2,000 cubic feet of water rushed and roiled past Drae Howell every second as he stood, poised with surfboard in hand, ready to jump into the fast current of the Clark Fork River. He leaps as he throws down his surfboard, planing across the wave in a graceful arc over the chaos of the wave. He fights to stay on, but eventually his edge catches on a seam and the board is torn out from under him, and he falls, face first into the hydraulic, appearing seconds later downstream, grinning as he swims toward shore to give it another go. Friends and strangers alike congratulate him as he gets back in line, and they all watch the next surfer jump in. Just one decade ago, the wave they are surfing now didn’t exist, but was instead a dangerous diversion weir.
Missoula, Montana, is becoming a surf town. It has no ocean, in fact, the entire state is landlocked, but the community now seems to almost revolve around surfing. And it was all made possible in memory of one whitewater kayaker who inspired others with a life well-lived.
Brennan Guth was a Missoulian kayaker and river lover who died kayaking in Chile in 2001. In memory of Guth, the ugly and hazardous mess of concrete and rebar down river of the Higgins Avenue Bridge was converted into a place where people now gather to swim and surf.
Located in the middle of downtown Missoula alongside Caras Park, this man-made wave was built to be a good surf wave at almost every water level. Finished in 2006, Brennan’s Wave transformed an unsafe water diversion weir into a friendly, surfable wave, on which you can see kayakers and river surfers taking their turn most days throughout the summer and fall, and even throughout the rest of the year.
Brennan’s Wave has spawned a surfing sub-culture in Missoula. And the surfing community is a dedicated one. Even on weekdays, 10 people may be in line to take a turn on the wave. Everyone from teenagers to Baby Boomers can be seen on the wave, and there isn’t a competitive or antagonistic attitude in Missoula like those that pervade many other ocean surf communities.
This healthy, outdoor-based culture has economic benefits as well. Not only does it consistently bring Missoulians downtown, but it brings in visitors. In 2010, Missoula hosted the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships, which brought 2,000 out-of-town supporters and 5,000 spectators to town.
While the wave was originally designed and built for kayakers, the culture around the wave has changed dramatically in the past couple years. Where you used to see only kayakers, river surfers are becoming the dominant user group. In fact, Missoula is now a hot bed for pioneers of the fledgling sport of river surfing.
“Oh yeah,” says Kevin Benhart “KB” Brown, co-owner of Strongwater Mountain Surf Company, when asked about the changing culture of Brennan’s Wave. “It’s, like, 90 percent surfers … It’s been transitioning for, like, four years now,” says Brown.
The transition from kayaking to surfing has made Brennan’s Wave accessible to a far wider range of people, and has made it a natural tourist attraction. As opposed to whitewater kayaking, surfing is fun right off the bat for a beginner.
“This is more, like, instant fun,” says Brown. “So with kayaking, if people do a lesson, they come back and they have an ok time. But people rent a surfboard and they cannot even come close to catching a wave and come back and be like ‘That was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life!’”
Not only that, but river surfing is cheap compared to whitewater kayaking. All you need is the surfboard and maybe a wetsuit. Strongwater, Missoula’s only surf shop, located just across the Clark Fork River from Brennan’s Wave, has boards that they’ll rent you for $10 and a wetsuit for $10. If you don’t care about the wetsuit, you can be totally equipped to have a good time surfing for a couple of hours for $10. If you’re looking to buy – which you probably will be after giving it a try – expect to spend anywhere from $300 to $800 for different qualities of boards. Starting late this year, Strongwater expects to have a less expensive, specially designed and produced river surfboard available for purchase. A wetsuit can cost around $300, but is not necessary for summertime surfing. If you’re looking for surf lessons, Strongwater offers those for $40 for two hours.
Brennan’s Wave has been such a benefit to the community that a second wave is in the process of being built just downstream. The Max Wave, in memory of Missoulian kayaker Max Lentz, was just submitted for permitting and could be ready as early as next spring. The Max Wave will have three separate waves, one for beginners, one specifically for kayakers, and one specifically for river surfers, reducing congestion and solidifying Missoula’s reputation as a surf town and pioneer of this exciting new sport.
The culture, the sport, the wave and downtown Missoula itself are more than worth the couple hour drive from Spokane and North Idaho to experience. Spend $10 and try a river surf session. You may just never stop.
For more info on planning a trip to Missoula, head to Destinationmissoula.org. The site also has plenty of info on where to stay, including hotels and campgrounds. //
Road Trip Missoula: September Events
If you need more reasons than surfing to make the trek to Missoula, plan your adventure to Montana’s surf city around one of these events.
Downtown ToNight (September 3 & 10)
A free weekly music and food festival held in downtown Missoula.
Dirty Dash 5k Mud Obstacle Run (September 12)
A muddy obstacle course race. $62 race registration.
Germanfest (September 13)
A free annual celebration of Missoula’s sister city Neckargemund, Germany.
Third Annual Brains and Brawn (September 19)
A unique team-based event that tests both athleticism and intelligence. Think treasure hunt combined with a triathlon. $100 per team of 5.
Last Wednesday Beer Run (September 30)
A fun run with beer at the end. What more do you want?