Bend river surf scene rips despite risks

April 27, 2017
Bend river surf scene rips despite risks

The surfer was the latest among 10 regulars who recently gathered on the Bend Whitewater Park’s Green Wave. Unlike the others, however, this was the newcomer’s first time. After a quick ejection from the wave and failing to paddle to the nearby eddy, he plunged past a subsequent 2-foot waterfall before he crawled to shore where he lay in pain.

The local surfers put down their boards and ran to his side. The force of the current had dislocated his shoulder.

Dean Ventimiglia, a lifelong surfer and a medical person-in-charge who has chartered Indonesian surf expeditions, hovered over the writhing newbie and offered to reinsert his shoulder — something he has a done for many ocean surfers — by tugging on his wrist and jamming his foot into the surfer’s armpit. Bellowing, the man managed to reinsert his arm using his own wrenching technique.

“I’ve never seen that on the wave — that’s the worst thing I’ve seen there. But I’ve seen popped out sockets on surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders — it really doesn’t take a whole lot if they have a ‘soggy’ shoulder,” Ventimiglia, 47, later said, using a term for chronically injured joints.

“I’ve seen guys fall in little surf in the ocean and pop their shoulder out.”

On any given afternoon, a handful of surfers, all wearing full-bodied, hooded wet suits and neoprene booties, brave such dangers to take turns slashing and carving the artificial wave at the Bend Whitewater Park. A mixed crew of ocean surfers, snowboarders and skateboarders, they all find their stoke on the man-made wave, which runs year-round. Their thick wet suits make surfing in the cold Deschutes River, fed by rushing snow melt, a comfortable experience so long as they’re taking regular turns on the wave, which is 37 feet wide.

Surfers catch the wave a variety of ways. Some stand on the adjacent concrete landing, place the board on the rushing water surface, and awkwardly step down, like a toddler learning to walk down stairs. Others prefer the acid drop method, in which a surfer lobs the board toward the water and jumps on. Traditionalists prefer to begin riding the wave on their bellies and then perform the classic push-up maneuver, as if they had paddled out to an ocean wave.

Some river waves require traditional paddling, but the accessibility of Bend’s Green Wave accelerates the process. When a surfer does something particularly stylish, those waiting in line slap their boards approvingly — sometimes a surfer intentionally sprays them with an aggressive slash. Good-natured heckling ensues. A surfer rides the wave anywhere from mere seconds to a minute or so after which etiquette dictates surfers rescind their turn. They stiffen their posture and let the current’s momentum topple them into the whitewash.

While particular surf scenes across the globe have garnered elitist, locals only reputations, the vibe at the Green Wave is anything but. Veteran surfers who cut their teeth on ocean waves are often joined by newbies, general river-sport enthusiasts and curious out-of-towners.

Floridian surfers Mark and Spencer Theisen, who are cousins and on a road trip, drove to Bend specifically to try river surfing on a shared ocean board. Locals happily answered their questions about how to tackle the wave, and cheered them on as they got the hang of it. Spencer, 28, long-haired and tan, wore a stoked expression as he paddled in from the wave, each time riding a little longer than before.

“The unique thing about the river, everyone stands in line and everyone respects each other,” Ventimiglia said. “When I’m down there and I see guys who seem unsure of the situation, we try to go out of our way to help them out, explain to them what’s going on, and to pay attention to them after they’ve wiped out. We give them advice on how to eat s--t,” he said with a laugh. “We talk about how to not panic. The water only gets shallower the more you float down the river.”

Travis Yamada is one of a half-dozen local surfboard makers who have customized shapes to fit in the wave’s “steep, curling face” — three of whom were surfing together that day. Yamada, a former professional snowboarder, fell in love with surfing around 2005 by spending sessions on a now-defunct canal wave between Bend and Redmond.

While ocean surfing reigns supreme to Yamada and many others, inland waves offer something that ocean waves cannot.

“In one session on a river wave, you’re standing on your board as much as you would on a week-long Indo trip,” he said, referring to Indonesia, a global surf destination. “When you’re out in the ocean, you’re sitting and paddling, and for seconds at a time, you’re on your board. Whereas you can always catch a river wave.”

