In the film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner states “If you build it they will come”. In the film Costner turns a cornfield on his farm into a mythical baseball field that attracts all the best, albeit deceased, baseball players of the past. The statement “If you build it they will come” always stuck in my head over the years once I realized in 2004 that the only way river surfing would ever sweep across the globe was if the companies who built whitewater parks started to create waves that were suitable for board surfers as well as kayakers. It takes way to much effort, time and money to find and ride naturally occurring river waves. Over the years I quoted Costner time and time again. If fact along with battle cry of “The future of surfing near and it’s nowhere near the ocean”, Costner’s iconic line from the film summed up my sales pitch when trying to convince the world that building waves in river s for surfing was a much better option than the chlorinated, fabricated wave pools the surf world has focused on for the past 50+ years.
During the years of 1997 to 2014, I was a complete outsider in almost every aspect of my life. Even in my choose career as a barber I was out of step with the mainstream beauty industry, but when it came to the one true passion in my life, surfing, I was a damn leper. Who was this guy running around like a mad man spouting off about perfect river waves and surfing being more popular one day on rivers than at the ocean? I was also an outcast among the small group of playboaters who had graciously accepted me as an oddball member of their oddball tribe. I even found myself on the fringe of the emerging river surfing community: as the sport grew, I became increasingly vocal about wearing leashes on rivers, a very volatile and divisive subject.
Where I seemed to fit least just happened to be the only place I actually cared to be accepted, the community of engineers who build whitewater parks. I had been preaching my truth to these firms when the Reno whitewater park was being built in 2004, but just as the surfing world thought I was crazy, so did the paddling community, because kayakers were designing the whitewater parks. To be every clear: I adore the paddling community. Unlike the ocean surf community, river paddlers are very inclusive and for the most part, very open-minded. Kayakers taught me everything I know early on. They showed me where waves were, how rivers work and they shared something with me that isn’t really found en masse outside of Hawaii, the aloha spirit.
But….my feet forward brethren enjoy a different kind of hydraulic jump (river wave) than I do. Playboaters love to surf a river wave with a steep entry backed up by a surging ball of whitewater a ‘hole’ that is the industry standard. This type of wave is great for doing flips and spins in a kayak, but gives not a green wave for a board surfer to glide across the face of the wave. I tried to chase my dream with American Wave Machines, an emerging wave pool company that was developing an artificial standing wave for the wave pool market. After the better part of six years, however, the future I had predicted hadn’t arrived and I walked away from waves to focus on becoming a platform artist in the beauty industry. I made a name for myself and landed one of the most sought after positions, national educator at Hattori Hanzo Shears, the fastest growing brand in the industry.
I had all but forgotten about river surfing and building river waves…until a friend sent me a link to a Youtube video made by a guy named Ben Nielsen in 2012. He was talking about building perfect river waves while surfing at the Lunch Counter rapid on the Snake River. He was drawing inspiration for whitewater design from this naturally occurring wave, as it’s shape is very similar to a curling ocean wave. Ben was an avid kayaker and ocean surfer … and here is where it gets good … a lead engineer at MWDG!!! I knew exactly who Rick McLaughlin was, the principle at MWDG. Rick is to river engineers as Rick Rubin is to music producers, and Ben was his right hand man.
I jumped on the MWDG website, got the digits and called the office. I asked for Ben Neilsen and the nice lady connected me right away. “Hello this is Ben.” Then I dove in. “Hey Ben! Just saw your video about building river waves…” That was it. I was not longer an outsider.
