Friday 30 August 2013

Easy Rider SUP Race and Surf Contest

As appears on Distressed Mullet ( -click here

Until this past weekend I had never been to Edmonton, Alberta. If you asked me last week what my impressions of Edmonton were I’d have mentioned hockey, cold winters and then would have struggled to come up with anything else.

In the 1980’s Edmonton was the epicenter of professional hockey as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were leading the Oilers to 4 Stanley Cups in 5 years. They won another post Gretzky in 1990. More recently they’ve struggled, despite consistently drafting the best young talent in the game. It doesn’t matter. Having grown up in the 1980s I still think of the Oilers as a powerhouse. I still think of hockey if you mention Edmonton.

As far as cold winters are concerned, just look at the statistics. Edmonton is way up north. Where I am from just outside of Toronto is positively tropical compared to Edmonton. The average temperature in January is a depressing minus 12 Celcius. The record is in the minus mid 40s. In this part of the country there are actually electrical outlets in parking lots for car block heaters. The idea is that you go into the mall and plug your car in so it will start when you come back out. It certainly isn’t the type of climate I associate with stand up paddling, and SUP doesn’t jump to mind when you mention the place. After my weekend at the 2013 Easy Rider SUP Race and Surf Contest all that has changed.

There is a strong and vibrant SUP community in Edmonton that’s been galvanized by the enthusiasm and stoke of Warren Currie (aka The Easy Rider). Warren owns The Easy Rider, an awesome store that started with snowboards and skateboards and now is big into SUP. He’s got a great river, the North Saskatchewan, to paddle on as well as a few small lakes nearby. He’s got a bunch of enthusiastic riders. He’s also got something that most places don’t have – surf on demand.

I guess I should have also said I knew about the West Edmonton Mall before actually going to Edmonton. Everyone in Canada has heard of it. As malls go it’s hard for me to tell whether it has more retail space than monster malls anywhere else. Suffice to say it is huge. It’s the stuff it has beyond shops and stores that makes it unique – try an indoor rollercoaster and amusement park, a hockey rink, a pirate ship and small aquarium with daily performances from seals and penguins, a hotel and, what makes it important to us – a massive indoor wave pool.

For the last number of years Warren and his crew have been going into the pool a couple of times a month and SUP surfing. They go in early in the morning before the mall opens and have the run of the place. They clearly go on a regular basis because some of these guys can really surf well. Having a facility like this means that when Warren hosts an Easy Rider SUP event he can offer more than just a race on the river. He can also host a surf contest.

I hadn’t planned on going to Edmonton and it was all kind of last minute. Jimmy Terrell called me up a week before and told me he and Dave Kalama were going to be doing a clinic there, do the race and the surf contest. He asked if I wanted to join them and offered to fly me out. I thought about it for a second. Hanging with Jimmy and Dave Kalama for the weekend? Surfing indoors in a giant wave pool? Sounded like bucket list material so I jumped at the offer.

I didn’t have time to ship out a board and West Jet, which I was flying, has a 3m limit on surf boards as baggage so I couldn’t even fly with a 12’6” board. Fortunately Warren was able to set me up with something for the race and, even though it wasn’t a Bark/Surftech board and was a 30” touring board and not a race board, everything was cool. I was stoked to go.

I got there in time to see the end of Jimmy and Dave’s clinic. I’ve run clinics with Jimmy before and we’ve trained with and raced against each other for years so I knew what to expect there, but I was really excited to hear what Dave had to say. I want to do a Kalama Kamp at some point. I’d learn a ton. The guy is a legend and I like his laid back, unassuming manner and ability to communicate his vast expanse of knowledge. I’m sure the people taking the clinic got a ton of useful information out of it, and it was cool to see people successfully applying things they’d learned in the Friday clinic in the race on Saturday.

The weather for the weekend was awesome – hot, humid and for the most part brilliantly sunny. The race was a downriver event just over 15 km in total and Warren had shuttles organized for both paddlers and boards. Proving that the SUP community there is vibrant were close to 100 participants, divided pretty much evenly between the elite race and a shorter, less competitive “tour”.

