Newsflash: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Spokane River has become the newest surfing hotspot here in the Inland Northwest. Yes – that’s right…the Spokane River.
In the Spokane Valley, just east of Sullivan Road, people geared up in helmets, PFD’s and stand-up paddle boards, line up uniformly in a slack-water section of the river. They are waiting patiently for their turn at one of the world’s more unlikely surfing spots. Spokane is hundreds of miles from the coast and even further from any surfable ocean breaks. But an ingenious band of surfers has not let the absence of conventional waves put them off. The “Sullivan St. Wave” has become one of the newest hotspots of a not-so-new inland watersport: river surfing.
The sport actually can be traced back to the 1970s, with a small group attaching tow-ropes to the bridge that crosses the Eisbach River in Germany. They would hold the ropes, try to stand up on door-like planks and attempt to emulate the ocean surfers that they had seen overseas. It didn’t take long to realize that the ropes were unnecessary. The fast flowing water of the Eisbach ploughs into a deeper section of the river that barely moves at all, creating a consistent, albeit dangerous, wave effect. Signs warn inexperienced river surfers not to attempt surfing – rocks, strong currents and lack of space combine to make getting in the water perilous.
John Fair, Director of EWU’s Epic Adventures, has been a pioneer in the Spokane River surf scene since 2011. Through Epic, John has been providing surf lessons to Eastern students since 2012. “Nine out of ten people who come out for our clinics will be upright and surfing by the end,” says Fair. “We make sure everyone does a swim test before we get started and that everyone is fully outfitted with boards and safety gear,” he adds.
River surfing requires a different type of board than your traditional short surf boards or large flat-water SUPs. Badfish SUP out of Salida, Colorado is one of the first manufacturers to design river surfing/SUP boards. The boards are designed to be short, relatively broad and durable. Some also have Kevlar edges to prevent damage from regularly crashing against a river’s stonewall banks.
River surfing also requires traditional ocean surfers to learn new skills: there is no time to get up and let the wave approach you – river surfers have to be riding the second they are pushed from the slack-water into the moving water – and movement is lateral rather than up and down the break. Holding your position in the narrow confines of the wave is the challenge.
Moving water and the obtrusive objects that typically make up a river bottom can create a unique set of dangers that all river surfers must address. “There is a lot of essential gear we use out here: river specific SUPs, helmets, life vests. But probably the most essential piece of gear would be the use of a quick-release board leash,” says Fair. “Strong currents can present a lot of dangerous scenarios and having the ability to quickly separate yourself from your board can save your life,” he adds.
Fair, along with a handful of locals, surfs the river on a year-round basis. With each season, fluctuations in river flows bring certain waves into peak condition as others go out of peak. “Optimal flows would be around 1,800 CFS for our beginner wave here at Sullivan,” says Fair. As the flow reaches 6-10,000 CFS, waves such as Fair’s favorite, “Trailer Park Wave,” come into peak. These are much more advanced waves and should not be attempted by novice river surfers. When flows reach maximum levels in May (20-40,000 CFS), “Corbin Wave” is the hotspot. But this is super advanced territory, and river flows like this can be downright deadly to an inexperienced river surfer.
Fair has established a “River Surf Spokane” Facebook page. He has plans to use the page as a way to organize impromptu and beginner-friendly surf lessons. You can also find lots of pictures and videos detailing his group’s latest outings on the page. “It won’t be anything official, just friendly and welcoming to folks who want to come out and give river surfing a try,” says Fair.
Mountain Gear, one of Spokane’s premier outdoor outfitters, is the first and only retailer in the region to carry river surfing-specific boards. “We started carrying Badfish boards this last spring in anticipation of more folks wanting to enter the sport,” says Russell Aldrich, a sales associate for Mountain Gear. “The boards start at about a thousand dollars, but for sixty dollars you can rent a Badfish board, paddle, PFD and helmet if you just want to give it a try,” he adds.
While it bears some resemblance to traditional surfing, river surfing is a unique and diverse sport that land-locked water junkies have zeroed in on. While it is both fun and exhilarating, it can be challenging and dangerous. It’s highly recommended that anyone who is interested in learning more about this exciting sport take proper lessons from those who are well versed in SUP river sports and whitewater rescue techniques.