Near the remote community of Egmont on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, the twice-daily tidal rapids of Skookumchuck Narrows has become a bucket-list item for extreme kayakers from all over the world. But in recent years, the growing community of Canadian river surfers have taken to the inlet as well in search of its mystical waves.
"It's stunningly beautiful and incredibly powerful," said Neil Egsgard, a Calgary river surfer and co-founder of the Surf Anywhere project.
"(It's) probably one of the biggest river waves in the world. It presents a whole other level of challenge as far the river goes. There's not very many places where we surf in rivers where you need a life jacket or an air canister."
Egsgard and Surf Anywhere co-founder Jacob Quinlan drove 1,090 kilometres from Calgary to Egmont to surf the inlet on Remembrance Day weekend. This was their third trip to "The Skook" since 2007.
"People ask, 'Why would you drive that far and not just go surf the ocean?'" said Quinlan.
"When Neil and I were talking about it we said, 'Well, we're river surfers.' If you do the math on how long we spent on the board, it's like a two weeks in Westport or Tofino."
With high tidal flows lasting for hours, the standing waves allows a continuous rides for around three to five minutes, compared to ocean breaks which are swell dependant and can last just seconds each. But the Skookumchuck has a notoriety amongst all paddling communities for its treacherous waters, which can look deceptively predictable on the surface. The waters have claimed more than 10 lives amongst the crashing waves and whirlpools, including two Marine Search and Rescue personnel in 2012 when their zodiac flipped during a training exercise.
"I was paddling back up with one of the kayakers, he had spent about 30 seconds floating down the river in a whirlpool," said Egsgard.
"His entire boat was underneath the water. He was in and out of the air column but that's what he spent his entire run doing, floating around under the water waiting to come back up to the surface."
For the their first two trips to the inlet Egsgard and Quinlan had the support of professional kayaker James Mole, who knows the waters extremely well and could assist with a rescue scenario. Mole was unable to make the trip with a baby on the way, but the Calgarians were confident they could handle the rapids without kayak rescue support on their third trip.
"Conditions were perfect," said Egsgard.
"We figured out a few months ago looking at the tides that we were going to have this 12-14 knot current going through there, which meant the wave was going to be an excellent size for surfing. We caught it at the level where it was the biggest you could catch it on the fly with the board that we had."
Despite the weekend of surfing being incident-free, Quinlan was quick to point out that the Skookumchuck is not a casual river surf destination.
"This is definitely not an area where river surfers at any level could just roll up and surf it," he said.
"You definitely need a guide to do a trip like this. There's just too much you can't see just by just looking at the surface. You have to have the knowledge of the area."
With the Skookumchuck being so remote and a long drive from Calgary, Egsgard and Quinlan usually surf on the Kananaskis River and promote the sport and the development of standing waves worldwide with Surf Anywhere. They visited Pemberton this summer to advise the directors of Surf Pemberton on the new standing wave project proposed for Rutherford Creek.
"You have a phenomenal location there," said Egsgard of the Rutherford site.
You have 15 to 17 cubic metres (of water) per second flowing through, you have a concrete course already built, it's dam controlled so you can shut it off and there's a club house. It's perfect."
Egsgard believes that standing wave in Pemberton would not only spawn an organic surf community, but with the right design and execution the project could draw visitors both regionally and internationally.
"You have an opportunity to make this incredibly comfortable, welcoming, dynamic experience that can be something positive for a very wide range of people," he said.
"With such an athletic centre like Whistler where you have people from around the world coming to be there, you also have the opportunity to spread something big about the sport of river surfing. You guys could have a big impact on river surfing and surfing in general. Having guaranteed surf that's not on the Island is a pretty big draw."
For more information on the Surf Anywhere project go to surfanywhere.ca.
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