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The Mountain Surf Scene


By Kevin Hjertaas

When you think of surfing, it’s likely you don’t picture the Canadian Rockies. Yet, surf sports are growing in popularity each year and are quickly becoming a preferred way to explore the mountains. Kevin Hjertaas talks to some of the sports’ most passionate proponents.

Photo by Mason Neufeld.

A man striding across the sands of Waikiki wearing wool plaid and carrying an ice axe is about as natural as surf culture in the Rocky Mountains. Mountain folk are meant to float down or paddle up rivers in the Canadian way: seated in a canoe. But a few forms of surfing have taken hold in these mountains and brought surf culture with them. 

Stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) are now familiar in the Bow Valley, from Quarry Lake in Canmore to Johnson Lake near Banff and the Bow River itself. An offshoot from surfing, the sport incorporates the use of a long paddle as a means of propelling forward. Standing tall on a surfboard engages more muscles and is a bit more challenging than canoeing, but it’s easy enough to have gained broad appeal.

“I can have anyone up and going on their first day,” says Sue Shih of Banff. Sue is a paddleboard instructor and one of the first Banffites to really buy into surfing in the mountains. 

Since she got her first board eight years ago, Sue has seen huge growth in the activity. “Ten years ago, no one owned a paddleboard. Now, all my friends do,” she says. That may be partly due to Sue’s sales job. She’s quite convincing.

“It’s a great sport for sorting out the muscle imbalances from a winter of snowboarding. It’s relatively cheap. Anyone can do it and it’s family-friendly,” she adds. It’s also low impact, safer and less injury-prone than a lot of mountain sports. 

Photo by Mason Neufeld.

Launching into the Bow River off the canoe dock in Banff seems more voyageur culture than surf, but Sue takes a moment to kick off her flip flops, attach a fin to her board and strip down to a bikini like she might in Maui. Paddling the waterways in any fashion is a bonafide way to explore the mountains. Rivers are natural and traditional highways, and a great way to spot wildlife.

“I saw a coyote this morning on the shore of the Bow,” Sue mentions as she drifts past yellow goslings and their parents. Earlier, a hawk drifted past and deer grazed along the shore. 

Sue’s board is a gorgeous torpedo, hand-crafted out of strips of wood, every bit as impressive as a birch bark canoe. But it was built in Australia. It was bought from a shop in Pemberton, B.C., as it seems surfing is taking over mountain towns everywhere.

Photo by (L) Katie Goldie/Travel Alberta/Bow Valley SUP (R) Sue Shih.

Paddleboarding is taking over the world, actually. Anywhere there is water, people are importing this style of surfing. In his six years owning and running Bow Valley Stand Up Paddleboarding, Brandon Olsthoorn has seen “exponential growth every year.” 

Bow Valley Stand Up Paddleboarding runs lessons, sells gear and organizes numerous events. Brandon says, “The race scene is taking off now. The Bow Valley Log Jam is a river race from Canmore to Three Sisters and we’ve sold it out all four years we’ve run it. It’s amazing and people are stoked on it.” The celebration afterwards must be the first time the Legion has hosted a “surf party.”

Brandon started as an ocean surfer looking for a way to scratch the itch in Alberta. Flatwater paddling doesn’t really feel much like standard ocean surfing, though. Adventurous souls like him look to river surfing – the act of riding a standing wave in river rapids. 

An ocean wave is energy moving in a direction that surfers hope to catch and move along with for a brief time. A river wave, by contrast, is a whole lot of energy raging downstream that gets deflected (usually by a rock) and rises up. River surfers use the shape of these standing waves to lift them and, if they can get their board planing properly, keep them in place while the full volume of the river races past them. Good surfers can cut back and forth making turns on the wave almost indefinitely, but any mistake ends up with a flushing and a frantic paddle for shore. 

Good surfers can cut back and forth
making turns on the wave almost indefinitely,
but any mistake ends up with a flushing and
a frantic paddle for shore. 

The Mountain Wave on the Kananaskis River has become the most popular spot in the Rockies for this odd pastime. Rob Heule, a Calgarian skier, surfs it regularly. Rob parks his old Toyota pickup in the shade of trees behind the K-Country Visitor Centre and opens up the rear hatch. Instead of skis or climbing gear, he pulls out a six-foot surfboard and a wetsuit. After waxing the board he begins the dance of getting naked and into the black rubber suit with some degree of modesty. It’s a performance seen all along the California coast and a surfer’s deftness at it tells anyone watching how experienced they are. Of course, none of the hikers or picnicking families here understand that. 

Photo by Mason Neufeld.

Walking to the water, it’s sunny and the smell of coconut sunscreen and surf wax fill the air. It’s all very “surfy,” but his rubber booties squish in mud as they pitter-patter around rocks and moss in the pine forest. The board under Rob’s arm is wood laminate like Sue’s paddleboard, but otherwise, the two forms of surfing have little in common. Where stand up paddleboarding can be a relaxing float with friends, river surfing is a turbulent, loud and cold affair. The river roars as it channels through the rapids and when lying on your board, paddling prone, surfers are right in it. As you learn the patterns of the river it becomes fun and manageable, but for the beginner, it’s an intense experience. 

The water of the Kananaskis is barely above freezing. As you jump into the hole above the wave, your world shrinks. Your vision is limited to the oncoming water, five feet in front of you, and you can’t hear a thing above the roar of the whitewater. The hydraulics bounce you around until you find the sweet spot in the curl. Here, your board can sit, allowing the rushing water to flow underneath. And that’s it. You are holding steady as volumes of water rage by – a moment of peace, calm and balance amid a tempest. Drop an arm or foot into the water and you feel the drag immediately. Tip or dive your board and the water spits you downriver. 

Reunited with the torrent, it becomes a race to reach calm waters near either shore before you are swept over the next rapid. Swimming in cold, clear, clean water as the noise of the river drowns out the world, it’s hard to imagine a more restorative thrashing.

Photos by Mason Neufeld.

Rob surfs with what ocean surfers would call a “classic” style – all balance and grace. He springs to his feet easily and carves his board back and forth on the wave. His stance is relaxed and casual. Other surfers on this mountain wave have more aggressive approaches, with angular carves that splash more water. But Rob’s casual stance and movements mimic what landlubbers everywhere have been taught surfing should be. A style right out of the ’60s film, The Endless Summer

Around Rob, a frigid river rushes through the wild forest below snowcapped peaks. A bear could come down for a drink at any moment. It might be surfing, but it’s definitely a mountain scene.

Keep Reading

Best Spots for Paddling in Banff National Park

Taking SUP to New Heights: Interview with Sue Shih

An ex-stone mason turned avalanche technician, Kevin Hjertaas balances his time in the Bow Valley between parenting and squeezing in any ski adventure he can.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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