Sure, you’ve done the Mentawais. You honeymooned on Bali. Got beat down on the North Shore, feasted on tapas in Mundaka, drank tea in Morocco, and threw back six-packs of Atlas in Bocas Del Toro. Your passport is dusted with a thin film of salt and sand from dozens of surf trips all over the world. Been there, done that.
Well, not Montana. You’ve never even thought about surfing in Montana.
Kevin Benhart Brown, or KB, would like to change that. He’s co-owner of Strongwater Surf Shop, a little surf oasis in Missoula, Montana. KB’s shop makes and sells surfboards designed specially for river surfing, and he’s helping to build a frothing crew of landlocked surfers 600 miles from the nearest beach.
I connected with KB last week while he was on a surf trip to the coast at Westport, Washington. He’d just gotten out of the water after surfing what what sounded like a great session, but all he really wanted to talk about was the river:
Are you from the coast?
No, I grew up near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in northern Idaho on the panhandle. But when I was a little kid my grandparents lived in San Diego and we'd go visit them. The first time I saw surfing that I can remember, I was probably about 3 years old. I got a skateboard around then as a Christmas present and I started associating skateboarding with surfing on the street. I got big time into snowboarding and wakeboarding and eventually a friend of mine got me on a whitewater kayak. That was the first time I realized that there could be waves on the river. And now we're riding surfboards on the river.
Did you learn to surf on the ocean?
No, I mean I had surfed in the ocean a little bit on family trips, and once or twice a year we'd bust out to the coast, over to Westport. So I got the basic concepts down, but I was never surfing in the ocean consistently, and my performance was nowhere near what it is now. Surfing in the river translates so well to the ocean, because you're still paddling on the board, popping up on the board. So now we get to the ocean, we can jump out of the car and have a blast. “Lochsa Pipeline [on the Lochsa River] is one of the best river waves there is. It has a big face, you can get barreled, it's a really dynamic wave.”
Do you and your crew go on surf trips?
Mostly just out to Oregon or Washington. Last year I went to Hawaii for the first time and it was incredible. For us though, the river is what it's all about. We go down to Lunch Counter in Idaho, which gets a lot of press, and there are some spots near Boise. But if I'm going to travel very far, I'm just going to go the ocean.
How many different spots are there to surf around Missoula?
There are probably at least 10 spots in our area. We watch river reports for the cubic feet per second of the water flow, and we're pretty in-tune with certain spots about how they work on different water levels. We've found the majority of the waves around here, but there are lots of waves that we thought were unsurfable when we first started river surfing, and now we know that most of them are totally doable. Spring is like big-wave season in the river. All the snow melts, the rivers swell up, the waves are more powerful. Lochsa Pipeline [on the Lochsa River] is one of the best river waves there is. It has a big face, you can get barreled, it's a really dynamic wave. Our rivers always have water in them too, so we're able to surf year round. Well, there might be a couple weeks in the winter when there are icebergs in the river so you can't surf, but other than that, we just wear 5/4s, booties, and gloves and we're good to go.
How similar is river surfing to ocean surfing?
You get the sensation of dropping down the face sometimes, but really you're just staying in the pocket, taking a high line to keep your speed so that you can hit sections, do little snaps.
So you're making your own boards? What are they like?
I started making boards about a year and half ago. Some of the boards we had for the ocean were decent on the river, but just not quite right. So I jumped into making our own. I've probably made about 125 boards at this point. We've sold a ton of boards. All we sell at our shop are SUPs and surfboards. Our boards are all epoxy, and they feel like completely normal surfboards. We wanted to make sure the boards were as similar to traditional surfboards as possible. What works best in the river is a very slight single concave or just a flat bottom. Flat decks, with full, beefy rails. Having a big thick rail helps to push through choppy sections, and you don't really need to worry about coming off the bottom, you mostly just want to carry your speed.“We're all about surfing the earth. We surf the snow that melts and drains into the river. We surf the river then it flows to the ocean. And of course, we surf the ocean too.”
What's the surf scene like in Missoula?
If you came to our shop it would blow your mind. We get ocean surfers coming through all the time and pros come check out what we're doing. And there are so many groms. There's a huge youth scene, and all their skate tricks are really coming into play. The sky's the limit right now. It's growing so much.
Ever think about moving to the coast?
Nah, not really. We're all about surfing the earth. We're looking at the way we snowboard now too, and rethinking how those boards work, attacking from a total surf standpoint. We surf the snow that melts and drains into the river. We surf the river then it flows to the ocean. And of course, we surf the ocean too.