There are a few moments in life that time completely stops – catching big air on skis, Outkast in concert, sending your first 5.11, and maybe your first kiss, depending on how things played out. These moments are universal; everyone feels them. They are a powerful cocktail of joy, balance, thrill, and novelty, forcing us into the immediate present. And, at the top of the list, is catching the perfect wave.
While ocean surfing has been solidly mainstream for decades, it’s ugly stepchild river surfing is far from it. As a small but quickly growing sport, river surfing has grown in popularity mostly from kayakers and more recently has expanded to surfboards, too. While some mountain towns like Bend, OR and Buena Vista, CO have built world-class whitewater parks, the true heart and soul of river surfing is on frigid, relatively inaccessible, snow-fed raging rivers. If that sounds hardcore, that’s because it is.
No better film captures the essence of this sport like River Surfer – an unassuming, simple, and community-oriented short doc. So many outdoor and adventure films these days try to over-dramatize, over-inflate, and over-edit activities and often that loses their soul. This short film hits the spot, because it leaves the viewer with questions unanswered: who is Gannett? Where is he? What river is he surfing? The film seems to focus only on the why – and that’s what makes it great.
I sat down with surfer Gannett Horn and Taylor Glenn, the film’s director, to learn more about the piece. Here is our conversation, editing lightly for clarity.
ROAM: Tell me a bit about yourself, your background, where you live and what you do?
GH: I live in Jackson, surf as much as I can, hunt as much as I need to keep the freezer full, craft boards for river surfing, too. Mostly I just love to surf.
TG: I’m a freelance photographer and director also based in Jackson, Wyoming. I’ve been here since 2003 and work on a wide variety of projects. A few years ago I started learning to surf from experts like Gannett.
ROAM: How did the film idea come about?
TG: I’ve had an idea for a while, almost since I started to learn to surf the wave a couple years ago. I quickly got obsessed with it, even though I’ve done very little ocean surfing. I quickly developed a relationship with the core crew and the place. It’s special. I wanted to share a little of this feeling but didn’t have a specific vision of what the film would be other than just sharing the joy of the place and the wave itself. As I got to know Gannett and know the wave more, I thought he would be a good person to focus on to share what this wave means to a lot of us. He’s one of the most passionate people in the community. Very soulful.
ROAM: What do you hope people learn from the short film?
TG: I’d like people to see the value in and to celebrate the passion of a commitment to something. In a lot of ways I don’t want people to overthink this film. There isn’t something really deep. It’s just a beautiful thing happening in a beautiful place and beautiful community. I made the film to celebrate someone’s passion and a sport that’s really unique. I figure it could inspire others to try it.
ROAM: Tell me more about the community at the wave?
GH: Well, for example, I’m 49 years old and there are definitely a few people older than me that still surf almost every day. The ages range a lot. The younger folks are teenagers. People work different jobs and come from different backgrounds, but I don’t think that matters much. Over the course of a season you go down there daily and run into people you know, many of whom you’ve been surfing with for maybe 20 years or more. Any regular at the wave for a year or two becomes a close friend. It’s a really close community. Part of the reason to go to the wave is to see friends – it’s a very communal sport and experience. We’re always trying to teach and learn from each other, sharing etiquette, safety and such.
TG: The wave draws all different sorts of users from across the community. It’s a really neat group, blending a lot of people together through a shared passion.
ROAM: For those not involved in river surfing, are there other waves like this?
GH: This one has been the gold standard for a while now – a few man-made waves are catching up and maybe a few others are being discovered around the country, but this one is so pure and perfect when you’re on it. The average season is just six weeks, so it’s short and exciting when we do get to surf.
ROAM: What makes this wave special?
GH: It’s not the easiest to catch but it’s easy and nearly perfect to ride. Downstream is a bit challenging and needs to be respected. There are a few big whirlpools that can suck you under if you’re not careful.
TG: Part of what makes the wave special is that the flow is based on snowpack melt, so you have to be really in tune with current conditions in order to ride it. It’d be a totally different wave if it wasn’t seasonal and always available. You just have to be there to catch it. If not you’re going to miss it.
ROAM: Are there any safety risks?
GH: Inherently the sport is risky. Most surfers only wear a wetsuit and a surfboard, without a PFD.. It requires a ton of respect for the river and a lot of knowledge, too. The community helps teach new surfers to navigate the hazards. At higher levels it can be really dangerous.
ROAM: Tell me more about the feeling you get after surfing in the eddy
GH: It’s special. Once you get to the eddy, you’re out of danger and you can relax. So you take a breath and realize that you’re really tired from surfing and then getting over to the eddy. It’s a dual feeling – a combo of exhaustion and euphoria. There isn’t a better feeling than surfing that wave.
TG: Yeah, I agree. It’s one of the most special places in the world.