BOULDER, Colo. -
The sight of kayakers playing on standing river waves is a familiar sight in Colorado, but surfers? Over the past few years, landlocked beach bros have discovered that river waves can be surfed almost like ocean waves.
And Colorado communities that have constructed whitewater play parks (manmade obstacles in the water that increase wave size) on large rivers with heavy flows -- like the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, the Arkansas River in Buena Vista and Salida, and the Animas River in Durango -- are seeing increased surfer traffic.
Michelle McReynolds of the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce confirms that the town's whitewater park has "definitely increased commerce and tourism in town."
Basalt-based photographer Pete McBride, 38, has surfed all over the world and often surfs the Colorado River at the Glenwood Whitewater Park.
"You can't always hop on a plane to follow good surf. This wave is practically in my backyard," he says.
A Basalt town councilman raised on a cattle ranch in Old Snowmass, McBride took up surfing six years ago and can't get enough of it.
"I love it. I surfed yesterday, and we're heading out this afternoon again," he says.
The wave "goes off" when the Colorado flows at 10,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second, typically around April to June. McBride prefers riding a more nimble short board, but he often stands on the riverbank waiting his turn for the wave with kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders.
The inaugural Stand Up Paddling Nationals were held at the Glenwood Whitewater Park on May 31. The winner, Dan Gavere, beat about 20 other "watermen" in three disciplines: down-stream racing through Class II--III whitewater, slalom and surfing.
"It was a riot," says Gavere, who is also the Southwest sales rep for Werner Paddles (www.wernerpaddles.com).
In fact, he's teaching an introduction to stand-up paddling July 17-19 on the Arkansas River in Buena Vista with the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (www.rmoc.com). Gavere has even stand-up paddled on the Platte River in downtown Denver at the Confluence.
The wave in Glenwood Springs spans the entire Colorado River near the Interstate 70 overpass. When riders fall or get sucked downstream, they have to regroup in the Class II-III rapids, make it to shore, cross the highway, and climb down the bank to try again.
"The water is cold, and falling and getting back into position is exhausting," says McBride.
Catching the wave is difficult, as surfers, kayakers and stand-up paddlers alike have to paddle facing up stream and enter the standing-wave rapid going backward. The Glenwood wave breaks about mid-thigh and is a "heavy wave," according to McBride, with more sensation of mass than a typical ocean wave.
He tries to catch the wave in the whitewash, then dance to the clean, smooth part of the wave once he's standing. The lack of forward momentum makes balancing different from surfing. It's very easy to "pearl" -- to dig in the nose and fall forward.
"Surfing a river wave is like doing acrobatics on a really fast treadmill," says McBride, whose average ride lasts "about a minute." Floatsam, like rogue logs and branches, is also an issue. So are rafters.
"There can be a fair amount of dodging," he says, but one of his friends claims to have managed to surf the Glenwood wave for an hour without falling. Some riders even use a rope to help steady themselves for the launch, but the danger of entanglement steers McBride away from that questionable strategy.
"I'd rather wipe out and try again, than get wrapped up in the rope," he says. New sport innovation does have its limits, apparently.