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The Surf Gods of Idaho

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It’s thursday. A clock nailed to a tree reads 9 p.m. The August sun lingers on the horizon. Five surfers wait their turn beside a pair of concrete walls in the most literal lineup ever. Here in Boise, Idaho, there are two options for entering the river wave. The first is to acid drop in, like in skating. The second—and far less cool—option is to set the board on the wave, hold it in place, step on the tail, and push off the wall. I choose the latter approach, and abruptly encounter the strangest thing that a wave can ever do.

Imagine pausing the ocean with a remote control and pressing rewind, but then surfing that backward-flowing wave in forward motion. Imagine everything moving in reverse, except you. For me, it’s a brief feeling.

For 20 years, I’ve competently surfed ocean waves. Before Boise, I simply called them “waves.” I’ve surfed Margaret River and Mundaka, the full-length left at Chicama and the forever-right at Noosa, hurricane swells and ankle chop at my local. I can surf. So it’s humiliating to arrive in Middle America and not be able to handle their 2-foot wave.

Before the sun sets, I squeeze in a few more attempts. Each time I fall straight into the WaveShaper, the man-made slope that creates the wave. My elbows hit concrete. I’m dragged downstream. I gulp river water. Fortunately, Boise’s wave is not downstream from any bacteria-infested ranches. This whitewater park is located smack-dab in the middle of Idaho’s busiest city. Which, generally speaking, isn’t really that busy.

That night, I can’t sleep at all. I lie awake thinking about that goddamn, backward-running, Middle American, stand-in-line, 2-foot river wave.  

*

In Australia, on inconsistent days, a friend of mine would slap the ocean and yell, “Come on, Huey,” hoping to rile up some mythical surf deity. In Boise, a nine-hour drive from the nearest ocean waves, there is a different surf god. They call him Paul.

Old-school beach looks, 600 miles from the nearest ocean.

Thirty-three-year-old Paul Primus grew up in Minneapolis. He rode his first wave ten years ago on the Oregon coast, then moved to Idaho for work. There, Primus discovered he could surf natural river waves. And so he stayed. In 2012, the city of Boise opened Phase 1 of its downtown Boise Whitewater Park. The rapids were designed for kayakers, but Primus saw potential for surfers. This river wave, after all, is adjustable. 

On opening day, Primus began harassing the wave technician. “What if you changed the calibration?” he asked. “Or added pressure to the air bladder?”

His pestering paid off. Subtle modifications turned the whitewater feature into a glassy, surfable wave. The technician gave Primus and Boise’s five other surfers Mondays to surf. When the technician left the job, his replacement was obvious.

In the new role, Primus experimented. He changed the channel’s flow. He altered the WaveShaper’s angles. He tested various flashboard combinations. He tweaked the air-bladder pressure. He did things that had no precedent in the surf world.

As Primus improved the wave, Boise’s surf population grew from six to 500. These days, kayakers and surfers split the week.

To bust his balls, locals call Primus “wave master.” (He prefers “wave technician.”) But there’s truth in the razzing. Only three people, including his Oregon-based predecessor and his newly hired protégé, can give Boise surfers a rideable wave.

Each day at noon, one might spot a man with sun-bleached hair, sunburnt skin, and spray-stung eyes entering the control booth. That’s Primus. And, like Huey, he can shape or crumble the wave with a single swipe of his finger.

*

Friday morning, unrefreshed, I arrive at the river. Beneath a cottonwood tree, surfers stand on ruined carpets laid out on the bank, changing into wetsuits and booties. An osprey eyeballs the group from above. In its claws, a fresh trout. A cormorant flies past. A duck floats down the waterfall and into the wave, performing two quick turns, as if to mock me.

The surfers stand in line. Water laps their ankles. At their shoulders, two sets of adjustable walls (called flashboards) funnel the upper tributary of the Boise River into a chute, the WaveShaper, where it collides with the tailwater. This collision, among other variables, forms the wave.

The “paddle out” at Phase 1 looks easy enough, but with bored next-in-liners all watching, the pressure is on.

During my first full session, I enjoy slight improvements. I find my feet and glide across the wave. But whenever I go to my backside, the wave sucks me downstream. This backward movement should have become obvious, but I’m too ocean-minded. The river’s reverse flow continues to catch me off guard.

