Thursday, July 25, 2013

River Surfing

Trip Dates: Summer 2008 - 2010

Surfing should probably be the furthest thing from the minds of most Albertans.  We are an entirely landlocked province and there isn't an ocean for hundreds of kilometres in any direction, but that hasn't stopped a small group of people from living their dreams.  My introduction to river surfing came in May of 2007, while on a paddling trip with work on the lower Kananaskis River.  We were camped at the Canoe Meadows Group Camping Area in Bow Valley Provincial Park and a few guys walked through carrying surfboards.  I was very confused, as surfboards aren't a very common site in Alberta and rarer still in Kananaskis Country.  I had never surfed before, but it was at the top of my list of activities to try so I followed them down to the water to see what they were up to.  What I found amazed me.  These guys were getting into the icy water and surfing a standing wave known as Green Tongue.  

Green Tongue on the Kananaskis River.  Photo Credit: Chris Pecora
Obviously there's some big differences between river surfing and traditional surfing on the ocean.  The biggest is likely the waves themselves.  Where an ocean wave rolls in toward shore, a river wave is created when fast-moving water passes over a drop or slope in the river bottom and it stays in one spot.  River surfers point their boards upstream while balancing on the face of the wave as the water rushes underneath them in the opposite direction.

According to the Alberta River Surfing Association (ARSA) Green Tongue was first surfed in 2004.  When I stumbled upon this secret a few years later there still weren't many people surfing rivers in Alberta, but it was something I knew I just had to try.  At that time none of the local paddling shops in Calgary were carrying surfboards.  Even the lone surf shop didn't have a rental fleet, so I got online and found a 6'0" board on ebay and had it shipped to me.  By this time it was the middle of winter, and although the water on the Kananaskis River was still flowing, I wasn't about to learn to surf with a foot of snow on the ground, so I waited until the summer of 2008.  I snagged a really nice Billabong Gold Series wetsuit from a sample sale, and some booties from Mountain Equipment Co-op and I was set.  I was going to go surfing in southern Alberta!

My surfboard and carrying bag 

I didn't know anybody in the surfing community, so I headed out to Kananaskis on a sunny Saturday afternoon and just hoped that there would a group of people there that I could tag along with.  Luckily I found myself with a small group of surfers who were regulars at Green Tongue.  They gave me quite a few pointers about technique, gear, and even safety.  I had an amazing first day out and planned to return as often as I could.  Over the rest of the summer I headed out to Green Tongue more than a handful of times, but there was always a risk of other surfers not being there.  I wouldn't surf by myself in case something happened, so it was always a gamble.  None of my friends or co-workers were into river surfing so I was trying to infiltrate a close-knit group, which wasn't easy.

One day in the summer of 2009 I met up with a group of surfers in the Canoe Meadows parking lot and asked if I could tag along with them.  They were more than happy to have another surfer around, but they were all good friends and I was an unknown.  On one of my first attempts I slipped off the board and was swept downstream.  My surfboard was upside down and attached to my leg via the leash.  As I was swimming for the eddy it felt like I was trying to haul in an anchor.  The upside down board, combined with the rushing water made it very difficult to swim.  I was carried further downriver than I had been in the past.  When I finally made the shore, I looked up and to my surprise none of the other surfers had even noticed what had happened.  I was fine, but this experience scared me.  It dawned on me that these other guys don't really know me and weren't paying too close attention to what was going on.  All of a sudden I didn't feel as safe as I had in the past and I started second guessing myself.  From that point on I surfed less and less, until I basically stopped altogether.  I still wanted to go, but not having someone that I knew and trusted out there with me, made it very difficult.  I ended up selling my board sometime in 2012.  I'm not trying to scare anybody away from the sport, I'm just saying be smart about things.  I'm also not blaming anybody for what happened, but I should have taken more ownership over my own safety.  That's the biggest reason I slowly stopped going.  If someone I trust wanted to take up the sport again, I would gladly head back out!

The sport has grown quite a bit since my days on the water.  You can take lessons with trained professionals, you can rent boards and gear from different shops in Calgary, there's different standing waves across the country that people are now surfing on, and it appears the ARSA is even bigger, considering they've made the cover of Surfer magazine twice!  If you'd like to learn more about river surfing please follow the link below to Swerve magazine's article about the sport, titled River Pirates or visit the ARSA website.

Recently I did a story for the Calgary Guardian about the history of river surfing in Alberta, titled Cold Water Kings: River Surfing in Southern Alberta.

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