PRINCETON, MASS. — `YOU'RE a natural!'' yelled John Gerndt, a world-class professional snowboarder, as I swiveled down the bunny hill on a snowboard in disbelief. Here at Wachusett Mountain, you could try out a board for free during a special promotion. Mr. Gerndt was patient enough to give me a lesson. I hadn't skied downhill in years, hadn't skateboarded in a decade, and didn't think I'd ever set foot on a surfboard, I had warned my instructor. Don't worry, he said as he buckled me in.
Much to my surprise, I found it was easier than it looked. Keeping my weight forward and my arms outstretched, I managed a slight ``shred'' down the hill. And only ran into a skier once.
Evolved from the ``Snurfer'' of the '60s, the snowboard is made much like today's alpine ski (fiberglass, with steel edges), but wider and shorter with a lot of splashy color and graphics. Boards are between 3 and 5 feet long, and about 11 inches wide. Regular snow boots (the L.L. Bean-type were popular here) or special snowboard boots clamp snugly into bindings. Boards cost $300 to $500 with bindings, and are fitted more to your weight than your height.
The stance is similar to that of a skateboarder or surfer, but ``you don't have to be one'' to snowboard, stresses Gerndt. No worries about poles or crossed skis - you use your arms and body to balance.
You do have to be patient, as the first couple of times can feel quite awkward. A handful of ski areas require you to take a lesson and earn a proficiency certificate. But downhill skiers don't get the same treatment, so the requirement is fading.
Clearly, snowboarding is male-dominated, ``but there's no reason for that,'' says Gerndt, who surfs, skateboards, and runs a sail shop in the summer. He says in Japan there is an equal number of female snowboarders as male.
``It's awesome - better than skiing,'' says Jeremy McLaughlin, a 15-year-old from East Douglas, Mass., who also skateboards. ``I was surprised to see girls on them - it's kind of like girls on motorcycles,'' he says, scrunching up his nose in disapproval.
``I'd like to get a hold of that kid!'' says Nicole Neilan of Somerset, Mass., when told of Jeremy's comment. She just bought her own board. ``It's fun and girls can do it just as well,'' she says.
Gidget would be proud.