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Inland surfing rides a wave of popularity

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The scene might be confused with a boardwalk in SoCal: Three guys in wetsuits sprint across the road carrying surfboards. But instead of hitting a sandy beach, these three hobble down rocky banks and into the cold water of the Clark Fork. On a normal December afternoon in Missoula, the surfers join a kayaker and a stand-up paddleboarder working Brennan's Wave just downstream of the Higgins Avenue bridge.

“My dream my whole life has basically been to surf,” says Kevin Brown, co-owner of Strongwater, a local board and kayak shop. “I have been trying to emulate it through snowboarding, skateboarding and kayaking. Something about surfing, like riding on a wave, once you do it, everybody says there is just something magical about that feeling, that is just super cool.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • ERIC ORAVSKY
  • While most inland surfing occurs on manmade water features, Great Britain’s River Severn surges to create the world's longest wave. In 1955, Colonel “Mad” Jack Churchill surfed it for 1.5 miles.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Strongwater truly lived up to its motto as a “surf shop for the mountains,” becoming the first Montana retailer to stock surfboards. Brown and co-owner Luke Reiker originally focused on kayaks, and once stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, entered the scene, they were the first to stock them. Now, they’ve taken the next logical step and entered the growing inland surfing market.

“We have seen a rise of surfboard and SUP inland,” says Ryan Guay, a Missoula native and national sales manager for Boardworks, in Carlsbad, Calif. “Now we are selling traditional surfboards for river surfing to over 10 inland states (through online sales), and it happened very suddenly.”

Inland surfing started in the 1970s at water features like the Eisbach Wave in Munich, Germany, and the Lunch Counter Wave in Jackson Hole. While the sport took off in Europe, North America lagged behind until 2007 when board companies began pushing paddleboards and more nonprofits and recreational organizations started constructing waves near inland cities. As stand-up paddleboarders swarmed these new waves, the transition to surfing became inevitable.

“I don’t know what it was about last year, but a real switch happened from paddleboards to surfing,” Brown says.

Strongwater thinks that trend will continue. While the store sold about a dozen surfboards last year (average price: $800), Brown expects to more than double sales in 2013.

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