I’m feeling gloomy about my progress, but I’m in good company. Five locals all refer to a certain pro surfer who couldn’t figure out the wave either. A surfer from Colorado, here on a road trip of 15 river waves, tells me that unlike the other 14 waves he’s visited, Boise has taken him three days to figure out. By day four, though, he was shredding.

“It’s faster than any other river wave,” he says. “And more powerful.”

That might have been true before Boise Whitewater Park opened Phase 2, just a half-mile downstream. 

*

“Doesn’t anyone have a job around here?” asks one surfer on the riverbank, counting the 20-some surfers on the wall. “I’m thinking there’s a lot of unemployment in this town.”

In the ocean, surfers are busy. They angle for position, battle for set waves, paddle through the impact zone, and study the horizon. Here in the river, surfers are not busy. They wait in line. They watch the surfer who’s riding. And they chat.

Standing in line, I learn about knee replacements, heart surgeries, business ventures, and family dynamics. I’m close to the action. Red Ear Plugs gives a puzzled grin with each cutback. Smooth Elderly Ripper’s mutton chops frame his lips, which go circular with every dicey turn.

The coterie of mustachioed surfers showcase various styles, both in facial hair and surf technique. In one day on the river, I acquire more information about other surfers than in two decades in the ocean.

The line teaches me about board design, too. Shapes here feature wider tails and less rocker. Most boards are 5 feet or smaller. Some surfers ride Corridor or Peterson Surfboards, designed specifically for the river. Peterson boards look like a wave has lopped off the nose. On the river, graceful points are pointless. Peterson noses are almost as wide as their tails, allowing the board to ride longer while abiding by the WaveShaper guidelines, which prohibit anything bigger than 6 feet. While ocean surfers typically age into longer, more voluminous boards, Boise surfers past the half-century mark go smaller. One fifty-something surfer clutches a Channel Islands.

“Does Al Merrick make river boards?” I ask.

The man shakes his head. “Bought this off a little kid,” he says. Grom boards are all the rage in Boise. The other boards gathered here today are as unexpected as the surfers themselves. From yellow and misshapen to futuristic and hyper-custom.

And then there is Chris Martindale.

If Primus is wave master, then Martindale is Boise’s baffling prophet. Whenever it’s a surf session, he’s out there redefining the versatility of this backward-moving wave. And he does it without a surfboard.

A former local at California’s Salt Creek, Martindale looks better suited to play on an offensive line than a wave. Despite his size, he rides the smallest boards in the lineup—a skimboard, sometimes a bodyboard—and rips harder than anyone else, pulling off stylish turns, smooth pop shove-its, and graceful 360s.

“Chris Martindale could ride a lunch tray on this thing,” says one surfer, shaking his head at Martindale’s finless grace. He pretty much already is.

Garden City, the Boise suburb abutting the wave, was formerly home to concrete factories, automotive shops, and other industrial sludge leakers that polluted the land and befouled the river with rebar and chemical waste.

In the early 2000s, the city of Boise and the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation pumped a few million dollars into building this river wave and cleaning up the area. The gorgeous Esther Simplot Park is lined with cycling and jogging trails, various ponds for paddleboarders and SUP yogis, and multiple whitewater river features for kayakers.

Beautification brought about a local boom. While Garden City still has industrial warehouses, auto shops, and trailer parks, the the trends of gentrification are unmistakable. Posh condos now overlook the river. Wineries have opened. Garage-themed breweries charge for a four-pack what their predecessors once charged for an oil change.

Local annoyance is equally visible. At the city. At the surfers. At the hipsters buying $6 coffees. A homemade sign in front of one decrepit residence reads: “Hey Cupcake, No Parking.”

On 34th Street, where surfers access the wave, there’s a farmers market, an art gallery, and a coffee shop inside another repurposed garage. Retro skateboards and a photography exhibit decorate the walls of the Push & Pour Cafe. Painted behind the bar is an anchor-tattooed women holding a mug while surfing on a fish’s back. The wave crests. An ocean wave.

If 34th Street is the wave’s home, 35th is the pre- and post-surf gathering point. After renting out boards for two years, Corridor Surf Shop & Necessary Goods owner Victor Myers opened a brick-and-mortar location there in 2013.

