The past, present, and future of river surfing

Grant Lahring interviewing Luke Morstad

If anyone knows river surfing in Calgary, it’s Luke Morstad. His company, Outlier Surf, has been instrumental in building the community that surfs The One Wave near the 10th Street Bridge downtown. Fresh from winning $10,000 at the JMH LaunchPad pitch competition this spring, Luke and his team are poised for their biggest season yet.

What was your first surfing experience?

Oh, man, it was a while ago. I was in Tofino with my cousin and a couple of friends. I rented a board and went out and I loved the sport so much that that night, I bought a surfboard. It was like an $800 surfboard. My parents were like, “You’re crazy! You live in Calgary! Why did you buy a surfboard?” It was shortly after that I discovered river surfing.

How has the river surfing scene in Calgary developed since you joined it?

When we started, there were about 50 surfers, estimated, in the city, and I would guess there is anywhere between 400 to 500 now and I’d say that we [Outlier Surf] have been responsible for about 70 per cent of them. It’s been incredible. The community we have here is just such a welcoming place for people who have been doing it for some time and for people who are new to the sport. It’s quite a contrast to ocean surfing. Ocean surfing can be so territorial and intimidating, you know, “local’s only!”

Can you name some of the other key figures in the space?

Yeah! For sure! This organization called the Alberta River Surfing Association. They’ve been incredible advocates for the sport. They’ve worked with the city helping us with these projects. Neil Egsgard and Jacob Kelly have been two drivers from day one. They’ve provided so much mentorship for us and are definitely leaders in the community.

What is Outlier Surf?

We are a river surfing company that has been offering introductory lessons, guiding people into the sport of river surfing, and helping to build the community that has been operating for the last five years. We offer proper equipment (surf boards, wetsuits) and we throw events. Really we’re just trying to bring this community together and build this sport in a safe and welcoming way.

What are your expectations for this season?

Have some fun! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the summer. We’re going to continue offering lessons, providing the right surf equipment, posting events and bringing people together – keeping the community tight. I’ll be heading down to Oregon in a couple of weeks to plan a potential a surf trip. Oregon has the world’s best river surfing wave and great ocean waves as well. They’re less than two hours apart.

Where are the local waves in Calgary?

You’ve got “The One Wave” in downtown Calgary. It’s a great, great introductory wave. It’s so good for learning. It’s really safe compared to a lot of other surfing waves. There’s another wave in Kananaskis, about 40 minutes outside the city. It’s much more advanced, so we really, really encourage people to learn here in downtown Calgary before they try to surf there.

The wave in Calgary pops up every summer. There are people surfing out there at the end of March and you can surf until the end of May. Then you get high flows until June. July, August, September, you can surf in Calgary.

The wave in Kanaskis is fed by a dam and it’s always controlled. That wave surfs all year round, but it does get quite cold out there. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing before surfing in the winter.

Where do you see the sport in five years?

We’ve got plans – it’s called the Calgary Urban Beach Project – to put a wave, a much bigger wave, in that same spot. It will have the capacity for 100,000 surf sessions a year. The Kananaskis River has one wave, but the potential for three to four more waves. When I look at the way the One Wave has added so much energy and liveliness to our city, and the way this community is growing, I don’t see why other cities and other locations won’t jump on board. The sky’s the limit with this sport!

Where do you see yourself in five years?

If I’m surfing and making an adequate living five years from now, I’ll be a happy man.

What would you say to someone who is thinking of trying river surfing for the first time?

It’s the best way to spend a few hours in our city. I would recommend that you take a lesson and learn the fundamentals of it. It’s a healthy activity. You’ll meet a community of lifelong friends. If you’re passionate about the outdoors and trying new things, you’ll fall in love with it. If I could tell you just one thing, I would say, “Just do it! You will not regret it. It’s such a fun way to spend two hours in our city.”