the art of river surfing

shredding the gnar in missoula, montana

On a sunny July day in Missoula, Montana, eight men with surfboards and wetsuits walk down Main Street, but the Pacific is 3,896 miles away. I can’t help but wonder: Which way to the beach?

Missoula rests in the foothills of five major mountain ranges. The mountains are yellow, and shadows of hikers ascend in front of the vast expanse of sky. The city is open and quiet. Smoke from forest fires in Washington wafts through downtown and over the mountains. Through the center of Missoula and under graffitied bridges runs the Clark Fork River. In the summer, people float through town on inner tubes, canoes, and kayaks.

I imagine another kind of smoke wafts from a river surf shop near the University of Montana. Strong Water is the only inland surf shop in the nation. Even though river surfing hasn’t yet found a place in popular culture, Strong Water sells around 100 boards per year and offers lessons. On their website, Strong Water writes, “We are stoked to be on the forefront of progressive river surfing in North America.”

My family has travelled to Montana this summer to hike in Glacier National Park. My mom went to college at University of Montana, so our trip is somewhat of a pilgrimage to the land of her hacky sacking, teepee-sleeping, journaling, backcountry skiing days. After dinner, my little brother and I watch from a bridge as the employees from Strong Water river surf. My brother walks farther down so that the surfers don’t see him with his older sister and mom. On a current close to shore, seven men wait on a big rock in the middle of the Clark with their boards tucked under their arms. They are cheering on Zach Gratton as he turns his board in and out of the current. Gratton is a buff, moppy-haired student from Billings, Montana. He is also an employee of Strong Water. His board gets too far in front of him—the river sucks him under, and I see his board float fifteen feet downstream. He pops up and paddles upstream as another surfer throws out his board.

River surfing was first documented in the 1970s in Munich, Germany. The Eisbach River, a two kilometer man-made river, is the most popular urban river surfing spot in the world. Gratton commented, “Germans blew river surfing up with a wave in Munich. It’s a sweet wave, and they shred it.” Gratton’s parents were professional kayakers. He first heard about river surfing from the owners of Strong Water, who were also professional kayakers before they converted to river surfing.

Strong Water was founded in 2008. The city of Missoula dug out a section of the Clark River downtown and covered the bottom with concrete, creating a wave specifically for river surfing. Gratton informed me that there are two ways to stand up on the board. “Acid Dropping” is enacted when the water level is low. The surfer stands on a rock, throws the board out, and jumps on it. Then they carve a wave that never breaks. In the spring, the snow begins to melt, and the water doesn’t even reach 40° Fahrenheit. Gratton says that they wear thick wetsuits and often have to dodge ice chunks in the river. The river becomes much faster and higher in the warmer weather. Thus, the surfer will start upstream and float down; when the wave catches the board, the surfer stands up like on a regular surfboard.

River surfing is a relatively safe sport. A person is unlikely to touch the bottom of the river, unlike ocean surfing where surfers are often seriously injured or paralyzed from hitting the ocean floor. However, the current is swift, and when someone wipes out, they can be pulled under for several seconds. Gratton described an experience surfing a wave in Idaho: “It was gnarly as can be … there were many whirlpools at the end of the wave … I was under the water and I was not coming up, like I typically do. I had to pull up on my leash [the strap that wraps around a surfer’s foot and connects to the board].” He came up gasping for breath.

River surfboards, Groton says, are “shorter, wider, and thicker” than ocean boards. An average ocean long board is around eleven feet long, and a river surfboard is around 5.5. It has a rounder nose to create more buoyancy in fresh water.

Gratton likes river surfing because it combines the excitement of surf culture with the calmness of river culture: “We are not like ‘you’re a newbie and out-of-towner, so get out of the way.’ Everyone always gives each other tips.” There are popular river waves in Gotland, Sweden; Milan, Italy; and Columbus, Georgia. “The Bitches” is a wave on the coastline of Wales. “Wave O Saurus” is on the Connecticut River near Holyoke, Massachusetts, only about an hour and half drive from Providence. Wave O Saurus is best in the spring when the current picks up due to melting snow and increased precipitation.

When we get back to our hotel in Missoula, my little brother bounces on his bed, throwing the pillow under his feet. I think he is trying to Acid Drop.