Join the Women Surfing the Fiercest Rivers in the Canadian Rockies
No ocean around for 600 miles.
What's gnarlier than Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline or Mavericks in California? Jumping into four degree Celsius water and staying upright on a wave that never breaks. That's the thrill—and challenge—of river surfing, an increasingly popular niche sport that would make John John Florence clutch his eight-pack and weep. One of the world’s largest and most passionate communities of these hearty athletes hang ten year-round in an unexpected destination: Alberta, Canada.
“If someone’s never heard of river surfing, I describe it as similar to wake surfing,” says Andrea Juska, a Calgary-based surfer who has been a member of the Alberta River Surfing Association since 2015. While traditional surfing relies on catching a wave and letting it carry you, river surfing is more about wrestling a static wave into submission. Superhuman core strength and balance are required to go against the current until you inevitably fall off your board—some more gracefully than others. Skateboarders, who must master weight distribution in order to perform tricks like kickflips and ollies, tend to be quick learners.
In river surfing, many waves are natural, caused by a sudden drop in the riverbed’s elevation or by water flowing downstream. But what nature giveth, nature taketh away. A wave can suddenly disappear or become un-rideable with heavy rainfall or as the snow melts each season. That’s one reason man-made waves, which can be tailored for beginners and are operational year-round, are becoming more common.
Recently, Alberta has seen an influx of artificial wave projects, thanks to the efforts of the Alberta River Surfing Association, their local partners, and Surf Anywhere, an organization dedicated to building river waves around the world. One such wave includes the aptly named Mountain Wave on the Lower Kananaskis River, found about 45 minutes west of Calgary in Kananaskis Provincial Park. Surfers travel from around the globe to experience its epic, swift waters. (Those looking for a chiller ride should check out nearby Santa Claus to practice how to control their board in rapids).
The Alberta River Surfing Association has plenty of man-made wave projects in the pipeline, too, which promise to turn this region into the undisputed North Shore of Canada within the next few years. In addition to championing the development of the Calgary River Wave Park, a downtown urban beach at the city’s 10th Street Bridge, they’re planning an innovative adjustable wave at Kananaskis that can shift shape on demand, allowing surfers to perform lefts, rights, bowls, and A-frames. A new park in neighboring Cochrane is in the works as well.
While river surfing isn’t unique to Alberta, or even Canada (surfing on standing waves was born all the way back in the 1970’s in Munich, of all places, when a group of enterprising surfers balanced on rudimentary wooden planks in the Eisbach River) the interior community has adopted the unusual sport as its own—and for good reason. Calgary, which is more than 600 miles away from the nearest ocean, but conveniently borders the province’s most spectacular wilderness, such as Banff National Park, provides easy access to magnificent, powerful rivers.
“Calgarians love their outdoor activities,” says Juska. “We like any reason to be outside and enjoy nature. Surfing also has this kind of mystique about it. It's a sport that not a lot of us got to do as we grew up.”
Although the mountains might be the last place you would think to bring along your board, the Canadian Rockies’ glacier-fed rivers provide ideal (albeit icy) conditions for surfing. It doesn’t hurt that they’re pretty damn scenic, too.
“I think what makes Calgary unique is that we've got the Rockies,” says Flora Lee, an Alberta River Surfing Association member. “It's just such a beautiful setting.”
An ocean surfer who moved to Calgary from Oahu, Hawaii back in 2017, Lee was drawn in by another major charm of Alberta’s river surfing scene: its sense of community.
“I was a little sad, because I was suddenly landlocked—then I saw people surfing under the [10th Street] bridge,” she says. “That got me interested. I took a lesson, and the rest is history. Everyone is very welcoming. They're happy to answer any questions, spread the love, and promote the sport, so we can get more people involved.”
For both Lee and Juska, feeling the support of other strong women surfers and building a friendship with them has become an intrinsic plus. While they estimate that women make up less than 50% of local surfers, their numbers are rapidly increasing. In the recent Mountain Wave Classic competition, there were 21 male surfers compared to nine women. The previous year, only three women competed.
“There's not an official women's group, but it is definitely a sisterhood,” says Juska. “We set up our own surf chats and surf nights. We even have a weekend coming up where we're doing a ladies camp. Not that we're excluding the guys, they are welcome to join, but it was organized and driven by us. I've had some really magical sessions where we've had almost all women in the water.”
Hanging out by the south channel of Harvie Passage on Calgary’s Bow River, it’s easy to understand the appeal of such an inclusive vibe. Surfers line up to take turns on the “bunny hill,” a gentle, forgiving wave that’s great for safe practice, stepping out of the line to chat or give pointers to young kids. An informal audience gathers on the rocks nearby, sipping kombucha, groaning at wipe-outs and heartily applauding those who manage to stay standing for more than ten seconds. (Hey, this sport is hard.) The crowd barely casts a sideways glance when a man lifts his yorkie—in a mini wetsuit no less—onto his board to surf à deux. All types and styles are welcome here. It’s clear that river surfing, in Alberta at least, is strictly about fun.
It’s this warm, come-one-come-all spirit that makes it the perfect spot for uninitiated river surfers to dip their toe in the frigid current. So how can you join in? Start by conquering an entry level wave like the one at Harvie Passage, which is typically open from mid-April to Thanksgiving.
“That's how we learned,” says Juska. “Just hang out by the waves, talk to people, and ask questions. ‘Can you give me some pointers? How should I position the board? What safety concerns should I know about?’”
For extra guidance (or those with extra nerves) the Alberta River Surfing Association offers lessons. Bow Valley SUP & Surf can kit you up with rental gear (including that thick wetsuit), while the Alberta River Surfing Association’s Facebook group is another great resource for prep.
Ultimately, Juska and Lee agree that practice and patience are key. After all, it can take a long time to see real progress.
“It took me a year just to be able to stay on the wave on my belly,” says Lee. “But everybody is different. Other people pick it up just like that. My advice is to celebrate the small victories.”
Let’s be honest—surfing on a static wave was never really about getting someplace fast, anyway.