My passion and passtime is river surfing. Like most Rocky Mountain surfers, I learned to surf in warmer waters and came home looking for its next closest relatives. Snowboarding, longboarding, SUP, and slackline, but nothing seemed to scratch the itch. The only thing that would light up my soul was trips to the coast. Over time, river surfing consumed all that.
How did you first get into surfing? What attracted you to the sport?
I first learned to surf in Australia. Like most kids growing up in rural Alberta, I played hockey and skied in the mountains but was always attracted to surfing since I first saw it on TV. The first time I rode a board in the ocean I was hooked. I came back to the Rockies with a fresh enthusiasm for snowboarding, longboarding big hills, and any other chance I could get to ride a board. For me it was the mindfulness required to centre myself into the complete present moment and the pure self-expression that comes out of that. It carried through to all the other aspects of my life, making me more present, patient, mindful, and creative.
How did this transition into river surfing?
After getting bit by the surf bug, that was it. If even remotely close to surfing, I would try it until my next trip back to the ocean. My favourite was starting the University of Lethbridge Surf Club with a few friends and taking some freshmen kooks down to the California coastline to teach them how to ride waves on our reading break. After returning from our first trip south, one of the club members sent me a newspaper clipping of surfing the 10th Street wave in downtown Calgary. I laughed at the thought of riding such a tiny wave and told Jeff I would stick to the ocean, thanks. Regardless of my restraint, he had me surfing a wave in Kananaskis in no time. The wave lacked the power and rhythm of any ocean, but, that feeling I had the first time I learned to surf in Australia came rushing back. Since then I’ve been addicted to riding new river-waves and bringing back that first-time feeling.
Can you recall the moment you decided to live a more adventurous life? Did something happen to make you want to explore as you are now?
Growing up, I always knew there was something else out there for me. I grew up in small-town Okotoks, so there wasn’t much to do except play in the river and build tree forts with my younger brother. Pretty early in, I developed a thirst for making my own fun through seeking out adventure. I can’t drill it down to a specific moment, but at some point I made a deal with myself that I would invest my earnings into memories instead of things. It seemed to be the perfect storm for river-surf exploration. This is a new world that is completely uncharted. There are endless waves out there, completely untouched by other surfers, waiting to be discovered.
You set out on a mission to surf 100 river waves. If you had to recommend a location or river that you’ve visited on your mission, where would you send us?
The perfect experience for someone looking to get into the scene is making the annual spring pilgrimage to the Lochsa River in northern Idaho. About a 10 hour drive southwest of Calgary, Alberta, this barrelling river wave offers a five out of five for a good surf trip. The wave quality is world-class and relatively safe if you are a strong swimmer. Its prime levels can be predicted in advance so you know it will be good when you get there. The scenery follows a raging river weaving through lush mountains and stretching high into heartwarming sunsets. With a range of accommodations from tenting at the base of the hot springs to rustic cabins down the road, there’s something for everyone. Cell service is nil to none, and the population of the nearest town is 24. The water is fresh, cool, and crystal clear and can easily wash away whatever stress and worries await you back in the city.
What are your three must-have bits of kit for a river-surfing adventure?
I’m always near a river. So instead of packing water or wasting plastic, I have a LifeStraw water bottle that I don’t leave home without. Our equipment isn’t much different from ocean surfers, so a quality wetsuit and a decent surfboard is really all you need. Some glamping supplies can make a tent in the woods feel like home, and a camera or journal are always nice to have. But beyond all that, you need to bring a friend—someone to watch your back, share some drinks with around the campfire, and especially help you exaggerate the stories of the sweet, sweet surf you scored when you get back home. Surfing can be a very minimalizing activity—with each trip, I try to pack less and less.
Always on the road, you must have a huge appreciation for the great outdoors and a dear connection with nature. What does “giving back” mean to you?
I just want to do everything I can to ensure these wild waves are still around for future generations to explore. I don’t think everyone has to be a hard-core hippie to make that happen, but making smarter decisions in the short term can go a long way. It’s not always easy, but stopping to think about how much waste we produce and being earth-wise in the things we do on a regular basis—like our trips to the grocery store or cleaning house—can ensure a healthy future.
How’d you get involved with Surf Anywhere?
Surf Anywhere started pretty simply with the Alberta River Surfing Association. We are fortunate to have the Kananaskis River in our playground in the Rocky Mountains. Here’s the special thing the Kan offers that other rivers don’t: The Transalta power dam turns the river on and off every day. The ability to turn a river off is like building a laboratory for river-wave building. In the earliest years of the Alberta River Surf Association, we worked to develop better waves for surfing. With each approved construction period, we moved rocks and could directly see their outcome. This compressed lifetimes of modelling and research into less than a decade, and the outcome was a surf wave we are all proud of. Building the “Mountain Wave” in 2014 put us centre-stage for other eager wave-building communities, and the emails started coming in. We have since been working with other river surf associations around the world to produce the same results. The joy that surfing brings to my day-to-day life is the ultimate gift I can give someone else. It’s been incredibly challenging and equally rewarding to pour all my free time into building waves and community.
What did you hope to achieve from your Unsurfed Afghanistan documentary?
To be honest, I didn’t really know what we would find or have a concrete goal when we started planning the trip to Afghanistan. We didn’t even know if there would be waves. The intel we had was enough to get excited at the possibility of surfing, but we each bought a plane ticket knowing we could get there and have nothing to surf. Ultimately, we ended up spending more time in the bullet-proof land cruiser, driving up and down the river, than we spent in the water.
