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Sierra magazine
Against the Flow

The bouncy ride of a river-surfing evangelist

Photography by Benjamin Brayfield

  1. Elijah Mack has explored the waterways of nine states and four countries looking for river waves--steep, curling rapids where a rider can surf in place for as long as his legs hold out. Mack charts flow rates, scouts rapids, and scours aerial photos for that telltale shadow that means a surfable riffle. So when he shows up at the Gold Ray dam near Grants Pass, Oregon, the concrete wall, barbed wire, and no trespassing signs barely slow him down.
  2. Mack's tattoos put some sponsors on edge. Beneath the neoprene, his arms are nearly green from overlapping artwork. "He looks so scary," says Hillary Meisels at Body Glove wetsuits. "And then you talk to him, and he just softens up."

  3. Near his favorite surfing spot, on Oregon's Deschutes River, Mack holds the board that Rat Surfboards built based on his design. To improve buoyancy, it's thicker and wider than a traditional surfboard.

  4. Mack paddles into position. River surfing began in 1975, when two brothers rode the Isar River wave in Munich, Germany. Mack rode his first river wave in 1997 and has been spreading the sport like a missionary ever since. Despite his best efforts, however, it remains an underground sport.

  5. Mack carves turns on Idaho's Lochsa River. He's surfed in forests, cities, and irrigation canals. "I rode a wave on the Zambezi River in Africa with crocodiles watching me from either bank," he says. When flooding pumped up a wave on the South Yamhill River (and caused Oregon to declare a state of emergency) in 2007, Mack rode it, dodging refrigerators and uprooted tree trunks hurtling downstream.

  6. A solo session on the Lochsa. "Every time I come around a new corner," he says, "there might be a barreling wave sitting there, waiting."
    --Peter Frick-Wright


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