chopper that breaks it down and spits out chips that look and feel like snow.

The Mellow Mushroom hired Oyler's company to market the restaurant. Himself a snowboarder, Oyler thought a competition would draw people who usually drive a couple of hours to slide down snow. Oyler expected to draw about 500 people to the event, which ran from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday.

He asked for help from the Dodge City Ski shop. Its carpenter, Gary Croson, built the slope out of wood in about a week. Dodge City owner Steve Gilbert helped spread the word to local snowboarders. He wants events like this to happen several times a year.

"We've never had anything like it," he said.

Tables and booths surrounded the slope Saturday. One served as a makeshift bar, promoting Sweetwater Beer, Three Olives Vodka and Red Bull. Across the parking lot, a face painter planted handlebar mustaches on little girls.

In one corner, Jeremiah Brock sang a cover of "Ain't No Sunshine." Brock, a big, round man with a black beard, likes Robert Plant and Gregg Allman. He brought his band, Rosedale Remedy, to Mellow Mushroom because he's friends with the restaurant's owner.

"This is actually way cooler than I expected," he said.

On the opposite end of the parking lot, David Whiteside stood at a table promoting Tennessee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that tries to protect the Tennessee River by enforcing environmental laws.

Whiteside came to win the souls of potential new members. He also solicited donations because the Riverkeeper needs money -- to print newsletters, to pay his office bills, to support the organization's two-person staff.

And on Saturday, he said everyone needs clean water for the stuff they love. It's in Sweetwater beer, he said, and Mellow Mushroom's pizza.

And it's in snow -- real or faux.

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