The Man Behind the Wave

Bend Bulletin’s Kyle Spurr did a nice little write up on Bend Whitewater Park’s Head Wave Shaper Ryan Richards: 

Surfers and kayakers cutting through the waves at the Bend Whitewater Park know the slightest change in the water level can turn a perfect ride into a total wipe out.
Rather than wait for conditions to improve, they just turn to Ryan Richard, the park’s wave shaper. He controls the thrill. The surfers want a steeper face. The kayakers want what they call a sticky wave.
“You can literally text him and say, ‘Hey, anything you can do?’ And he will clean it up,” said Bend resident Dustin Urban, a 33-year-old former professional freestyle kayaker and avid river surfer.
Richard, 31, a former wave shaper at the Boise River Park in Idaho, has gotten to know all the regulars at the park, which is run by the Bend Park & Recreation District. He’s been shaping waves on the Deschutes River since the park opened in 2015.
As a river surfer himself, Richard has a shared interest in keeping the whitewater running smoothly through the entire park.
“He’s out here all the time fine tuning it and doing everything he can to make it the best wave possible with the water level,” Urban said. “He’s a surfer, so he is motivated as a part of his job to have it be good, but also because he likes to surf.”
Richard can be found most days walking up and down the island along the whitewater channel, asking people how they like the different features there. Even if he wanted to be incognito, it wouldn’t work. He is hard to miss in his blue work polo shirt, signature man-bun and muscular build.
The park, which has three channels, sits where the Colorado Avenue bridge crosses the river. In addition to the middle channel, Richard has to monitor the water that goes through the other two passageways in the park — for its inner tube floaters on the west side of the river and the wildlife habitat on the east side.
“It’s a continuously dynamic environment that I’m always adjusting every single day,” Richard said. “Even if I get it set up perfect one day, the very next morning there is no guarantee that it’s going to be any better.”
And there’s a lot to set up.
In a control room at the park, Richard can manually adjust the air pressure in 26 inflatable bladders that move gates up and down under the rushing river, changing the water level and the size and shape of the waves. More often, he prefers to use a program on an iPad to remotely operate the whitewater park.
He is constantly accounting for different variables that change the flow of the Deschutes River, including how much water is released from Wickiup Dam, how much water seeps into the riverbed and how much runoff water adds to the flow.
“I can control how the volume is distributed in the park,” he said. “What comes down the river is out of my control.”
Julie Brown, a spokeswoman for the park district, said Richard has been working long hours since he came to Bend in 2015, including working the Zamboni on the ice rink in The Pavilion the past two winters. He earns between $40,000 to $50,000 each year.
To keep him from getting burned out, a second wave shaper is being hired and is expected to start work later this month, Brown said. It is an important job for the safety and enjoyment of the park, she said.
“The river dynamics fluctuate so much, it’s not realistic to set the levels and think they are going to be consistent throughout the day,” Brown said. “You actually need to have hands-on management of them.”
The Bend Whitewater Park, built with funds from the $29 million bond passed by voters in 2012, first opened in September 2015 but closed a month later for repairs. The passageway channel closed for a little more than a month in June 2016, after multiple reports of injuries and damaged floating equipment.
Repairs this past winter fixed the features in the park, making it a popular summer attraction this year.
On the Fourth of July, about 5,600 floaters used the whitewater park, according to the park district. On a peak summer day, Richard estimates 200 to 300 surfers and kayakers use the whitewater channel’s four artificial waves.
Surfing and kayaking will likely continue throughout the year, even in the winter months.
“There will be people out there in the snow, 30 degrees outside,” Richard said. “I expect them to keep coming all year long.”

And while they might not know Richard, they know of his waves.

That’s the case for Ian Buckley, a 49-year-old expert kayaker and engineer from San Francisco. He stopped at the whitewater park last week while on a road trip. He made a similar trip to the park last year, but said he had a much better ride this summer from all the repairs.

Buckley, who has kayaked for four decades, said many water parks can be intimidating to novice kayakers. But Bend’s park is welcoming to both beginners and experienced kayaker like himself, he said.

“This is good training for experienced people like me,” Buckley said. “It’s nice to take two hours to come down here and get breathless.”

For Richard — who grew up water skiing, kayaking and rafting on the mountain lakes and rivers in North Idaho — working as a wave shaper is a dream job.

Sometimes at work he will put on a wet suit, grab his surfboard and test out the waves he’s created.

“When everything is running smooth, it’s awesome,” Richard said. “A good day is when everyone is enjoying all of the features. The kayakers are happy. The surfers are happy. And I get to surf a bunch.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com