Endearingly referred to by riparian romanticists as the birthplace of rivers, the thrashing waterways born in the West Virginia highlands are now becoming known as the birthplace of river surfers.
River surfing is taking the freshwater nation by storm, and landlocked surfers in West Virginia are discovering a torrent of world-class surf waves right here in the Mountain State.
The niche adventure sport of river surfing is the act of catching a ride in a standing wave—a hydraulic feature formed when a high volume of water flowing over a submerged object creates a stationary wave in its wake. With the sport in its infancy and more surfable waves being discovered by aquatic explorers, it’s never been a better time to grab a board, learn the ropes, and hang ten.
A Brief History of Surf
No one really knows who invented surfing, but the first documented incident of ocean surfing was described in 1796 by Joseph Banks while the HMS Endeavor was moored in Tahiti. Claims of the first river surf date back to 1955 from a two-kilometer ride on the tidal bore of the River Severn in Great Britain. Hangin’ ten on a standing wave started in the early ‘70s in Munich, where fledgling surfers lined up to ride the famous wave of the Eisbach, a manmade river flowing through the heart of the ancient city.
The same obscure origin story goes for river surfing in West Virginia. No one really knows who surfed the first standing wave within her borders, but local legend has it that a mysterious guy named Chuck was the first to surf a wave on the mighty Gauley River circa 2010.
The current tight-knit group of WV river surfers gelled in that same year during boogie boarding sessions at the Canyon Doors rapid on the Gauley. That OG group was comprised of then-raft guide Meghan Fisher, her husband Randy Fisher, and local rock climbing guide David Wolff.
Soon after, ex-raft racer Sherry McDaniel and her husband and ex-mountain bike racer Scott McDaniel showed up, eager to learn how to surf. The McDaniels had started riding boogie boards at Canyon Doors and had their interest piqued when surfers started showing up. “We didn’t think about taking it a step further until David Wolff, the Fishers, and another local, Travis Hames, showed us the ropes,” Sherry says. “It’s a really good community of people here.”
Trial and Error
Fisher, owner of Mountain Surf Paddle Sports in Fayetteville, quickly realized the wave at Canyon Doors could be surfed. This was easier said than done, however, and the crew embarked on a journey of trial and error. “I borrowed a friend’s surfboard and brought it out and epic failed,” Fisher says. “I could catch the wave, but I’d instantly wash off. I thought it wasn’t possible until I was at the beach with Randy and saw a surfboard that looked like an oversized boogie board. We brought it to Canyon Doors and we were able to pop up on it.”
Progression, however, was initially slow. “It takes a lot of failures before you’ll get it,” Fisher says. “Momentum isn’t working in your favor as it is in ocean surfing. You can fail 50 times and stand up for one second, that makes it worth it and makes you wanna try another 50 times.”
Wolff, owner of New River Climbing School in Fayetteville, struggled alongside the Fishers. With an easy entry and safe exit, Wolff says that Canyon Doors is a great place to learn, but due to small size of the hydraulic, is also one of the hardest waves to catch.
With ten years of raft guiding and a few seasons of competitive raft racing under her belt, Sherry’s whitewater resume is extensive. Her experience surfing rafts in various hydraulics taught her to how enter a wave, and hold a boat in it, which transferred directly to learning how to surf. “By the third season, we were carving and feeling confident enough to call ourselves river surfers.”
Same Same, But Different
Just like ocean surfing, river surfing uses a board on which a surfer paddles out into a wave and pops up to catch a ride, but that’s where the similarities end. According to Fisher, who learned to ocean surf while living in Hong Kong, an ocean surfer catches a wave near the crest and pops up while dropping down and, propelled forward by the moving water, rides across the width of the wave as it travels over the surface of the ocean.
But in a standing wave, a surfer must be held in place by the foam pile of the hydraulic before attempting to pop up. Once up, the surfer is continually being pulled downstream toward the apex of the wave and must repeatedly drop back into the hole. This requires an athletic effort of shifting one’s weight around the board in order to remain in the pocket while the river current travels under the board. “It’s like you’re catching the wave over and over again,” Fisher says. “If you’re not carving and making turns, you have to move your feet back and forth on the board to drop back in.”
Although Wolff had notched some experience surfing in the Pacific over the course of four winter rock guiding seasons at Joshua Tree National Park, he claims he didn’t see much progress until he was able to get on the river. Where several-minute-long ocean rides sometimes occur on some of the most dangerous swells on earth, a novice can surf a beginner river wave until their legs collapse. Wolff claims he and the Fishers have had rides approaching 30 minutes. “It would take months or years to get the amount of wave time you can get in one season on the river,” he says. “I felt like every time I went out, I got my new best ride ever.”
Surf West Virginia
During the early 2010s, it was all about unchartered-yet-familiar territory. The crew spent the better part of three years going to waves on the Gauley and trying them at different levels to dial in optimal surfing conditions. Wave options opened as their skills progressed. “It hadn’t been done yet, there was no Googling what waves were in at what levels,” Fisher says. “We kind of pioneered it.”