In case surfing in Idaho ever goes bust, Myers has diversified the “Necessary Goods” portion of his business quite thoroughly. While he sells river-sports gear up front, the back three-quarters of his half-acre lot is wildly more entrepreneurial. Behind the scenes, Myers builds custom motorcycles, retrofits the interiors of aged vans and converts them to run on vegetable oil, heat-fuses plastic waste to make board bags, grinds down disposed yogurt cups to turn them into surf fins, and, unlike most surf shops the world over, cuts his own blanks and glasses them in-house.

“Pretty standard,” Myers says as he tours me through his operation.

Even if Myers operated a traditional shop, between river rocks and waves through concrete walls, ding repairs alone would probably keep Necessary Goods in the black.

With his partner Guy Midnight, Myers also opened a bar next door. The Yardarm is housed in an old shipping container, insulated with recycled surfboard foam and salvaged wood, and decorated with dangling buoys, puffer fish, and other sea-themed memorabilia.

I grab three tacos from the food truck parked in front of The Yardarm and join surfers at the bar. Midnight pours afternoon beers. Like all surf bars, conversation focuses on waves. Only here, it’s mostly freshwater ones. But after a beer, conversation veers toward the ocean. Turns out that Myers and Midnight close Yardarm for five months during the winter to surf throughout Central America and Southeast Asia. 

Back in Corridor, I chat with Myers and study the rafters. Laid across the wooden beams is an impressive quiver of ocean boards: beautiful twin-fins, an old Hawaiian gun, and Myers’ own green creations. Between The Yardarmers’ salt-water memories and the boards above, it feels like ocean surfing to Idahoans is little more than folklore. Like they don’t believe waves go forward toward a shoreline. 

*

Each day, as Primus returns the wave to the surfers, I try to better understand the nuances of riding this backward anomaly. Maintaining speed to avoid getting sucked back off the wave. Staring at the corners instead of the dizzying rush of headwater. Staying static while going side to side. Paddling quickly to the banks so as not to get dragged downstream. Standing in line.

Even with crowds, the Boise wave has no aggressive locals. No drop-ins. No shouting matches. If the two sides of the river are unequal, chivalry prevails. It’s all quite civil.

On sunny weekends, 15 surfers stand on each of the two concrete walls. Waiting. It feels like a line at an amusement park. Yet on cold weekday mornings, the walls are empty. On those days, surfing the river becomes a spirited and futile game of King of the Hill. I charge the wave, get knocked on my ass, fight through the current, hop up on the wall, step on the board, and plunge into the river once again. Hooked.

“Rad wave today, Paul,” someone shouts, as the wave master and I walk from Phase 1’s control booth over to Phase 2. Five more surfers share similar sentiments.

Like an obsessed scientist, Primus talks ecstatically about the slight manipulations he hypothesizes will generate the perfect wave and about the data points with numbers to the pesky thousandths place.

Primus, tickling the hydraulics that shape the wave.

A few years back, Primus was jumping between the wave and the control booth, surfing and then fiddling with the dials. Numerous calibrations later, he’d created his “Alpha Wave.” Instead of walking out onto the wall to surf Phase 1, the Alpha Wave requires that surfers actually paddle in.

“It was the best day of my life,” Primus says.

The next best day of his life will be when he perfects the Phase 2 wave. Prior to my visit, Phase 2 had only been open for six hours over three days. “The wave is something we’ve never even experienced,” says Primus. “It’s so fast and steep.”

Phase 2 has been contracted out to a new firm, S2o Design. Initially, S2o planned to build a kayak park. Then they received a petition from more than 1,300 Boise locals who demanded surfing features. “We went back to the drawing board to build a bigger wave,” said Scott Shipley, the president of S2o and a former Olympic whitewater kayaker.

“The thing that everyone wants is a tube,” Shipley tells me. But there’s a problem. What happens when someone gets stuck in the closeout section of the wave? “We can make it so they get typewritered out,” he explains, “but that needs to happen at every flow rate, which is the issue.”

Phase 2’s wave was designed to tune itself to the river’s flow rate. But to create a reliable wave, Primus must first solve for the variables, including which pneumatics to adjust and where to situate the underwater RapidBlocs. Since the river’s flow fluctuates from season to season, from rainfall to dry spell, these variables are in constant flux. When it’s open, Primus is forced to babysit Phase 2. “At any moment,” he says, “it can become deadly. Even when it’s not deadly, it can be [hazardous].” 

