Dungul Fish builds custom powder surfers
By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor
Dungul is slang for super-fluffy powder. It’s the kind of snow you can blow away with just a light breath. Coined in the 1990s by a group of Bozeman High students that spent all their free time riding the deeps on the Bridger Ridge or dreaming about it, dungul makes you gasp with euphoria when it billows past you.
It’s also the namesake for a small company born on the south side of Bozeman, Dungul Fish, which builds wooden boards meant for floating through the stuff.
“It’s a powder surfer, a snowboard that you ride in pow that has no bindings, straps or ropes,” says Dungul Fish owner Travis Tollefson, who was one of those rowdy Bridger teenagers.
“The whole point of the game is to stick it in your face,” he said, referring to the snow that flies into your grill on a big day. “That’s what it’s all about. That, and being by pine trees. I like being by pine trees.”
Tollefson has been snowboarding since Bridger first allowed it in the early 1990s, and began making the boards in late 2012, after riding a Burton No Fish in the Taylor Fork south of Big Sky. The shape and weight of that binding-less board didn’t suit him, but he saw the potential.
“It dawned on me that it was a perfect idea to carry one in the backcountry all the time,” Tollefson said. “Even if you’re just out snowmobiling, it’s fun to mix it up and shred some turns.”
An accomplished woodworker – the family business Tollefson Builders does everything from cabinetry to homebuilding, trim work to timber framing – Tollefson studied surfboard shapes, other powder surfers and even ski designs before making his first fish.
“I got pretty interested in the surf aspect of it, the soul of a fall line,” he says.
The fishes have traction pads and a leash like a surfboard, but that’s it – no straps, just you, the dungul, the board and the mountain.
It’s the simplicity of it that draws Joey Weamer, a Bozeman-based ski rep for 4FRNT, Strafe and Bern, among others.
“It’s all about not being serious,” Weamer said. “I spend so much time talking about tech. You know how much time it takes to talk about pow surfing? Two minutes. Simplicity: no bindings, no boots, no straps, no strings.”
But powder surfing is entirely conditions dependent, Tollefson says, calling it fickle. “If it’s not pow – and I wouldn’t want to be there anyways – it doesn’t work.”
Weamer points out the obvious analogy to surfing waves: “There isn’t always swell. You can’t always go surfing unless there’s waves.”
These two are part of a growing cadre. Search it on YouTube, and you’ll find pro skiers Pep Fujas and Kye Peterson riding powder surfers. “A lot of guys, if [they’re] on a long road trip and run into a storm, just pull over and go get a pow surf lap in,” Weamer said.
Because they have more of a directional shape like a gun-shaped surfboard, Tollefson says his boards are made for going bigger and faster.
So far he has made four different shapes – a 154 cm, a 156 cm split fish (like a split snowboard) and a 167 cm, as well as a Soul Fish, which has a pointier, wider nose, a narrow stern, and a pronounced, flared swallow tail.
Tollefson glues and presses layers of wood together with epoxy and vices; shapes them with a planer and a router; sands the cedar, alder, cherry or mahogany top sheets; and creates the custom artwork on the top sheet and bases, all by hand.
“No machine makes these things, so it ends up slightly different every time,” he said. “That’s part of the soul, which is the root of these things. It’s about the love and the pow.”