Paddling out, it quickly becomes clear that this is no normal morning surf. For a start, the ocean is a long, long way away. Getting into the water has consisted of scrambling down a muddy bank, then pushing off into the not-exactly-toasty St Lawrence River.
There awaits La Vague à Guy, a quirk of the way the water goes over the rocks and river bed beneath it. It creates a permanent wave, between half a metre and a metre high. That might not sound much, but it’s the novice’s training ground amongst Montreal’s small-but-growing river surfing community.
It’s the baby step, but it’s by no means easy to get the hang of – even for people who normally have no difficulty getting up on the board and riding the surf. The fundamental difference is that on the ocean, the swell comes towards you, and you leap on board. At La Vague à Guy, you drift in the current towards the wave, then leap up, hopefully at the sweet spot where you’ll be able to stay up.
Watching from the bank, this looks relatively easy. A bearded chap in a necessarily thick wetsuit floats down, elegantly hops up onto his board, then spends a minute or so weaving back and forth along the wave.
Attempting it myself, directed to aim for the section of the wave slightly to right of the centre, it’s not quite so effortless. There’s a little bit of a sucking in effect, making for a sudden increase in speed. Before I know it, I’m zipping downstream, long past the wave. From there, it’s a scramble to get out of the current and head over to the relatively placid stretch by the bank.
This is perhaps the effect of being up all night with food poisoning the night before, but it feels rather like desperately trying to escape a shipwreck. Once safely back on land, a few minutes are spent wheezing and calming down.
The second run through doesn’t go too much better. It’s like trying to start a car with an incredibly specific bite point. But the instructors with surf tour company KSF seem to have the knack, somehow managing to lie down at the foot of the wave, attempting to catch the hapless beginners as they fly past.
Surfers have been trying to catch the rapids in the St Lawrence – there are, bigger higher waves to graduate to once La Vague à Guy has been conquered – since around 2003. And it’s not just Montreal where it’s catching on. Munich, where the sport arguably began, has taken to hosting international river surfing championships.
While the scenes might not rival those in California, Bali or the Australian coast, there are enough surfers improvising inland to make small, dedicated communities. On my course, at least a couple of the people trying it out are locals who fancy joining the club. As I eventually flake on the bank, knackered and happy to call it quits, they power on. After a couple of hours, they finally start hitting that bite point, and slowly climb to their feet. Hundreds of miles inland, new surfers are born.
All content copyright David Whitley.