America's best kept surfing secret? Missoula, Montana. While the town's Strongwater surf shop doesn't have any beachfront access, the store has cultivated a loyal following of dedicated wave junkies. Photographer Paolo Marchesi caught up with the crew this summer for an unexpected day of endless rides on Idaho's Lochsa River.
Photo: Kevin Benhart Brown doing an ollie on the Lochsa River. Before Marchesi visited Montana, he scouted the area by phone and learned that “Missoula is turning into a surf town,” at least according to Brown. That statement was enough to convince Marchesi to buy a ticket.
Ian Stokes making a top turn. On a good ocean wave, surfers can hope to catch eight to 12 waves in a session. On a river? "These guys were getting weeks of wave time in one short session," Marchesi says.
Strongwater's Luke Rieker, Ian Stokes, and Kevin Benhart Brown prepare the wetsuits and boards for a chilly surf session. The guys' dedication shows through in their trip odometer—four hours of driving time for two hours of surfing.
These guys don't just try and stay on the wave like some river surfers I've seen. They're "taking river surfing to a new level," says Marchesi.
Surfing Pipeline, the Lochsa River's best wave and a favorite spot for Missoula-based surfers.
Marchesi got to the river more than an hour ahead of the surfers, who arrived just shy of 9 p.m. But the dark skies didn't diminish their ability to read and cut up the waves.
Kevin Benhart Brown shapes a board in Strongwater's workshop, the only mountain surf shop in the country. Many of K.B.'s boards take their maiden voyages in the nearby Clark Fork River.
When not snagging action shots (like this one of Luke Rieker), Marchesi attempted to catch waves of his own, but soon found himself earning the record for most time held underwater. "Of course, the rookie had to have the record," Marchesi says. "I was under, being pushed by the current and as much as I pulled on my leash, to use the board's buoyancy to come up, nothing happened. The current didn’t want to let go."
The rides can last for minutes at a time—way longer than anything you'd get in the ocean.
Luke Rieker smiles after a long ride in the Lochsa river.
"As soon as I got to the shop, I was overwhelmed by everyone's friendliness. Surfers are usually jerks—no offense, I am one of them—[but] river surfing is different: friendly people, camaraderie, encouragement," says Marchesi.
Finished with your ride? Swim hard for the bank and walk back up into position.
Strongwater's surfboards are built for the longer rides and endless waves found in the river—they're shorter, fatter, and wider than a traditional ocean surfboard.
Water conditions matter when it comes to river surfing. As with rafting, spring runoff season is often the best time of year for the sport.
The work starts when you fall and have to navigate your way back to the bank.