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Missoula is routinely ranked as one of the best river towns in the United States. Kevin Brown, co-owner of Strongwater Surf Company, would like to see it ranked as one of the best surfing towns too. It may seem like a pipe dream to some, but Brown, known to most as “KB,” has revolutionized the young sport of river surfing.
Brown is one of few surfers who can say his riding began in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. As a child, he saw surfing for the first time on visits to his grandparents in Chula Vista, California. “I had always been fascinated with boards: skateboarding, snowboarding when it first started, wakeboarding before it was even called that.”
Brown got a whitewater kayak in that sport’s infancy and built a respectable resume, competing in U.S. Freestyle competitions. “I fell in love with the river, with the power of the water—whitewater kayaking was always surfing in the mountains to me, never kayaking.”
When, in 2008, the city of Missoula built Brennan’s Wave, an engineered whitewater feature downtown next to Caras Park on the Clark Fork River, Brown found an inland outlet for surfboards. “The year Brennan’s Wave was built, the high water made it hard for kayaking,” he says. “So, a dozen of us brought out surfboards, and that was the start of surfing here.”
At the time, surfboards were simply a means of making the best of a blown-out wave. Says Brown, “When the water went down, we got out our kayaks—whichever was the best tool for the best wave. The more we fell in love with surfing, the more we started getting waves that maybe three or four years earlier, we wouldn’t have looked at surfing. We started giving surfboards more of a chance: instead of just walking away from a wave, we’d just start grinding and grinding, trying to successfully ride it.”
Then they started building surfboards specific for river waves. Those river waves aren’t necessarily perfect for ocean boards, says Brown, but they are surfable with the right set-up.
Not only the best tool for the job, but the simplest. “Surfing is so simple: all you need is a board and a wet suit,” says Brown.
Brown and his business partner opened Strongwater Montana Surf in downtown Missoula in 2008, bringing river surfing to the masses and surf culture to Montana.
River surfers seek out recirculating waves, in which an obstruction in the river causes the current to fold back on itself and flow upstream. They can be man-made obstructions, such as Brennan’s Wave on the Clark Fork River, or natural ones caused by the topography of the river bottom.
Brown and others have pioneered about a dozen surf waves in the area, the best-known of which is Pipeline, a recirculating wave on the Lochsa River west of Lolo Pass that’s bedazzled paddlers for decades.
“River surfing is probably a lot like ocean surfing was when it started out,” says Brown. “There are no stigmas, no cliques—it’s all camaraderie, everybody cheering each other on. Everybody falls down, everybody swims; the best person is not that much different from a first timer. Even if you’re the best guy, at the end of your run you’re going to fall down and swim to shore.”
Brown is committed to seeing Missoula being a bona fide surf city, U.S.A., a bit of Malibu in Montana. “We surf every day—we probably surf more than most people who surf the ocean,” he says. “We put a lot of effort into getting Missoula on the map (as a river town). Waves are being built all over the world in rivers—the sport is exploding.”
Pointing to cities with world-class whitewater parks, such as Bend, Oregon, Boise, Idaho and communities throughout Europe, Brown notes that “I think what we did with Strongwater essentially was create the template for other cities.”
“But Missoula still has a ton of work to do, which is why I love it so much,” says Brown. “There’s so much opportunity.”
Brown is a true believer that tourism and capitalizing on a great river running through a downtown is the future. “It’s a win for the economy, it’s a win for wildlife, it’s a win for recreation, it’s a win for the aesthetics of the city,” he says.
Brown is now the surfing equivalent of a snowbird, with plans to focus on board production in California during the winter, while surfing sleeps in Montana, then spend the summer months running some sort of pop-up surf shop in Missoula.
“The philosophy we’ve adopted is ‘surf the earth’,” says Brown. “The snow in the mountains melts, goes into the river, goes to the ocean. So, we surf the snow (on snow surfboards); go into the river, surfing our custom-built river boards; and surf the ocean—just chasing that water cycle.”
< VIDEO: River Surfing Brennan's Wave | Missoula, Montana | Video by Scott Mathson
Video of river surfers shredding on Brennan's Wave on the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana. Brennan's Wave is a popular river kayaking, surfing, and floating destination - right below Higgins Street bridge in Missoula. This video is of an early Summer surfing session, props to all of the shredders that I filmed here.
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River Surfing Brennan's Wave | Missoula, Montana | Video by Scott Mathson
VIDEO DESCRIPTION: Video of river surfers shredding on Brennan's Wave on the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana. Brennan's Wave is a popular river kayaking, surfing, and floating destination - right below Higgins Street bridge in Missoula. This video is of an early Summer surfing session, props to all of the shredders that I filmed here.
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