Surfing the Snake

— June 18, 2013

To the untrained eye, it is a roiling, frothing white mass, a rapid which rafts must muscle through and over while passengers shriek and guides bark orders to paddle. But in 1976, Mike FitzPatrick and Steve Osman, guides running the Snake River daily, saw something else. They saw an ocean-like wave about five-feet high, quartering off the left bank of the river with a big break and a glassy shoulder.

They saw something they thought they could surf.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

The Lunch Counter rapids are perhaps the best known rapids on the Snake River. It is class III whitewater named in the late 60s by guide Dave Hansen who, while going down the river and approaching the wave, said “if we are going to eat our lunch it’s going to be right here,” FitzPatrick said. The saying stuck and the rapids became known as Lunch Counter. The rapid consists of a train of waves including one that now, on a summer day, you can watch surfers ride. But 35 years ago no one, as far as the local river runners know, had surfed it.

FitzPatrick grew up in Maine and learned to surf long boards in the Beach Boys era, eventually moving to Hawaii, despite saying he was never great at the sport. Osman, a fellow guide and friend also surfed before moving to Jackson.

As guides, the two knew the river intimately. They watched the wave at Lunch Counter go up and down as the water flow changed in the river.

“It just looked like an ocean wave curling,” FitzPatrick said. “It had a glassy shoulder and a pile in the middle like it was a wave breaking right there and it stands totally still.”

That year they couldn’t get a surf board. The next year the water levels never hit an ideal height to try it. In 1978 they heard Steve Hahn, a guide for another company, had a board and was trying to surf the wave, but didn’t have much surfing experience and was struggling, Fitzpatrick said. FitzPatrick and Osman asked if they could go with him and try together.

The trio stayed in the canyon one evening after work. While today people jump from a nearby rock into the water and use the eddies to approach, FitzPatrick, Osman and Hahn wouldn’t discover that method for another two years and instead tried to back into the wave, approaching it like they would in the ocean. All three knew the river and had spent plenty of time in the water while kayaking, but it was still nerve-wracking. While the wave itself is smooth, the river is turbulent and known for its powerful current and a strong whirlpool that sits at the bottom of the rapid. All three wore life jackets even though they awkwardly elevated them off the board. But it didn’t stop the punch of fear FitzPatrick felt when entering the water with only a board, while the river spun and sucked him under the first time. Still they were undeterred, alternating attempts. It was FitzPatrick’s sixth or seventh try when he realized he had stood up.

“I was like ‘holy shit, I’m standing on this wave in the middle of the river,’” he said. He rode it for about 30 seconds.

Around him the water roared, but he felt stationary. The water rushed by and he skimmed just on top, balancing with only slight movements and turns. When you surf in the ocean, you have to stay in front of the wave’s curl, FitzPatrick said. In the ocean, the wave moves. In the river the water moves.

By the end of the evening, all three were consistently standing and surfing the wave.

A picture, captured by one of the river photographers, ended up in “Outside Magazine,” but for years few people other than FitzPatrick, Hahn and Osman surfed the river.

In the 1980s Body Glove brought professional surfers to the river and word slowly spread about people surfing in landlocked Wyoming.

Brian Fox surfs on the Snake River Saturday. (Kelsey Dayton/Wyofile)
Brian Fox surfs on the Snake River Saturday. (Kelsey Dayton/Wyofile)

Today the sport of river surfing is growing into its own, said Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson. People are building specialized boards and perfecting new tricks.

There are waves in Montana and Idaho, and Pruzan has even surfed other rapids on the Snake River, like Big Kahuna, but Lunch Counter remains the best natural river surfing spot, he said. The eddies on both sides of the rapid provide easy access into the river and the water is deep enough to avoid hitting boards’ fins on rocks. It easy to get to, but far enough from the road you can’t hear the cars. The rocky canyon walls squeeze a lot of water into a narrow space and the swell appears.

“It’s a special place for all river runners,” he said.

Pruzan started surfing the Snake River in the late 1990s after years of kayaking the river. He’d surfed in Mexico, but was surprised at how much he liked surfing the river.

With the wave stationary you can carve all over the wave.

“The amount of wave time you get is just huge,” he said.

In ocean surfing you might surf or 10 or 15 seconds at a time, but at Lunch Counter you can take a five minute ride.

Ocean surfing is about perfect timing. You have to be in perfect position as you wait, a wave has to break, you have to paddle and position yourself and compete with other surfers before taking off at the exact time and then staying ahead of the curl. At Lunch Counter you are guaranteed a chance to ride.

“It doesn’t matter what the tide’s doing, it doesn’t matter what the wind is doing, when it’s in, it’s always there,” Pruzan said.

The wave’s season varies depending on weather and conditions. When the water drops, the wave becomes flatter and loses its punch. When the water gets higher, the river gets too fast. At its highest levels it can go from a class III whitewater to class IV where it can flip boats and kayaks and the water below the rapid becomes turbulent, Pruzan said. Prime conditions are 7,500 up to 12,500 cubic feet per second.

Once the wave is in, Will Taggart surfs it almost every day.

It’s convenient to take only his wetsuit and board down to the river and know he’s going to get as many rides as he wants.

“Lunch Counter is like a wave machine,” he said.

Brian Fox surfs "Lunch Counter" a rapid on the Snake River while kayakers and other surfers look on. (Kelsey Dayton/Wyofile)
Brian Fox surfs “Lunch Counter,” a rapid on the Snake River, while kayakers and other surfers look on. (Kelsey Dayton/Wyofile)

Taggart started surfing it about 20 years ago when he was 16 years old. Taggart grew up kayaking the canals near his house and eventually the Snake River. It took a few tries for him to master surfing, but there was something energizing about being in the cold water and feeling the strength of the current.

He kept coming back. Each time the water level changed, the wave was a little different. He kept getting better and now can spin and perform tricks on the wave.

The sport is growing in popularity, but will always be somewhat limited, he said. A good, accessible, surfable river wave is still rare.

Which is perhaps why Lunch Counter is so popular — there aren’t many other places to surf in the area.

Word spreads quickly as early as May when the rapid is in. On busy days there might be up to 10 surfers waiting their turns, a head bobbing seemingly relaxed above the churning water.

On Saturday, Ryan Holton and a friend came from Rexburg, Idaho to try surfing the river. Originally from San Diego, he missed surfing when he went to school in Idaho. Then he saw a YouTube video of a surfer on the Snake.

It took about four hours to figure out how river surfing differed from ocean surfing.

In the ocean, the wave comes from behind, on the river the force comes toward you, he said.

“It’s a completely different flavor or style,” he said. “It kind of feels like you are surfing a small, consistent wave that never ends.” While it won’t completely replace ocean surfing, Holton said he plans to come back, maybe even next weekend.

FitzPatrick, who recently started river guiding again, stopped surfing years ago, distracted by a passionate pursuit of kayaking. Last year his son, Cam, 20, a kayaker and snowboarder, started surfing the river. His dad, of course, reminded him he was the first person to ever surf Lunch Counter.

FitzPatrick returned to the wave Sunday almost 35 years after he first surfed the wave in July 1978. He couldn’t stand up. He wasn’t worried, just a bit out of practice, he said. He planned to try again. After a few attempts, he thinks he’ll once again ride Wyoming’s famous wave.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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