Silver Linings: Things I See When I Surf


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It struck me while surfing one of the first glassy green river waves of the season, when you’re there in the Zen-like moment, mind wandering with the water: These are the Things I See When I Surf. Maybe it’s just post-quarantine delirium; or a much-needed break from screen time to be back out on the water, but this is important for any paddler to consider.

Unlike ocean surfing, where the wave moves but the water stays still, on a river, the water moves, and the wave stands still. Esoteric, I know. But whether you’re surfing a river wave on SUP, surfboard, raft or kayak, there are common things we all can see.

As with boarders on the ocean, surfing a river wave evokes magic, a flow state, a feeling we’ve been searching for our whole lives, something primal. I still remember my friend Pete’s poetic words, uttered one day on a trip down the Grand Canyon, which still ring true: “I kayak to surf.” I do, too. And in a kayak especially, sitting instead of standing, you have more time to take it all in.

Hence, the following roundup of Things I See When I Surf:

Salmon jumping upstream right next to me, as I surfed a small wave on Alaska’s Willow Creek after a day of raft guiding. Spawn, my scaled friend, spawn.

Tiny bubbles. Not in the wine, but in the water.They float straight at me from upstream, and I try to dodge them by zigzagging back and forth as if playing a human-sized video game of Space Invaders. I slalom around said pockets of air as they approach and then watch them pass by, bringing their spheres of oxygen downstream.

Leaves, like tiny ships, blowing off bankside willows and cottonwoods by a freak gale and creating a veritable snowstorm of foliage fluttering down around me.  Some, bright green from chlorophyll, land just upstream of my boat and get instantly whisked past my bow, ships passing in the night.

Bow splashes as my kayak bobs and weaves across the face of the wave, funneling plumes of water equally off both sides in an parabolic array of patterns. Also the errant big ones that drench my face after throwing a big cutback.

A sudden rainstorm, plopping down a barrage of constant, tiny puddles around my boat, adding to the river’s pulse. If I concentrate, I can turn around them, as if they’re instant gates on a ski slalom course.

Rocks and boulders on the bottom of the riverbed, especially when surfing a gin-clear wave on a river like Idaho’s Selway. Polished smooth, they’re mesmerizing in their stillness, while the water above moves by so fast.

The bent limbs of bushes getting pushed downstream next to me if I’m on a wave close to shore, yielding to the river’s might. They resist as best they can, springing back with strength born from the same water.

The frontman for a band playing on a bar deck along the Yampa River, after catching a wave no more than 15 feet away from the stage. I surfed for two compete songs — Friends of the Devil and Folsom Prison Blues — and part of a third, singing along mid-surf to the chorus.

A Bachelorette party outside at another riverside bar, with the bride jumping out of her chair and signaling me over for a beer. So I surfed on over.

Other onlookers looking my way from shore, whenever I can steal a glance in their direction. They’re naturally curious and I can’t help but hope a tad jealous about anyone having such refreshing fun.

 My spray skirt toggle and its company’s logo (thank you, Snap Dragon). That’s right where my eyes naturally settle as I fight to stay on the wave, inherently leaning forward and back as if I’m doing stomach crunchers in a pilates class. .

My life. Get on a good wave that’s effortless to stay on and your mind sometimes just wanders, from your job and relationship to the eggs you need to pick up at the store. There’s no better way to contemplate your existence…or insignificance.



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