A river runs through it
Written by Will Bendix
surfing Montreal’s St. Lawrence River
Montreal takes its name from the triplet of hills called Mount Royal that rise from the heart of the city, but its true life force lies in the St. Lawrence River. This waterway flows around the city, connecting it to the Great Lakes and, finally, the mighty Atlantic Ocean to the east.
The chic metropolis has long been famous for its jazz-infused legacy – this is, after all, the home of maestros like Charlie Biddle and Oscar Peterson. But it’s also gaining fame for surfing, despite the fact that it lies hundreds of miles away from the nearest coast.
“It’s like surfing an endless wave; you can stay on it for hours,” says William Pichet, a Montreal native and ardent surfer. Pichet is talking about the ‘standing waves’ that occur along the St. Lawrence River as it hugs the city, offering urban surfers rides that last as long as their legs will carry them.
Unlike the ocean, where swells move forward across the sea then break quickly and dissipate as they hit the shore, standing waves are created by water flowing over a depression or an obstruction in the riverbed. If the current is strong enough, it creates a wave that breaks continuously in the same place and gives surfers a clean wall of water known as an ‘open face’ to ride and do manoeuvres on, much like a liquid treadmill.
“The spot we surf the most is just behind the condominium building called Habitat 67,” says Pichet, who explains that the waves are dependent on the water level of the river. “There are two main waves at Habitat 67. Depending on the season, the waves will appear and disappear. The one closer to shore is surfable when the snow melts and the level of the water is high. In summer, the level drops and the wave that we surf the most, the main wave, starts to work, and you can surf it until December.”
The St. Lawrence River was first surfed in 2002 by Corran Addison, an Olympic kayaker and freestyle world champ who was no stranger to tackling rapids, which is essentially what a standing wave is. Since then, the surf community in Montreal has grown. On weekends when conditions are good, it’s not unusual to find the side street near Habitat 67 filled with surfers pulling on wetsuits and waxing up all manner of surf craft.
“All types of boards work,” says Pichet, but he claims longboards are still the best equipment for riding St. Lawrence. These are the thick, long, old-school boards typically used by surfers to ride smaller waves with panache. “It’s a longboard wave because the glide you get is amazing,” he explains.
Pichet compares surfing St. Lawrence to the jazz music his home town is famous for – a familiar rhythm open to endless improvisation. His surfing is quick and graceful, surprising and pleasing at the same time as he walks up and down his board, ‘hanging ten’ with his toes over the nose, and performing a number of other tricks, all of which require great skill.
“That’s the beauty of surfing a river wave,” he says. “It’s not like the ocean. You can just take your time and enjoy the ride, focus on what you’re doing. There is no need to rush because the wave won’t go anywhere.”
River surfing is not a new phenomenon. Legend has it the first river wave ever surfed was a tidal bore along the River Severn in the UK as far back as 1955. It’s claimed that the ride was a mile and a half long (a distance that may well have got longer with its retelling over the years). But the Eisbach River in Munich, Germany, is widely regarded as the true birthplace of river surfing. Its standing wave has been ridden since the 1970s. The phenomenon has since spread around the globe, with standing waves being regularly surfed from Norway to New Zealand.
The predictable nature of a standing wave also makes it a great place for landlocked newbies to learn. Pichet points out another spot further up the river from Habitat 67 called la vague à Guy. “It’s a very small wave where we just cruise,” he says. “It’s perfect for beginners.”
There are even a couple of surf schools in Montreal that do a roaring trade in summer getting novices to their feet.
“The vibe is very mellow. Everybody is nice and friendly; they give advice if you are a beginner,” says Pichet. “You have to wait your turn in the line-up, so everyone gets a chance at surfing the wave, unlike in the ocean when there are often guys that take more waves than others.”
The Montreal surf scene might be relatively small, but it’s drenched in ‘stoke’ – the word surfers use to describe their fanatical enthusiasm for riding waves, whether it’s in Hawaii or landlocked Quebec.
“Everyone comes together for events, movie premieres, and parties,” says Pichet. “There is also a new studio making surfboards that just opened up very close to the wave on Notre-Dame Street.”
If you’re looking for a steaming cup of coffee to warm up after a session, then head over to September Café, where all the locals hang out. “We also have an annual surf swap put on by Boutique Archive, where you can buy or trade secondhand boards, which has become a big social event.”
And if the surf’s ever flat, there’s always the city itself, a capital of architecture, design, culture, and, of course, music. “What I love about Montreal is all the festivals and the jazz,” says Pichet. “The music is always flowing, just like the waves.”
Learning the ropes
If you’re in Montreal and want to take a few surf lessons, Kayak Sans Frontières (KSF) comes highly recommended and will get you on your feet quickly.
For excellent boards tailor-made for river surfing, visit Ananus Surfboards, based on the south shore of Montreal.
Water and air temperatures are pleasant enough in mid-summer, but you will need a good wetsuit the rest of the year and a neoprene hood, gloves, and booties if you plan on riding St. Lawrence in winter.
There are two types of river waves – standing waves and tidal bores. Standing waves are stationary rapids created by water flowing downstream, while tidal bores are moving waves that surge upstream.
Unlike standing waves that can break for months at a time, tidal bores are a rare occurrence. These rumbling beasts are created by extreme high tides when water is funnelled from the ocean into a narrowing river via a broad bay.
As the tidal surge is forced into shallower water, it creates a wave – or series of waves – that may break and become surfable for long distances.
Tidal bores are found around the world, from the depths of the Amazon jungle to Kolkata in India, and they are often preceded by a low, rumbling sound that gets amplified as the bore churns upstream. The largest known tidal bore is found along the Qiantang River in China, where waves of up to nine metres travelling as fast as 40kph have been recorded – and surfed.
Indeed, there is a fringe group of surfers dedicated to riding this phenomenon, but it’s not all fun and games. Tidal bores are known to capsize ships, wreak havoc along the riverbanks, and carry unsuspecting victims away in the turmoil.
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