All week it’s been warm and sunny—t-shirt weather—but cold rain falls Friday morning, the day of my first river surf lesson. Driving to the Wave Cave, Zoo Town Surfers’s warehouse basement headquarters at 1001 S. 4th St W in Missoula, I wimp out and flick on the seat warmer in my Subaru. Already I’m worried. If a crosstown car ride gives me goosebumps, how am I going to handle an hour-plus immersed in a raging river?
Jason, Zoo Town’s owner, welcomes me and Phil, another first-time surf student, outside the brick building. Downstairs, he helps Phil size the right wetsuit—”Too big is definitely better than too small”—and examines my own newly-purchased wetsuit and booties, plus the PFD and helmet I take rafting. “Good, good, good, good,” he says. “Bring it all.”
Kevin, a second instructor, arrives. Sunburned and smiling, he just got back from a beach week in Southern California. “Great weather,” Kevin reports of his trip. He peers outside at the storm clouds, expression undimmed. “But this’ll be great, too!”
We carry our gear upstairs to a pickup truck already filled with four surfboards. Jason drives. The four of us swap stories. Jason and Kevin got into river surfing from kayaking and ocean surfing, respectively. Phil tried kayaking, but hated the feeling of being trapped underwater, and so he’s exploring this instead. My own motivations are a mix of laziness and envy. I raft, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard, but I’m tired of the hassle of setting up and running car shuttles. And the surfers I see on Brennan’s Wave in the Clark Fork Fork River in downtown Missoula look so cool I want to copy them.
Not yet, however. Today’s destination is a mellower, much less crowded pour-over in the Blackfoot River called the Ledge. “This is where I learned to kayak,” Jason says, pulling over and pointing down when we approach the water feature. “It’s perfect for beginners.”
Phil and I aren’t so sure. The river roars past, over boulders, in a wide white-brown-blue crush. “It looks so *big*…,” Phil begins. “…And so *fast*,” I conclude.
“There’s an eddy on the right—if you get carried downstream, stay calm and swim over,” Jason tells us. “If you go around the bend, no problem—there’s another eddy on the left and Kevin or I can come get you.” River surfing is a new sport with evolving safety standards, he continues. A lot of surfers don’t wear helmets or PFDs. “But I want you both in both—at least to begin with,” Jason says.
Kevin chuckles. “C’mon!” He rolls an old yoga mat out over the sand and gravel in the parking lot, shimmies out of his clothes, and into a wetsuit. Jason follows, and Phil and I copy them. Then we each grab a board and clamber down to a spot on the river bank perhaps twenty yards upstream of the Ledge.
The plan is to ferry across, or paddle against the current at a forty-five degree angle. When we’re mid-river, we’ll drop through the Ledge, and swim or paddle to the right shore-side eddy. From there, we can approach and enter the wave as many times as we want.
“I tell all my students your first lesson isn’t about standing up,” Jason says. “It’s about getting comfortable swimming.”
Phil and I nod—no objections. We review the standard river safety signals, check the fit of our PFDs and helmets, and wade into the water.
Getting wet at last feels good, I’m surprised to find. I’m warm in the wetsuit, at least as long as I paddle, and I roll through the Ledge after Jason with a happy “Whoop!”
We all swim over and study the wave.
Anyone with river experience knows the difference perspective makes. Rafters and stand-up paddleboarders ride high, with an almost proprietorial air over the propelling current. Canoeists join the water at hip-height, immersive enough to feel kinship with floating geese, heron, swans, and ducks. Floating belly down on a surf board toward a wave is something else altogether. The whitewater and I meet at eye level. And then I’m upon it.
“Yeah!” the guys behind me call. “Get in there!”
I paddle wildly, spin right, and then topple over, arms flailing. My board, tethered to my calf, shoots one way. My body flies the other.
“Swim!” I hear now.
I stroke hard, but I’m at least fifty feet downriver by the time I struggle back into the eddy. I thought I’d stayed almost the entire time in the wave. Instead, I was following the post-crush current.
Lesson 1: Bail earlier.
Over the next hour, Phil and I enter the wave a dozen or so times apiece. Sometimes it spits us out immediately. In better moments, we shimmy up and down, back and forth on our boards, long enough to edge right toward the magic middle spot where Jason and Kevin can actually stand up and surf. The sport is part bull riding, part ballet. Even belly down, balance matters as much or more than strength. Kevin, in particular, barely seems to paddle. Instead he lets the water work for him, tugging in, pushing out, and pulling over until—ta-da!—he’s held in place by perfectly counterbalancing waves.
I achieve this position exactly twice, once with my board beneath me, once without it. Likely I stay in place for fewer than five seconds, but each time it feels like a happy eternity. All fatigue from frantic swimming and positioning vanishes. Sounds recede. A quiet calm envelopes me. I don’t think to try to stand. I don’t think at all. It’s immediately addictive.
I wait my turn and plunge in several more times. Only when I notice my fingers are trembling and my teeth are chattering do I nod at Jason’s and Kevin’s offer to swim out.
It’s still raining when we reach shore. I strip, slip back on boxers, and return barefoot to the water’s edge to wash out my suit and booties.
I’m not cold anymore. I’m inspired.
“River swimming was so fun,” I say back in the truck, riding home. “I’d be happy to do it without even surfing.”
“Oh, you’re surfing,” Jason says. He and Kevin turn to me and Phil together. “Get ready. Next week, we hit Brennan’s Wave.”