River surfing picks up as snow melts

First seen in The Montana Kaimin

Surfers and kayakers speckle the waves near Caras Park in the spring, catching river swells as snow melts from the mountains and flows into the Clark Fork River. The early season surfers are taking advantage of the river before the water gets too high and washes out the waves. Last year, record floods in Missoula left the waves as small ripples for a week-and-a-half while huge trees hurtled down the Clark Fork River.

For Nani Murray, a senior studying health and human sciences, the transition from kayaking to surfing meant leaving the comfort of her boat, life jacket and helmet for a wetsuit and river board. Murray grew up in Missoula and learned to surf in high school when her parents decided to pick it up.

“It looked like the surfers were having way more fun than us kayakers, so I just switched,” she said.

Murray was frustrated that summer as she tried to catch the wave to surf and struggled to swim back to it. She still struggles with the same things today, and each river wave presents unique challenges.

“It is the same sensation you have skiing on a powder day when you get up and catch the wave, and it feels good to work super hard at something and finally stand up and feel the wave,” Murray said.

She has surfed since the end of high school, and is one of the few females in Missoula’s river-surfing community. Like many water sports, women have yet to become a prominent force in river surfing.

Missoula gave birth to river surfing from a small surf shop that stuck out as an oddity on Higgins. Strongwater Surf Shop, run by Kevin Benhart Brown, left the Hip Strip last year, but the strong presence of young surfers at the wave is proof of Brown’s impact on Missoula’s surfing culture. Though the gear needed to river surf is not extensive, the learning curves can be steep. Learning how to read a wave and the river can be difficult, said León Beltrán Laborde, a UM senior focusing on environmental studies.

Laborde, a river guide and part-time surfer, has been catching turns in town on his surfboard before the river rises. If the river is too high or too low, the water won’t make the waves surfers need. When the wave in town isn’t enough, surfers head out to catch waves on the whitewater sections of the Clark Fork near Alberton, Montana and on the Lochsa River in Idaho.

The surfers say they’re a supportive group of people, which is important because the beginning stages of learning to surf entail falling off a surfboard into the waves repeatedly. Catching a wave is a tricky thing. After learning to read where to enter a wave laying on a board, a surfer then must learn how to pop up to their feet so they can ride it.

River surfing can be more difficult than ocean surfing because the waves are smaller and less consistent. When surfers fall, they fall into a rapid and the current’s eddylines can pull a human body underwater quickly.

Watching the waves in town, few surfers consistently catch and make turns on the waves. It can be an exhausting cycle of getting washed out of the wave, swimming back to an eddy and then attempting to catch the wave again.

But when surfers do pop up and slice the river wave with turns, all the exhausting failures are forgotten. The biggest lesson Laborde has taken from surfing is letting go for the river.

“There is no way to fight the water, so it’s learning to work with it,” he said.