Though Phase 2 looks like a 4-foot standing wave, it possesses the speed and consequences of a double-overhead face breaking over shallow reef. The gap between a perfect ride and a high-speed collision is a matter of inches. But there’s a bright side as well.

“River surfing saves lives,” Primus says. Boise’s adjustable waves replace dangerous low-head dams, the culprit of frequent river-related deaths. Just upstream from Phase 1, in fact, a girl drowned at a low-head dam. A crucifix stands on the banks near the wave, reminding everyone not to underestimate the river.   

*

Primus opens Phase 2 for the fourth time. Before letting the public have a go, he snaps on his helmet and tests the wave himself. Primus surfs smoothly and confidently between the concrete walls for several minutes before proclaiming it ready. 

During the first three sessions, about 30 people came out to surf. But a few locals told me that only ten riders were considered “qualified.”

For this fourth trial, dozens of surfers assemble on the banks. Their boards have longer fins, more rocker, and no leashes (a serious hazard at Phase 2). Challenging physics, Martindale has brought his skimboard. Pierre Mouchas, a Tahitian who moved to Boise in the 90s, lays his quiver on the bank of the river. All three boards are inscribed with the word “Tahiti” across the deck. He flips one over, jumps on the board’s bottom deck, and declares it “indestructible.” Like most of the riders here today, he isn’t wearing a helmet.

A river runs through it, as scheduled.

Behind guardrails, I chat with Tim Ekberg, a longtime ocean surfer. He recently moved to Boise from California to live near his grandchild. His one condition for leaving the West Coast: a wave. Despite also having another grandchild in Kona, he chose to live on the “North Shore” of Boise.

“It just blows my mind that people are talking surf in Idaho,” Ekberg says.

Martindale jumps into Phase 2 and gets spit out. So do the next few riders. A Kiwi expat rips for a few turns, then washes downstream. The wave moves fast.

Then Primus notices something subtle in the wave’s shape. Something even most experienced surfers would overlook. He shouts adjustment instructions to his associate wave technician. While modifications are being made, nobody can surf. Martindale sits on the wall, feet dangling, next in line. Suddenly, the glassy wave before him turns to whitewater.

End of session. The surfers all return to the banks.

“It looks like the lifeguards closed the beach,” says Ekberg.

“What would have happened to Martindale had he gone in when the wave crashed?” I ask Primus. “Big hold-down?”

 “He’d be dead,” says Primus. “Or at least anyone else would be. Maybe not Martindale. Imagine a static, never-ending, never-moving closeout.” He looks at the now-buried wave, what looks like the least harmless place in the river. “This is still the most high-caliber river wave. We just need more time.”

We stand on the banks. Primus appears to be thinking a million thoughts at once. What variables to manipulate, where to place the blocks. Finally, he looks up from the dormant beast and says, “I think I know how I can make it barrel.”

*

It’s taken me two days to make a proper turn on the Boise River wave. Three days to cobble together a few lackluster maneuvers. My limited success is inconsistent.

Surfing’s great joys are lost on the river. The drop. The barrel. The variety. 

“It’s not the same peace as when you’re alone on the ocean,” Martindale says. He calls Boise’s wave “a tourist destination.” “People bring picnics,” he says. “In terms of paddling, you actually become less fit. But in terms of control and time spent on your board, it goes way up.”

Without exaggeration, the amount of time a good river surfer can be on their feet in one day could equal the amount of time a skilled ocean surfer might stand on their board in a month or a season. Maybe even a year.

“Ocean surfing doesn’t help in the river,” Primus tells me, “but river surfing helps in the ocean.”

In a few years, river waves and wave parks will be abundant across the nation. After the initial multimillion-dollar bill is paid, the operating cost for an adjustable river wave is low. Compressed air and a wave master. That’s all you need. 

Primus, sunset session at Phase 2.

On my last day in Boise, I walk the slippery concrete wall. It’s a cold, gray, weekday morning. No crowds. A King of the Hill session. The river looks fast. A few white patches are bubbling up in the corners, but the wave is sheet glass. I place my board on the wave and put my foot on the tail. The board bucks like a bronco that doesn’t want to be ridden. I push off and glide to the wave’s middle. For a brief moment, I feel like I have conquered the thing. And just as quickly, it’s over. My elbow strikes concrete. River water pours down my throat.

Emerging downstream, I check the clock on the tree. I’m running late. I need to head to the airport. But this river wave triggers the same thought any good wave inspires: just one more ride.