Strong water Tips 

Montana’s Strongwater Surf Shop Shaper and Owner KB Brown’s take on River Surfing.

Inertia Associate Editor – Dylan Heyden

There’s a bonafide surfing community in Montana now, and they are some of the most surf stoked people out there.

There’s a bonafide surfing community in Montana now, and they are some of the most surf stoked people out there.

The Inertia
There’s something mildly poetic about surfing a standing wave on a river in America’s wild west, hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline. Call it eccentric. Call it a juxtaposition. Just don’t call it a novelty.

Across the country, and in other parts of the world, river surfing has taken root as a full-fledged subculture – complete with its own shapers, icons, characters, and surf spots.
Surf media occasionally manages to give river surfing some fleeting recognition, namely when icons in ocean surfing like Alex Gray or Gerry Lopez make cameos. But the river surfing scene continues to flourish regardless of coverage. In an earnest effort to understand the sport better and give the scene the attention it deserves, we decided to reach out to KB Brown, owner and shaper at Strong Water Mtn. Surf Co. in Missoula, Montana, to get some insights into the basics of using a surfboard in a river.
On conditions…
In the ocean, keeping an eye on conditions is essential. You, of course, have swell period and height, tide, and wind. River surfers have their own conditions to be aware of – mainly, according to KB, river levels. And to check on them, surfers peruse the US Geological Survey website to gauge how much water is in a particular river on any given day (most surf spots are calibrated to river level). “For instance, there’s a wave I’m headed to surf in a bit that typically starts working between 17,500 CFS (cubic feet per second), and gets better as the river rises. It’s like 22,000 CFS now so it’s gonna be good!”
On equipment…
The approach on a river wave is different than an ocean wave. Surfers flow back and forth across the face instead of top to bottom. Still, boards don’t differ too much from what we see in the ocean now, says KB. Shorter, wider, flatter is the name of the game in the river – much like the current trend on the coast (think about a board you’d use to grovel on small days). One difference KB notes is that he creates boards with boxier rails that dig less. He also makes boards with FCS plugs instead of Futures fin boxes, because if they get blown out they’re easier to replace.
On leashes…
Leashes tend to be a point of contention in the river surfing realm. It’s not hard to imagine the worst case scenario when tethered to your surfboard: getting looped on a rock with the board going one way and you the other, strung out in the flow and unable to reach your leash because of the force of the water. KB explains that XM makes a calf leash with a quick release and a comp weight cord. That way if things go wrong the surfer can hopefully reach their calf easier than their ankle and release the connection. Also, a comp weight over a thicker cord is more likely to break in a worst case scenario (which is what you want). In addition, some surfers actually take additional precaution and use leashes attached to quick release belts around their wastes so they’re easy to reach. In general, if you don’t have a quick-release mechanism, perhaps consider not wearing a leash.
Other safety considerations…
KB is emphatic that neither he nor any other river surfers should be in the business of rule-making. “Just like in the ocean,” he says, “it’s a matter of preference and common sense.” If guys want to wear a helmet or PFD (life jacket), that’s up to them. But if they don’t want to, KB says, that’s their prerogative.
KB grew up kayaking and says that if you showed up to the river without a helmet to kayak, you weren’t getting on the river. When surfing a river wave, though, you fall differently than you would in a kayak (and you’re not upside down trying to roll). The board itself also acts as a PFD (as long as you’ve still got a hold of it). That’s why he eschews the need for a helmet and PFD.
Bottom line: show respect
Sound familiar? Any surf instructor worth his salt will tell beginners that above all, surfing is about respecting the power of the ocean. Enduring a two-wave hold down reinforces the point. Similarly, a river demands equal respect. KB explains that the ocean surfers who are most successful in Missoula are the ones who show up to a spot and watch how it’s done – the same way they’d approach a new spot on the coast – and even ask questions. River surfers (in Missoula, at least) are more than happy to give pointers.