River Surfing is Taking on Its Saltwater Sister

Inspired by ocean surfing, river surfing's popularity is growing all on its own.

By Cinnamon Janzer
Published 24 Nov 2017, 08:52 GMT
A surfer and kayaker ride a wave on the lower Gauley River near Fayatteville, West Virginia.
A surfer and kayaker ride a wave on the lower Gauley River near Fayatteville, West Virginia.
Photograph by Trevor Clark, Aurora

Traditional surfing began more than 3,000 years ago in Western Polynesia. First making its way to Hawaii, the sport has since spread across the globe, leaving in its wake wave-chasers from all corners of the planet—even land-locked locales. Some ambitious surfers hungry for waves but without a coastline have turned to river surfing, a take on the original sport that delivers a similar experience in ocean-less conditions. “You see these [river] waves and think ‘Hey, I can probably surf that,’” says Alex Mauer, a professional stand-up paddleboarder and avid river surfer based in Littleton, Colorado.

In 1970’s Munich, a small group of adventurous surfers took to the Eisbach River near Englischer Garten Park. Holding tight to two ropes attached to a bridge, they balanced on wooden planks in the river to mimic the ocean surfing they had encountered abroad. This is the moment many river surfers believe the sport was born. “Eisbach—that wave is considered the mother of all river waves. Every wave they’re constructing now is emulated after that wave,” explains Mauer.

Unlike ocean waves, which are largely created by wind, river waves are formed either by water flowing quickly downstream over a drop in elevation, creating standing waves, or by tidal bores, which occur where rivers meet the sea. The unique characteristics of individual standing waves, like ocean waves, depend on the specific conditions of the factors that create them. The speed of the water dictates the energy of a wave, while the length of the drop decides its size. Because the thickness of a wave also matters (boards can’t glide over the rocks and other debris if there’s just a few inches of water), the size of the river channel is also important. Rideable waves can occur with slow flow and small drop conditions if the river channel is narrow enough to create a thick wave, and the opposite is true for wide channels.

Many ocean surf spots have become well-known and overpopulated, forcing athletes to search for uncrowded waves in extreme environments, like the freezing waters of Iceland. River surfing, however, is full of uncharted territory. “One of the cool things [about river surfing] is there could be thousands of river waves across the States that people haven’t seen yet,” Mauer says. Because flow can change from day to day and season to season, thanks to a previous winter’s snowfall or other natural phenomenon, even an expert has to be at the right spot on the right day to discover a surfable river wave.

Don’t forget your personal flotation device and, for rocky or debris-filled rivers, a helmet.

People surf the waves on the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic
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