I spotted this one wave-train after a bridge that looked like nothing from the road, but I was done being locked in the truck and I needed to get wet. By the time we suited up and scouted the section for hazards, a school across from the wave let out a crowd of kids that lined the river bank. When I finally got to my feet and made my turns on the bucking river-bowl, I just kept thinking this is for them and not for me.
For a kid in Afghanistan, up to that point, surfing was impossible. All I wanted to do was travel to a new place and find some waves, but surfing those waters opened those kids’ eyes to the possibility of surfing in their home. Seeing surfing in movies and magazines is all I had access to as a kid. But from the moment I saw someone on a surfboard, I knew I wanted that in my life—no matter what it took to make it happen. It felt incredible to now be the one to give that gift.
It’s a pretty personal look at your life and your involvement with the surf community. Were you nervous about putting so much of yourself out there?
I would have loved to have found surfing when I was a kid growing up in Alberta. I’m just trying to do as much as I can to spread this thing and give others opportunities I never had. Putting myself out there can be tough sometimes. I’m like anyone else and get nervous or stressed out, but when I get back out there on a wave, all that washes away.
Any particular moment that really moved you? Tell us about it.
When we surfed in front of the school, I really felt like I was making a difference. After each surf, the boys came up to encourage me. At least I assume that’s what they were doing—I couldn’t understand their language, but we connected on a level beyond words (mostly high fives and fist bumps). One kid was especially taken by what I was doing out there. After every surf, he came to cheer me on. When we were packing up, I showed how the fin key worked and handed it to him as a memento from the day. He wouldn’t accept it at first. After our host translated to the boy that I was offering him a gift, he held it proudly. Later, Ehsan told me that he told the boy that I was giving him the key to surfing in Afghanistan.
You have also started working on ‘10th Street Waves and Urban Beach.’ What inspired you to do this project, and how has it been so far?
In 2014 I was fortunate enough to speak at a River Wave Forum in Munich, Germany, on the topic of river-surf associations. The forum brought together all the community leaders in Europe to share ideas and lessons learned about wave-building. Since then, Surf Anywhere has been researching wave design and making connections with river surfers around the world.In 2017 we went down to Bend, Oregon, to host the River Surf Summit and bring together North America for the same purpose. It’s amazing to see how much passion there is for the river-surfing movement and how we can be a hub for it right here in Calgary, Alberta. One main theme that came up at the summit is that when you go to a surf beach in California or Australia, there are 100 to 1 people on the beach as there are surfers. Beach culture is something that improves people’s lives. In a world of Netflix and smart phones, it’s needed even more to get people out of the house. The world-class surf wave we are proposing for the city will be surfed by thousands of people. But more than that, we want it to be a public space that is used by millions. This will be a landmark after it’s built and a model for other river cities around the world to follow.
What key things have kept you going, and why?
Actually, the Surf YYC project is just getting started. Our focus for the Alberta River Surfing Association has been on the Kananaskis this past decade. Last year our community reached around 400 surfers, and the wave we built in 2014 is maxed out. The reason river surfing hasn’t exploded here is that it’s still relatively unknown, and access is limited. Building a surf beach in downtown Calgary would be revolutionary. Thousands of Albertans and thousands more travelling in from out of province can now tap into that same feeling that got me hooked all those years ago. River surfing is low impact and low risk, and it’s perfect cross training for snowboarding, skateboarding, and other balance sports like stand-up paddleboarding, yoga, and mountain biking. There is a meditative aspect to the sport and a level of creativity and expression that is hard to find elsewhere. In the age of TV on demand and smart phones engineered to keep our attention, river surfing is a much-needed connection to nature and to fitness alternatives that develop healthy, happy people.
This is more than just building a tennis court or a hockey rink. Building a surf wave is giving something to people that is only found on an ocean coastline. The only other thing that comes close is artificial wave pools that are gaining popularity. These pay-to-use facilities are developing the sport of surfing and allowing athletes to work on their maneuvers in ways never before possible in an ocean. But when compared to river waves, the cost doesn’t add up for the average person in Alberta. River waves cost less than a quarter of the price to build and millions less to operate, and they produce over three times the amount of wave time for surfers. The structure required merely harnesses the raw power that already exists in a river. We just shape its flow to minimize the risk and turn the current into a playground.
Lastly, what can we expect from you in the future? Where will the road take you and what waves will you surf next?
There are still lots of monster river-waves in remote rivers around the world that I want to check off my list. I can see Unsurfed Afghanistan growing into a project that brings surfing into new, uncharted territory. Unfortunately I can’t be on the road all the time, though. Calgary is my home, and I love living here. You’ll still be able to find me down at the 10th Street wave when I’m not volunteering with Slam Festival or other river-surf events. I would love to see a clubhouse in the city where surf videos play in the background and friends share stories about waves from around the world.
What advice do you have for readers who are interested in becoming part of the project or helping out?
All of the info is on our website, albertariversurfing.com. We post about fundraisers, gear, where to learn to surf, and river safety. From our site, you can also connect to our Facebook page and group. By far, the best way to show support is to purchase a membership. It’s only $20, and it adds you to our newsletter so you can keep in touch with all the developments and activities happening throughout Alberta.