Have you been reading about surfing on Lake Superior, but the frigid temperatures and mammoth size of the lake have been steering you away from trying? What if you could surf in Thunder Bay, but on a river? This an idea that Brett Sharman and others at Surfmasons River Surfers Association have explored and proposed.
The Surfmasons River Surfers Association is a non-profit organization that was formed in 2017 with the purpose to bring river surfing to Thunder Bay as its primary objective and building the North Shore surf community as its second objective.
Brett hails from Down Under with Kiwi parents who raised Brett in Australia. Brett has been surfing from around the age of 10. Going to the beach with friends was a common pastime for the Aussie who initially developed his love for waves on a boogie board. Brett wound up making the big move to Thunder Bay a few years back and greatly missed catching a wave. His love of surfing drew him to the surfing community here on the North Shore. Brett says that lake surfing is amazing and gorgeous, but it can also be a cold and frustrating pursuit. The waves are great when they’re there, but they’re inconsistent. Surfing on the lake is a constant game of watching the weather and chasing waves, often driving hours to catch a wave. Brett had heard of river surfing and thought that with the plethora of rivers in Northern Ontario, it could be feasible to bring river surfing to the North Shore.
River surfing is a type of surfing that takes place on, you guessed it, a river! Interest in river surfing has grown rapidly in the last few years. While there are numerous natural river waves around the world, there are only a small number of high-quality, safe, and accessible river waves globally. Compared to lake surfing, river surfing would offer the community a reliable and consistent way to catch a wave. Coupled with the warmer temperatures of the river and the ability to control the flow of the water, a local river wave could help build the surf community and get more people out catching a wave.
The river wave the Surfmasons are proposing to build involves building a structure that is like an underwater skateboard ramp that water flows over to create an endless stationery wave.
The first step to making river surfing a reality was to establish potential locations for the river wave. The Surfmasons raised over $20,000 to complete a feasibility study that identified three potential locations. From that study, downstream from Boulevard Lake was deemed the most desirable location. There are three criteria to look at when considering a location: accessibility, water flow, and drop. Boulevard Lake is accessible to the community and the newly built dam allows the water flow to be controlled, plus there’s a decent drop. In September 2021, the Surfmasons approached Thunder Bay City Council to pitch their idea and seek the City’s support in reviewing the water permit and water management plan for Boulevard Lake. These steps are necessary to determine if the water flows required for the river wave at this location are viable. (At the time of writing, this review process has not yet been completed.) One concern people may have is how a river wave can impact the environment. The group considered this and is confident they can meet the environmental requirements. Boulevard Lake is already developed, unlike other spots along the North Shore, and the wave would be designed to include fish habitat and riparian vegetation. Based on the outcomes of similar river wave projects around the world, the addition of the wave could actually help improve the fish habitat on the Current River.
The group hopes to create an environment that is good for people and the environment.
Unlike lake surfing which depends on the weather to create a wave, river surfing can create waves on a more predictable and reliable schedule. Boulevard Lake would act as the catchment area where water would be pooled and released on a schedule to create a wave. The frequency of the release would depend on the water flow. The spring melt would be the most regular and consistent period for surfing due to the high, typically consistent, water flow. Whereas in the summer and fall months the wave would typically operate at fixed times (say for a few hours on certain days) to maximize water flow.
River surfing would be open to the public and work similarly to mountain biking trails. There would be some restrictions to ensure safety, but like the mountain bike trails, the river would allow people with the gear to surf, assuming conditions are suitable.
The long-term goal of the Surfmasons is to create a surf community. Having river surfing in Thunder Bay would likely increase tourism and create a spot in the city that can be accessed by all to get people of all ages to give surfing a try.
Ideally, businesses would pop up or existing businesses would expand their inventory to include surfing merchandise. Events and lessons could happen, and a community could develop around river surfing.
The major obstacles to making river surfing a reality are securing a location and funding. Projects take 5-10 years with many steps that need to occur. Momentum is building in Thunder Bay around river surfing. Most of the funding would come from provincial and federal grants, coupled with private donors and businesses, and the rest would come from fundraising.
River surfing has the potential to create recreation, tourism, and business opportunities. The Surfmasons hopes to bring endless waves (and opportunities) to the North Shore community in the coming years.
To stay up-to-date with the river wave project, follow the Surfmasons here: https://www.facebook.com/Surfmasons