The river is cool. It’s big, wide and pretty fast moving. We finished the race in just over 1hr, 10min, which is the pace you’d expect from a fast downwinder. The river has scoured a pretty sizeable valley into the prairie so if you were taking time to look around it was actually pretty scenic. Unfortunately, given the board I was on and the quality of the field, I wasn’t doing much sightseeing while racing. Mike Darbyshire from Vancouver got out into an early lead and we had to chase him down. I did most of the work to do that with Jimmy perched on my draft. Once we caught up we drafted Mike for a good while before Jimmy took the lead. After Jimmy’s lead the three of us traded leads and then it all came down to a crucial point on the river where each of the three of us made a choice as to which line we were going to take to get the most benefit from the current. Jimmy applied his experience racing marathon canoes on rivers and sniffed out the best line and strongest current. I shouldn’t have doubted him and gone with him. Mike went to the far left and I thought the middle would be a great compromise as usually the middle of the river is the fastest. Jimmy came out of that section with at least a 50m lead with less than 2km to go.

I went nuts to try to catch up and am stoked that I really closed the gap but in the end Jimmy finished 7 seconds ahead with Mike a couple of seconds behind me. Doesn’t really matter. I had a blast. It was fun to paddle on a winding river in that current. It was fun to race against some new guys. It was fun to turn a corner on the river and see the almost 50 paddlers doing the tour on the water just ahead of us and then pass through them. It was even fun paddling and racing on a different board. Silvia Mecucci, all the way from Italy, won the women’s race and came off the water with a big smile on her face as well.

At the finish line there was really cool camaraderie as the early finishers all helped the later finishers get their boards up the steep river bank and loaded back into the shuttle vans. I loved the whole vibe. We hopped in the shuttle bus and went back to the park at the midway point where we met in the morning for registration for a great barbeque; the awards and a ridiculously large amount of real quality draw prizes.

Day one ended at a local bar beside the Easy Rider shop with some good food and the screening of a couple of really cool SUP movies. As SUPing days go this had been a really good one. The cool thing was there was another cool day in store.

We had to get an early start on Sunday for the surf contest. The mall opens at 10:00 a.m. By 10:15 the wave pool would be full of kids bobbing around in the surf like Cheerios in a cereal bowl. We got in a 6:00 a.m. and quickly set up the boards and got the contest started. We needed to be done by 9:30.

The competition was divided into a Pro heat featuring Dave and Dave (Kalama and Boehne), Mike Darbyshire and Warren (because it was his event!), a bunch of men’s heats, a couple of women’s heats and a kids’ heat. Basically 4 to a heat and 8 minutes for each heat to do their thing. Waves in the pool are generated in sets of 4 every 45 seconds or so, with each wave in the set getting bigger. I’d say the big waves were about waist high.

I’m happy to say I made the second round and caught every wave I went for. Beyond that let’s just say I have some work to do to catch up to the Daves. It was really cool seeing Dave Boehne nose riding and Dave Kalama doing fin-first take offs, making his board do full 360s and taking off with his paddle upside down. I guess the maintenance staff there didn’t have a stepladder available for him to play with. Obviously everyone had a blast and once again Warren had cool awards for the winners and more great draw prizes which went till everyone had won something.

I can’t say enough about the enthusiasm Warren brings to the sport. I guess I should also credit his wife Angela who was there every step of the way helping out and spent the morning of her wedding anniversary handing out and collecting wet numbered rash guards to the surfers in each heat. What they are creating in Edmonton really is outstanding, and certainly for me it’s given me a whole new appreciation for the place. It’s a Canadian SUP mecca and I can’t wait to go back!

If you love unique SUP experiences and sharing stoke with others than this is an event you’ll want to get to sometime. The race was fun and challenging. The surfing indoors was surreal. I can only imagine what it must be like to surf there in the winter and then step outside into arctic conditions. It must be crazy. Warren and his crew of volunteers take care of all the little things that make a competition fun and memorable. And Edmonton in the summer is actually beautiful. The Easy Rider SUP Race and Surf Contest is definitely something I’m going to be heading back to, hopefully with a bunch of friends in tow.