New Film Shows Lure of River Surfing

“It’s the ever-curling wave in so many ways,” says founder of Strongwater Mountain Surf Company Kevin Benhardt. The standing waves themselves, formed by rock features that sit along the riverbeds, actually do curl and break for as long as the water flows sustain them. However, it’s more about the water itself and the journey it takes that captivates Kevin and his motley crew of soul surfers based in the little mountain town of Missoula, Montana.

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Cameron Fuller cutting into an edge on Pipeline Wave on the Lochsaw River, Idaho; Photograph by Max Lowe

“We surf the snow on our hand-crafted wooden snow surfers in the winter, then we surf the water as it makes its way down the rivers, and finally we chase it all the way to the sea where our rivers empty into the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon,” he explains.

Beneath their small storefront in downtown Missoula, Kevin, along with co-owner Luke Rieker, build the boards by which they surf these rivers. Up until recently, such waters were only frequented by kayakers and rafts riding the tail of the Southwestern Rocky Mountain watershed along its snaking retreat to the sea. Their passion has enabled this business to become their livelihood as well as their obsession.

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Kevin Benhardt rides the spring runoff on Pipeline, one of the more consistent surfing waves on the Lochsaw River in Idaho; Photograph by Max Lowe

Kevin, along with those who call the rivers their playground here in Montana, across the Northwest, and, indeed, throughout the entire country, know rivers on a very intimate level. The waves that bring energy to whitewater sports vary depending on water levels; and with every human arbitration into those river ecosystems, the landscapes of these waterways, which not only provide life to the country they grace, but also a spiritual connection to the land for those who choose to traverse them, change drastically.

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Cameron Fuller pops a nollie off Pipeline on the Lochsaw River, Idaho; Photograph by Max Lowe

Water is the basis of human civilization, and people have struggled infinitely with how to reconcile that fact by managing how we interact and utilize waterways so that we may continue doing so in the distant future. The first step is recognizing that we are all part of the system which exists in the millions of miles of creeks, streams and rivers across our country, and if we hope to maintain these veins of clean water that sustain us, we must each and every one of us become conscious of our personal relationships with water in everyday life.

Kevin and the other leading apostles of river recreation culture know and have built their lives around the waterways that sustain us. They have a very clear view of how rivers affect their lives and the importance of clean water, not only to their passion sport, but also to their communities. Through those who interact intimately with our rivers, we can gain renewed appreciation for what rivers mean; and through that lens, maybe even grow a greater understanding of what water means to each of us.

In addition to other individuals based in Southwest Montana, Kevin will act as an  ambassador to the rivers through my

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Luke Reiker walks back up the road after a surf with his trust english bulldog; Photograph by Max Lowe

short film, Living Rivers, slated to release in spring of 2016. In this film, the relationship between humans and water in Montana, and indeed at large, will be put under the microscope so as to spur the consideration of our society’s need for immaculate water.