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Hanging Ten in Idaho

Surprised to find surfing in the Gem State



Without an ocean nearby, you'd think someone living in landlocked Idaho with a yearning to hang ten would be left hanging out to dry.

It seems a bit counterintuitive for the Gem State, but wave lovers can carve out some serious fun right here at home. Innovators have begun surfing Idaho's rivers on standard ocean surfboards or stand-up paddle boards, picking up where only rafters and kayakers had previously dared travel.

The specific origins of river surfing are up for debate, but there are reports of recreationists riding both standing waves and the occasional tidal bore dating back to the 1970s. When a high volume of water flows over an obstacle, like a rock at the river bottom, a standing wave is created. A tidal bore is an erratic increased volume of water pushing up a river from the ocean that can travel for miles under perfect conditions. They are quite rare (and don't happen at all in Idaho).

Big spring runoff this year made for excellent river surfing. As summer heats up, surfing opportunities begin to recede. Even though the river surfing season is wrapping up, it's a good time to start learning more about it if you're thinking of trying it out. Of course, it should only be attempted by people who are both savvy at surfing and knowledgeable about river hydraulics.

Successfully and safely surfing on a river requires many of the same mechanics as ocean surfing and can be just as dangerous. River rapids are very different from day to day--runoff, rocks, water temperature and other users on the water can make surfing river waves unpredictable and potentially hazardous.

Additionally, a river wave will often be in close proximity to more turbulent rapids downstream--given that they occur as a result of geography and a changing river bottom. One mistake on a wave and a surfer could be in for a crazy ride down river.

And though sharks may be of no concern in Idaho's rivers, there are other monsters lurking beneath. Some man-made spots have twisted rebar hidden just under the surface, which could easily fillet someone who hasn't done his or her homework before getting amped about getting on some river waves.

The challenges and inherent dangers of river surfing make for a relatively small group of avid purists who know what they are doing.

Dr. Steven Baker of Habitat Veterinary Health Center in Bown Crossing knows what he is doing and, much like ocean surfers who are fortunate to live near a beach, Baker likes to hit local river waves during his lunch break--sometimes he even takes his kayak out.

"The surfing community in Boise is very close-knit and dedicated to the sport," said Baker.

Temperatures make what a river can throw at a surfer completely different than what a surfer might get a face full of while catching a wave in say, Hawaii. Not being cautious in icy waters can be a hard-learned lesson.

"The water is bone-numbingly cold snow melt ... [that] has given me a healthy respect for the power of the river," Baker said.

Another dedicated member of the surfing community is Jeff Banks with Boise-based Glide Stand-Up Paddle Boards, who has been river surfing for years in this area.

"Waves tend to be a little bit slower on the river [than in the ocean]," Banks said. "It's nice because you can set up in the eddy next to the wave and prepare in a calm setting."

Banks recommends that people looking to try river surfing for the first time--whether on a long board, short board or stand-up paddle board--take a whitewater safety and/or swiftwater rescue class before trying the sport. He also recommends the upper wave at Kelly's Whitewater Park in Cascade as a great and safe wave to learn on. Once a surfer feels comfortable enough to test his or her skills, other popular spots in the area include the Gutter outside of Horseshoe Bend, the 36th Street wave between Boise and Garden City, as well as the Weir, Fish Ladder and a handful of other seasonal rapids on the Payette River.

Arguably Idaho has some of the best river recreation in the United States, if not the world. And the opportunities continue to arise. Keep an eye out for the completion of the Ray Neef MD Boise River Recreation Park, which will give Boise thrill seekers additional resources for whitewater fun.

It may not be long before Idaho is right alongside California or Hawaii when a surfer goes looking for da kine waves.

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