- Written by Tera Swanson Tera Swanson
- Published: 07 August 2014 07 August 2014
How land-locked surfers are finding new ways to get on a wave
While coastal souls have been hanging 10 for over a century, Alberta's landlocked surfers have had to resort to other local water sports without jet-setting to the ocean.
That is until a unique sport, starting in Munich, Germany in the 1970s, made its way to Alberta's rivers in the mid-2000s — surfing on "stationary" river waves.
The waves are created by natural bends and dips in the river bed and shores, and in some instances are enhanced by man-made features, making them stationary in one constant area.
Jeff Brooks, one of four founders of the Alberta River Surfing Association (ARSA), came across the sport in 2005 when he was researching surfing, and came across the World River Surfing Association. He was told that with any fast-moving river, there would be surfable waves.
BRINGING SURFBOARDS TO ALBERTA
Shortly afterward, Brooks found a small two-foot wave under the 10th Street bridge in downtown Calgary, and quickly realized river surfing could happen in Alberta. Two weeks later, he brought out his surfboard and was riding the wave.
The location of the wave gathered a lot of attention, eventually prompting the launching of the ARSA later that year, along with Paul Barrett, Neil Egsgard, and Chris Szampanksi.
"River surfing in Alberta is what surfing was like in the 1950s — not too many people are doing it yet, and a lot of people are curious about it," said Brooks. "It's so exciting to be a part of leading the charge with river surfing in Alberta."
Brooks started his own surf business, Rocky Mountain River Surfing, in 2011, when he began offering lessons on the Kananaskis River.
TAKING A SHOT AT STATIONARY WAVES
I had first heard about the sport last summer from my friend Lindsay DeJongh, who had been surfing on the Kananaskis River for three years, and suggested I try it out. After a bit of trepidation, I got in touch with Jeff Brooks and set up a lesson.
During my travels through Australia a few years ago I had planned on learning how to surf, first taking a stab at body surfing in an attempt to get comfortable with the waves before renting a board. After a few minutes in the ocean, I misjudged the distance and force of an incoming wall of water and was pummeled in what felt like a human washing machine. Ten seconds with no awareness of where the surface was felt like 10 minutes, and it instilled a deep-rooted uneasiness with unpredictable water.
Having grown up floating, canoeing, and rafting down the rivers of Southern Alberta, I figured I would be semi-comfortable with easing into surfing again in this familiar setting. After all, it was just a river.
BECOMING ONE WITH THE WATER
As Lindsay and I drove out to my first river surfing lesson in Dora, my '96 Explorer, she told me about her first time surfing a solitary river wave. My stomach started to sink.
"Honestly, I panicked the first time I got in. The river really sends you downstream and I choked on a lot of water, it was pretty scary," Lindsay warned me, pulling her sun-bleached hair back with a pair of wayfarers. "It can be shallow at some parts, so you can hit the bottom or get your leash caught in the rocks. You've just gotta be careful."
Instead of letting my mind wander to the worst possible scenario, I chose the all-too-familiar coping mechanism of denial and blasted Dora's radio even louder to block out fears of imminent failure.
We met Jeff and three other river surfers at Canoe Meadows Campground parking lot near the Kananaskis River, just south of the Stoney Nakoda Casino on Highway 40.
After the nearly impossible task of shoving every square inch of my body into a wetsuit like Jell-O in Saran Wrap, we grabbed our boards and waddled to the campground for our dry lesson. Jeff showed us the different techniques for getting up on the board once we were in the wave, and then we followed him down the barefoot-worn path to the river.
With the roar of the robust river growing louder with every step, I seriously considered turning around and heading back to Dora. I already had Instagram "proof" of my epic adventure. No one would have to know.
But we continued further upstream to the entry point where Jeff instructed us on how to paddle and exactly what to do to get to the wave.
Repressing the squeamish feeling in my gut, we waded into the river and hopped on our boards downstream to the wave we would soon begin surfing. I followed close on Jeff's heel as I gulped what I thought would be my last breath of oxygen and plummeted head-first into the wave. I fell off my board and broke through the surface high on adrenaline. I was completely safe, and I felt amazing.
All of my fears washed away.
The group of us sat bobbing on our board while Jeff's friend Jacob stood on a nearby rock and pulled each of us into the stationary wave with a three metre long PVC pipe — a much easier method than swimming into the wave solo, as the more seasoned river surfers do.
I was propelled by nothing but positive energy as I took my first stab at getting into the stationary wave. I was promptly swept down the river without even a few seconds of practice. Panic momentarily set in, but after swimming to the shore and after a few more attempts, I was finally floating with my board on top of a flowing wall of water, a truly surreal experience.
Jeff said that with his third summer in the business, the number of river surfers he's seen has quadrupled. All of this came to an abrupt halt, however, as the flooding in June 2013 devastated parts of Alberta and destroyed the stationary waves, the whitewater park, and the barrier dam that allowed year-round controlled water flow on the Kananaskis River.
MAKING A COMEBACK
As the flooding tapered off, within a month the Alberta Whitewater Association (AWA) and volunteers were already reconstructing a section of the river, just in time for the National Whitewater Championships that July.
"We've had very narrow windows of time where we could actually get in the river and work," said Chuck Lee, executive director of the AWA. "In July we were able to get in for a couple of days to rebuild that little stretch of river for the Nationals, but that was all the work that could be done at that time."
Jeff and his fellow river surfers had hopes of installing a man-made feature in the river last fall to bring a new stationary wave to life. However, with plenty of work still to be done, the river surfing season — which for a few brave souls continues into the winter — was temporarily put on hold.
April brought new hope to those again wanting to enjoy water sports on the Kananaskis River, as volunteers came together on two occasions to continue working and touching up the features. But river surfers will still have to wait it out a bit longer to ride a Kananaskis wave.
"The River Surfing Association had requested an opportunity to try to build a new surfing feature, and we were able to help them get machinery onsite to help build their structure," said Lee. "We were also able to bring in a lot of large rock that will anchor our future site going forward, so we believe it won't be as easily affected in the future (in case of a flood)."
Lee said that it may not be until October that the wave structure is properly installed, as the permit application and review process for installing the structure could take several months. As well, Lee said the window of opportunity to work is restricted to spring and fall, operating within parameters that won't affect fish spawn and habitat.
SCOPING NEW SURFABLE WAVES
This didn't deter Jeff Brooks. He scouted a new wave after the flooding destruction last summer.
"After the flood I was losing hope that there'd be a surfable wave, but after searching around I found one not many people have surfed yet," he said.
Located on the Elbow River near Bragg Creek, Brooks began lessons again at this new surf spot in spring, until the water flow reduced to the point of making it unsurfable.
"The amazing thing about the Kananaskis was that with the barrier dam, you'd get a consistent flow of water down the river every single day," said Brooks.
"It's a never-ending search for waves, and that's one of the cool aspects about river surfing," Jeff said. "There are a lot of rivers and so many untapped waves. There's so much opportunity for people who are landlocked to surf without flying to Hawaii or Cali or Mexico."