TCSAR: Where did you grow up?
Don: I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania called Johnstown. The town’s biggest claim to fame is probably the Johnstown Chiefs Hockey Team, or more recently being named the first Hockeyville USA. So I of course played hockey, and loved it, but was more drawn to the mountains and water. My family shared a lake cabin with my grandparents and aunts and uncles in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Indian Lake quickly became the place I would spend most of my free time. If I wasn’t in school back in Johnstown or working for my father’s construction company I was usually waterskiing or wakeboarding at the lake. My parent’s liked to ski and snowboard in the winter too, so we frequented a few small ski resorts in the Laurel Highlands area. Hidden Valley Resort, a monstrous 470 vertical feet (laughs) became our go-to. We had a blast. My dad, sister and I even taught at the local ski school. Probably the best job a high schooler could ever have.
TCSAR: Tell us a little more about your family? Were the outdoors always a big part of your life?
Don: My sister and I are three years apart, but we hung out together growing up, and even went to the same college – the University of Vermont. Western Pennsylvania is a great place for all kinds of outdoor adventure, and our parents made sure we took advantage of it. Some of the most memorable times were of the fun we had at the small lake cabin at Indian Lake. My parents actually met at Indian Lake when they were younger. My mom and dad used to be regulars in local waterski shows put on for fun by the lakes waterski club. I think what influenced me most throughout my life is that my mom and dad were just great at making the most of each season. There was always something to do outside. I never was much for video games, I mean who doesn’t enjoy some Duck Hunt or Super Mario Brothers now and then, but more often than not we all found ourselves outside.
TCSAR: How did you end up in Jackson?
Don: I like to jokingly blame this one on my parents for making me love the mountains so much. In addition to growing up skiing and snowboarding, every holiday season we’d watch a classic movie called White Christmas. In that movie they talk about how gorgeous Vermont is in the winter. Fast forward to college, where I attended the University of Vermont (UVM), I then met a bunch of hooligans (some of my best friends to this day). At UVM we were involved in the ski and snowboard club and made a trip to Jackson Hole every year over our winter break. One thing led to another, and we packed up our cars after graduation and made our way to Jackson for what was supposed to be one winter. It’s your token transplant story, one year leads to another, and another, and so on. But here I am ten years later, and thanks to my mom and dad and college friends who gave me the extra courage to move, I now have experienced more than I could have ever imagined. Best of all I met my beautiful wife, Shea D’Anna Watkins, here and we’ll be celebrating our one year anniversary soon.
TCSAR: What’s your current job? Have you always worked in that field?
Don: I’m the Director of Marketing for Convergence Investments, a real estate and private equity investment firm with offices in Jackson and Chicago, Illinois. I’ve most always been in the marketing field, but the industries have varied. I grew a lot professionally while working for a boutique public relations firm here in Jackson early on in my career. That coupled with my finance background made for a great fit at Convergence, where I’ve worked for the last five years with a great group of extremely talented and motivated individuals, who now are more friends than coworkers.
TCSAR: How did you get involved with Search and Rescue? What inspired you to join the team?
Don: Early on when I moved to Jackson I met two current SAR members [Alex Norton and Cody Lockhart] through a close friend, Jim Bob Schell. We went on a spring skiing and camping trip deep in the Wind River Range. On trips like that where you spend endless hours with each other you learn a lot about one another. They talked about SAR a bit on the trip and I was intrigued- I respected them for it. Over the coming years that respect grew dramatically as I saw their efforts making a difference throughout the community. In a small town like Jackson, anytime you hear of an incident skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, on the river or in the mountains, even when you don’t know the person directly, it hits home. Often times you likely know someone who is affected by the incident, or it’s something you simply do so often that you would only hope someone from SAR (or ski patrol, the park, Fire / EMS, and all the other awesome agencies that keep us safe here in our home) would be there when you need them. With all the outdoor adventure and opportunity this town gave me, I thought the least I could do was volunteer my time to help others when they need it, like so many others had.
TCSAR: Have you enjoyed being on the team so far?
Don: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and am honored to be on the team. The talent and expertise in this volunteer organization is incredible. There are doctors; EMS and Fire professionals; nurses; mountain guides; river guides; high angle rescue experts; skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers capable of getting most anywhere; mountain bikers, hunters and more. If it can be done in Wyoming, it’s likely someone is doing it on the team. It’s honestly intimidating, but at the same time exciting and one heck of a motivator to learn and do as much as you can.
TCSAR: You’re one of the few snowboarders on the team. Does that create any additional challenges (or harassment from other team members!)?
Don: Ha! Where do I begin? In all honesty, I love and invite the heckling. It’s all in good fun and only motivates me even more. Truth be told, I think the hecklers are just jealous of our comfortable footwear- you know who you are! While all the skiers are inside warming up their cold, cramped feet, we few splitboarders will still be out gettin’r done (and as one of the new guys I probably just brought on more jabs with that comment). And our pilot Nicole definitely isn’t jealous; she just thinks all of my snowboarding gear is heavy.
In all seriousness though, it definitely can make some situations interesting. That said, what it boils down to is me knowing my equipment and figuring out how to get it done. Sometimes the up and down in the mountains where multiple transitions are necessary can be tricky, but skiing on my split isn’t as bad as you’d expect. I was fortunate to grow up with a skiing background, which is great for those “skiing on the split” moments, and throughout college I had a lot of practice chasing and keeping up with my skier friends.
Don: When I’m not outdoors I enjoy building things. More often than not I have some sort of project going on in our garage. I think my wife would really enjoy being able to park her car in there someday, but it might be a while with the lineup on my to-do list (Sorry Shea).
TCSAR: Favorite piece of winter gear?
Don: Back to building things... When it comes to gear, my most coveted piece of equipment is my swallowtail snowboard. A local snowboard shaper and good friend of mine Mikey Franco of Franco Snowshapes, helped me build the board a few years back. I’ve always thought that your skis/snowboard are a huge part of your experience in the mountains. Being able to build a board to my style of riding from start to finish made that feeling even more real. It makes every turn that much more special, but more importantly, incredibly fun.
TCSAR: What’s your perfect day in the mountains?
Don: That’s a great question. I think it just depends. When it comes to winter, there’s nothing like a bluebird powder day with friends riding some of your favorite terrain in safe conditions. Then there’s the relaxed skin out for a mellow ski with your dog. Or, sometimes the most fun is the random sleeper day at the resort when you only planned on coming out for a few runs but you find no lift lines and way more snow than what was forecasted on the report.