Fast forward two years. June 2014. Ben and I have been speaking with each other pretty regularly since our first phone call, Rick and Ben have even come to my home to discuss my eccentric theories on how to create a barreling river wave. We are in Boise to check out the new Boise whitewater park built by MWDG. I know the location well, there used to be a dangerous monstrosity of an old broken down weir that ran across the river. At high water it created one of the best river waves in Idaho, but the water only got high enough once or twice a year. The rest of the year it was just bunch of exposed concrete with re-bar sticking out everywhere. As I pull into the parking lot attached to the new surfshop that has just opened, I see a group of surfers waiting in line just on the downriver side of what appears to be a 6 ft. tall low dam. I can also see a goofyfoot blonde surfer carving back and forth on a wave, and buckets of spray flying off the back of the wave. The local surfer turned out to be my friend and ex-pro surfer turned river-surfboard builder, Chris Peterson.
Ben had told me the wave was good but I’ve surfed the best river waves on earth, and my standards are extremely high but as I walked toward the river my heart swelled with joy, for what I was staring at a 3 1/2 ft. tall, very steep pyramid shaped wave. It was a perfect wedge! Surfers were stepping onto the wave effortlessly from a small concrete wall on river right. I could tell the river flow was somewhere between 500 and 800 cfs. That isn’t a lot of water, but the wave was epic.
I spent a solid two months in and out of Idaho that summer: I even rented a small apartment for those two months a few blocks from the wave, so when I visited I could just walk to the “beach.” I learned a lot about whitewater parks, for I’d always minimized what it takes to build one, thinking I could just dump some concrete in the river and expect a perfect wave would appear (that’s not really true, but you get the idea). I’ve learned how difficult it is to create good waves when dealing with fluctuating water flow.
Beyond the difficulty of creating good waves is the challenge of creating safe waves. A river wave involves two opposing currents of water, one moving down stream and one moving upstream, this type of recirculating movement in the river can be extremely dangerous. So a wave may be perfectly shaped and safe at 800 cfs but at 1000 cfs it might be a deadly pit of whitewater that will pin a person to the river bottom. This is where the genius of Rick and Ben come into play. The patented Wave Shaper technology allows the city of Boise the ability to change the shape of the weir as the water flow changes. Before this technology all whitewater parks had static bottom contours, now not only can the bottom be articulated but also direction and angle of the water flow can be manipulated on the fly. Paul Primus and Ryan Ricardo are surf wave techs who have worked as the operators of the WaveShaper and created quality waves from flow rates ranging from 25o cfs to 1500 cfs to 3000+ cfs.
Flexibility introduces a factor key for the success of a whitewater park to attract and maintain a vibrant river surfing community: consistency. If you have a perfect river wave but it only works one month in a year, a community with not take root and if it’s in six months out of the year, you will still get only a fraction of the full potential. If you can enjoy a wave year round, you’ll grow not just a community but a culture, and for Boise that predictability has been a magic bullet. A river that was for all intents and purposes ignored except for a few kayakers at high water is now the centerpiece of a thriving outdoor culture. Surfing draws economic investment. And unlike just about any other sport, surfing brings with it a hip culture, which in turn develops a core market, proven time and again at the ocean.From the local board builder and international wetsuit manufacturers to the traveling surfer tourism to energy drink brands who want to host surf contests, support for promotion of a righteous experience is as consistent as the surf.
Boise is the anchor point for a string of river waves to be surfed in Idaho. Starting in Boise one can drive north hitting a number of man man and natural river waves, this trek ends in Missoula, Montana where one will find another thriving community. This one developed around a core group of surfers whose numbers grew rapidly when a whitewater park that he’d been built years prior, during a flood: the damage actually enhanced the wave for surfing.
If you take this drive in the springtime you will understand why I’m declaring Idaho is the new Hawaii. Boise was very wise to select MWDG to build their whitewater park, when they did so they got not only Rick’s WaveShaper but also Ben’s passion to create waves that were suitable for both kayakers and surfers. I’m not sure if Ben knew how big the surfing would go. I on the other had have never doubted two things. 1. The future of surfing is near and it’s nowhere near the ocean. 2. If you build it they will come.
The Boise whitewater park is the gold standard for adjustable river waves and the gold standard for whitewater parks worldwide and it is just the start. We at MWDG are driven to change the sport of surfing, the whitewater park industry and the world one wave at a time.