Mahalo Munich
While river surfing is the latest surf discipline to emerge, it’s not exactly new, said Philipp Babcicky, who founded “Riverbreak,” an international online river surfing magazine, in 2013. Babcicky traces the niche sport to 1972 in Munich, Germany, where the world’s most popular river wave is surfed today by a vibrant surf community, according to Babcicky, who lives in Austria and wrote via email.

In fact, Munich’s river wave is the inspiration behind the Green Wave in Bend’s Whitewater Park, said Ryan Richard, the Bend Park & Recreation Department’s wave shaper. American river surfing originated in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the 1970s and ’80s. There are more than 20 states with surfable river waves, Babcicky estimates, but only a few of these states have active river surfing scenes, such as Boise, Idaho; Missoula, Montana; Denver, and smaller towns in Colorado — some also foster local surfboard companies. What’s key to the flourishing of river surfing communities is to have a consistent wave that is surfable throughout most of the year, Babcicky said. Bend’s Green Wave is an ideal size and shape, and so is its peripheral surf scene.

“The size of (Bend’s) community appears to be ideal, but with river surfing becoming more popular, the potential for conflict will also increase,” Babcicky wrote. “It is important to guide the community into a positive direction, teach community members about river surfing safety and keep this uniquely positive river surfing spirit that sets our sport apart from the localism we know from ocean surfing.”

Locals and out-of-towners
On a recent afternoon at the Bend Whitewater Park, Yamada, who started Cubicle Surfboards, traded turns on the Green Wave with Kiley Remund, who founded KR Surf, and Conway Bixby, who launched Bixby Surfboards. Sometimes Gerry Lopez, Bend’s most renowned surfer and board maker, joins the sessions, too. All board-makers design boards for ocean and river surfing, often customizing them for Bend’s Whitewater Park.

“River surfing is a whole different thing than ocean surfing,” Yamada said, mentioning how he bought and sold 50 surfboards in his first years of river surfing in the quest to cultivate the most versatile quiver.

Because most boards he purchased were fixer-uppers, Yamada became adept at repairing dings, a skill that snowballed into employment at Remund’s company KR Surf, then called World of Water. The work eventually begot Cubicle Surfboards when he began stickering his custom boards with his logo in 2014. He makes most of his sales directly to consumers, and river boards, which are shorter and slightly wider than ocean short boards, account for a slight majority of Cubicle sales.

“There are definitely opportunities in the niche for river surfing,” Yamada said, mentioning the boards he sent to places in Montana and Boise, the latter which has a man-made wave similar to Bend’s. The congruency has attracted Boise surfers to Bend. “The equipment is slightly different. It’s been fun to see if our boards work better, or if (Boise board-makers’) boards work here.”

Paying the piper
As fun as surfing the Deschutes River is, it still has its risks. Injuries sustained on the Bend Whitewater Park include bruises and scratches from brushing against rocks, a broken nose caused by a run-in with one’s surfboard and broken vertebrae, which surfer Adam Bell suffered on May 13, 2016 — “Friday the 13th,” he wryly noted.

Bell, 45, had ocean surfed, snowboarded and skateboarded for more than 30 years — and river surfed for 10 — so when he went over the small waterfall about 75 feet from the wave, he knew to float on his back with his feet facing forward. The drop landed him on rocks, however, and the impact caused a compression fracture in his L1 vertebrae — a region of his back that he had injured before.

“There was a crunch. I felt it in my teeth,” Bell said of the injury that sent him to the emergency room. Bend Park & Recreation District renovated the whitewater park last winter by adding concrete to smooth out the area below the Green Wave. After months of physical therapy, Bell is relieved he can again snowboard at a level that satisfies him, but he’s taking his time returning to river surfing.

“I haven’t made that jump yet,” said Bell, although he has since paddled his surfboard in calm water nearby.

“I think I owe it to my family to have that conversation with them before I do something like that again. (A debilitating injury) threatens my ability to do all the other things I love to do. But it’s been on my mind. I drive by the wave every day.”

Bell is quick to say that he doesn’t want his injury to taint the Bend Whitewater Park and mentioned how he has also severely hurt himself while snowboarding and skateboarding.

“Things happen. I wouldn’t want anything that happened to me to influence what happens (to the whitewater park). I would never want to see the park close,” he said, acknowledging how it not only stokes people’s enjoyment but livelihoods as well.

He added, “To have this in the High Desert, in the mountains, I think it opens up surfing to a lot of people who would never get a taste for surfing. And I think that’s a positive thing.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,

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