In the summertime, surfers and kayakers at the Bend Whitewater Park sometimes must dodge the laid-back floaters and tubers who clog the Deschutes River on hot days.
In the depths of winter, the tubers are nonexistent — but a dedicated group of surfers remains, carving the waves on even the chilliest of days.
This marks the first season that the whitewater park, which opened in September 2015, will be open through the winter, as during the past two years the park was undergoing construction improvements during the winter.
Ryan Richard, a wave shaper for Bend Park & Recreation District and an avid river surfer, says a hardcore group of 50 to 100 surfers from Central Oregon, and a few kayakers, have been frequenting the park as winter settles in — but usually only about 10 at a time at the most.
Equipped with thick wet suits and the use of heated restrooms for changing at McKay Park, river surfers actually find their sport quite accessible and comfortable during the winter.
“I keep seeing people that I haven’t seen since the summer, and they’re just coming out,” Richard says. “The surf wave happens to be just excellent right now.”
Richard adds that the surf wave — one of four human-controlled waves in the park — is in ideal shape because water managers have increased the Deschutes River flows out of Wickiup Reservoir a bit for this winter. He says the increase put the wave in “the prime flow zone, where it works amazingly.”
Tourists who come to ski or snowboard at Mount Bachelor this winter might also try the whitewater park, Richard notes. Also, a sort of chain reaction occurs when surfers see other surfers out riding the wave, located just downstream from the Colorado Avenue Bridge near downtown Bend.
But this is the ideal time of year to avoid the crowds of the warmer months.
“The max I saw this summer was 30 people in the lineup,” says James Adams, another wave shaper for the park district, and also a surfer. “That can be 15 minutes in between rides. This time of year, the busiest I’ve seen it lately, I was out there with 10 people. It’s nice to have it to yourself because you can get a lot more practice in, but go with a buddy.”
In a control room at the park, Richard and Adams can adjust the air pressure in 26 inflatable bladders that move gates up and down under the river, changing the size and shape of the waves. But mostly they use an iPad program to remotely manipulate the waves of the park.
Richard says shaping the wave is a “constant learning process,” but surfers seem to be pleased with the current wintertime wave. Kayakers are harder to find this time of year, he adds. And even during the warmer months, it seems surfers outnumber the play-boat kayakers in the whitewater park. Richard says that is due to a number of factors.
“Surfing has kind of this sexy appeal to it,” Richard says. “It’s this cool sport that I think is definitely a part of Bend culture. It’s also really accessible. To get to where you can perform in a play-boat (going underwater and doing tricks), it takes not only a significant monetary investment, but it takes a lot of time and training. Whereas surfing, it’s not easy by any means, but you can ultimately go get a wet suit and a board and go down there and start trying it.”
The vast majority of wintertime river surfers wear 5-millimeter-thick wet suits with booties, gloves and a hood to stay warm in the chilly water. Richard says the only time he gets cold is when he first gets into the water. The wet suit functions by trapping a thin layer of water between the surfer’s body and the neoprene suit. The layer of water is warmed by the surfer’s body.
“The technology in those is pretty amazing,” Richard says. “I get hot frequently.”
He adds that surfers typically wear a 4-millimeter wet suit in the spring and fall, and as thin as 2 or 3 millimeters in the summer. During the hottest days of summer, sometimes a wet suit is unnecessary.
About 70 percent of surfers at the whitewater park use regular fiberglass surfboards, likes those used in the ocean, according to Richard. Some surfers use hard foam boards.
The only conditions during which surfers and kayakers could not enjoy the waves at the Bend Whitewater Park is a frozen river, Richard notes. But because the water and waves are moving so fast, they are extremely unlikely to freeze. Just upstream from the park, the water under the Colorado Avenue Bridge could freeze, but Richard says the gates can be used to help break that ice up and avoid an ice dam forming.
“The nice thing is we have that big row of gates right under the bridge that we can basically move around and bust up,” Richard says. “If we stay on top of it we should be OK.”
Adams says that in those frozen conditions surfers need to watch for ice chunks floating downstream. But the biggest hazard is the potential to slip and fall on the icy ground when getting in and out of the water.
“Just watch your footing and be aware of where you’re at,” Adams says. “Don’t assume that the rock is dry. As we see ice build up, keep your eyes aware. It’s still a wild river. Look upstream.”
But little if anything will keep the local hardcore surfers from their wave — even in the middle of winter.
“I’ve seen river surfing in insanely cold conditions,” Richard says. “If the wave is flowing, they’ll be surfing it.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,