Montana by Dirt: Surfing Takes Off in a Mountain Town

Missoula river surfing pioneers explore the burgeoning sport

The last place I would expect to find a surf shop is Missoula, Montana, a landlocked city on the western shoulder of the Northern Rocky Mountains. That’s just what we found when we rolled into town on day six of our Montana by Dirt road trip.

The Strongwater Mountain Surf Company was started in 2008 by owner and innovator Kevin Benhart, who goes by “KB.” Kevin grew up on the whitewater kayaking circuit. At a young age he recognized the river tribe as his own.

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Kevin Benhart riding a standing wave near Two Bridge, in the Alberton Gorge outside Missoula, Montana; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

Walking into the basement workshop at Strongwater, I saw that the walls held their own stories. Posters signed by pro surfers and kayakers alike were pasted haphazardly on top of spray-painted murals—showing just how super serious they kept things.

Hard at work, KB shaped a new board with visual tact while his partner and friend, Luke Reiker, worked on sanding down a freshly epoxied surfboard in an adjacent room. Having previously visited the surfboard shaping studios at Deus Ex Machina in Bali and at Patagonia in California, it was inspiring to see it happening in small-town Montana—this time for rivers, not oceans.

“We started Strongwater as a whitewater kayaking shop, but through owning the store and ingraining ourselves in the culture here in Missoula, we discovered the growing magnitude of river surfing and the potential to expand on the scene around us with this new sport,” KB explained.

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Cameron Fuller airs out of Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula, Montana; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

As it stands now, Strongwater is the only strictly dedicated mountain surf shop in the United States. KB stressed the fact that they have learned almost everything they know by studying and connecting with the surf culture they respect in places like Hawaii and California, and then adapting it for the rivers around them.

With a new sport comes new gear needs. “We started riding waves in the rivers around here on ocean boards,” he reminisces. “Then we realized that by making the boards thicker and more buoyant, we could make them shorter and easier to maneuver on the river waves, which form differently than ocean waves.”

Luke and KB finished their afternoon work as we hung in the storefront with the “groms,” as Luke and KB refer to them. It’s unclear whether or not Cameron and Drae even get paid to spend time at Strongwater, but it is pretty apparent that they would be here every day soaking up the scene regardless.

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Max Lowe stands at the put in, ready to give river surfing a try at Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula, Montana; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

At 4 p.m., the shop closed; and it was time for us to get our feet wet in this new sport.

I am a marginal surfer at best. I’ve spent most of my life in the mountains and only in recent years began the long road to riding waves of crashing water. I felt ill-prepared, but eager to get wet nonetheless.

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Kevin Benhart and Luke Reiker paddle out and into the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, Montana, for a surf; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

We walked across the street and over the bridge that gaps the Clark Fork River, which runs right through the middle of Missoula. We stroll through a crowd of people attending some sort of cultural event at the park adjacent to the water. With wet tops and surfboards under our arms, we felt pretty bad-ass already.

Brennan’s Wave is a man-made roll in the river, constructed with concrete and river rock by the city of Missoula. “Man-made waves are the future of river surfing,” KB told us as we caught a ride over to the island, located mid-river in the Clark Fork, by a kindly raft guide who would be playing in the wave as well.

The sun set low over Missoula, and music erupted from the park as what sounds like a Scottish folk band began their set. The river was glowing with late summer light, and the Brennan’s Wave Island was surprisingly packed with eager surfers all riding their custom-built and designed Strongwater boards.

A gregarious young woman named Josie stepped eagerly up to the rock at the entrance of the wave, telling me she just started river surfing this summer with a rental board she got from Strongwater. “I was hooked immediately, and I think I am probably going to have to get myself a custom board when I get good enough to ditch this foam one,” she said to me with a smile.

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KB caught riding in Albertons Gorge with a slower shutter showing the movement in water around him; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

At most surf breaks, I am self-conscious and slightly terrified of being confronted by overbearing “locals” who are territorial of their break and don’t appreciate novice riders coming and taking up space on waves, but I felt none of that here. “That’s the great thing about river surfing,” explained Luke. “It’s bringing surfing into the very open and friendly river culture where, as long as your having a good time and exited to be there, everyone will be stoked to have you and probably crack a beer with you afterward!”

After our surf session, we grabbed some beers at a local dive bar. Luke and KB told us how they hope to help expand the sport with more man-made waves and their custom snow-surfboard design. “You have to come back this winter,” declares KB, casually taking a swig of his drink. “We have days where we’ll ride powder on the pass at Lolo, then come back down, don wetsuits, and head out for a cold water surf. Some of the best waves come mid-January.” I am sold.

Next Post: Brody Leven on trail running in Glacier National Park. Coming Thursday, September 4, 2014.

For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all Montana by Dirt posts.

The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.