Nowadays, the surf scene has expanded around the state with adventurous river surfers catching waves at several spots on the Gauley, high-water waves that form on the New River Dries, and other reported waves on the Cheat, Dry Fork, Elk, and Greenbrier rivers.
The McDaniels have taken their skills out west, surfing waves in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington over the past two years, but the pair remains partial to West Virginia’s mountain rivers. “West Virginia is a hidden gem, and what makes it special is the length of the surf season,” Scott says. “Where the Colorado surf season is just several months, we can surf year-round because of the temperate climate.”
Sherry loves the variety offered by West Virginia’s rivers. “Canyon Doors has a beautiful but challenging wave to learn on, The Perfect Wave is more beginner friendly, and the New River Dries is massive but awesome once you get over the fear of paddling into the wave,” she says. “Compared to where Scott and I have surfed out west, no place has this amount of waves in such a small radius.”
By now, you may be wondering how you can give river surfing a shot. While all you really need is a wet suit, board, PFD, and helmet, river surfing can be more dangerous than its oceanic counterpart. For local beta on waves, conditions, access, and gear, give Fisher a ring at Mountain Surf Paddle Sports.
Fisher suggests greenhorn surfers take a Swiftwater Rescue Course to learn how to read, run, and swim whitewater. “If people keep coming who don’t know about river surfing, it’s only a matter of time until we have a serious incident,” she says. “Going rafting a few times doesn’t serve as experience. You don’t see people just getting a kayak and running the Gauley; it’s mind boggling to me that people throw themselves into a class IV rapid on a surfboard.”
As with many outdoor adventure sports, there’s an overwhelming amount of gear from which to choose. Some surfers have a quiver of boards available for differentwaves, but some go with a single do-it-all board. Most river waves are slower than ocean waves, requiring a higher volume board. Although companies are now making river-specific surfboards, Fisher uses a shorter, high-volume ocean board. “It’s not necessary to have a river surfboard,” she says. “You need volume, and having wide tail helps keep you on back of wave.”
Scott encourages folks to avoid leashes, but if you must use a leash, it absolutely must be a quick-release leash. Most river surfing-related deaths happen when an ankle leash snags an underwater object and the surfer is unable to reach the leash due to the strength of the current. “Safety is the biggest thing for us, you’ve gotta have that quick-release leash,” he says. “Water is powerful and unpredictable, you must be ready for anything, and so the beginning generation is pioneering the sport and seeing what gear works on the river.”
Into the Sunset
One thing is for certain—the world-class waves of the Gauley keep the stoke high for these local surfers. For Fisher, the dichotomous feeling she gets from river surfing is the draw. “It’s this rush of adrenaline with this super calming, beautiful feeling,” she says. “It’s different than plowing through big waves in a raft or kayak.”
For Wolff, it comes down to the essence of the experience. “The ability to focus on the flow of it all, on having the power of an entire river flowing underneath, is what keeps bringing you back,” he says. “You get to surf the same feature over and over. Once you start to learn a wave, you continue to progress and have more fun every time you go out.”
So, what’s next for river surfing? Locals and visitors alike are seeking out new waves on which to test their developing skills. “West Virginia is a whitewater mecca and has two of the best rivers in the world that have proved to be worthy for river surfing,” Wolff says. “More waves are inevitable. It comes down to whoever can put in the time to do reconnaissance and find new waves at the right levels.”
Dylan Jones is publisher and editor of Highland Outdoors. He got humbled at Canyon Doors last year when he didn’t stand up once during a several-hour surf session. Sucks to suck!
River Surfing 101
- Enter The Wave: Jump right in from the shore, paddle into it form an eddy, or drop into it from above.
- Feel It Out: Once you’re in, settle down and find the sweet spot where you’re able to pop up.
- Heads Up: Once you’re standing, find your balance and look forward (upstream).
- Exit Strategy: If you miss the wave, swim like hell toward an eddy. Whenever you first get to a wave, you should find the eddys and assess the swimming hazards. If you catch a ride and fall off the board, try to land flat to avoid contact with submerged rocks.
- Buddy System: Never surf alone. Always have a spotter in the water or on shore.
- Safety First: If using a leash, it MUST be a quick-release leash. A low-profile PFD is a must. Helmets are encouraged for shallow areas. Wet suits can prolong your surf session and prevent hypothermia.
- Downstream Traffic Has The Right-of-Way: If you’re riding a wave and an upstream raft or kayak is headed your way, move to the side or exit the wave to allow safe passage.
- Respect the Lineup: Get in the queue, wait your turn. Share the wave with kayakers.
- Limit Your Ride: If you’re alone or with your crew, shred till yer dead. If you’re sharing the wave with others, limit your rides to one minute.
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Chuck Hamilton is the guy to first surf the Gauley