River surfer and barber Elijah Mack has big dreams for Eugene.
In 2004, EW ran a cover story on Mack — he talked about his difficult past, his love for river surfing and the potential for an outdoor wave park in Eugene. Mack, who is moving back to Eugene this summer from Portland, still wants to see a wave park in Eugene for surfers. In the past 14 years, river surfing and whitewater parks have taken off across the nation.
EW caught up with Mack to talk about catching waves on rivers and making river surfing the next hot sport.
How would you describe river surfing to someone only familiar with ocean surfing?
Essentially, anywhere in the world where you have a current of water — not just rivers, but canals, anywhere with current — you have the possibility for the formation of a stationary wave. A stationary wave can take any form, just like an ocean wave. The key difference is that instead of the wave moving through the water, the water moves through the wave. The shape of the wave stays consistent. You face upstream, and the water flowing underneath you combined with the steepness of the wave creates the gravity and friction that allows you to surf across the wave.
How did you get into river surfing?
I grew up surfing, so when I stumbled on a stationary wave in Chico, California, in a small creek in 1997, I had an epiphany that these waves were everywhere all over the world. In 2001, I moved to Eugene and realized there were rivers all around me. I started first on the McKenzie and the Willamette, then I started searching for waves all across the western United States, and then the world.
Where are your favorite places to river surf in Eugene?
The waves that are in Oregon occur naturally in rivers, between 2 and maybe 6 feet tall based on water runoff. In Oregon, wave size is based on rainfall. There are three or four little ones right on the Willamette in Eugene and a few on the McKenzie. So the waves around Eugene are small and fun, but not really big or powerful.
What is the best wave you’ve ever surfed?
On the Zambezi River just below Victoria Falls — at that point, the river actually splits Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s a big, powerful wave with a perfect tube right in the middle of Africa.
What’s going on in river surfing currently?
After I moved to Eugene, I tried to get a whitewater park built here. The way to have the sport grow is to build whitewater parks with perfect waves. I became friends with Ben Nielsen of the Merrick McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group. I was hired as an outside consultant [more specifically, Mack’s consulting firm, fresH2O] to market waves to municipalities for surfing. We are working with some really talented undergrads from the sports marketing program at the UO, which is really exciting for us and the sport in general.
Surfing is a core culture. The surfing lifestyle is very inviting. When you build these waves, it’s like a skate park for surfers. Merrick McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group has patented wave shaper technology. It’s an apparatus that controls how the water flows in a river. Our whole goal is to build perfect tubing waves, and when you build something like that, you can attract the major brands like Quicksilver or promotions like the X Games.
For Eugene, you have the duck ponds [at Alton Baker Park], but you could turn them into a giant lake that people can paddle and kayak on. It could reservoir water and time release, and we can build a 6-to-8-foot-tall perfect barreling wave that would change the sport and the city forever.
What safety tips do you recommend?
So there are the three crucial components for safety: First, you’ll see people in Missoula, Montana, wearing leashes and now in Bend, but you should never put a leash on in the river. Ever. Never. I’ve never worn a leash, and I still won’t wear a leash because if it gets stuck or snagged, you’re dead. Second is that everybody should wear a life vest, and the third one is the helmet.
What do you think about the future of river surfing in Eugene?
My really good friend runs the wave shaper in Bend that utilizes our patented wave-shaper technology. The wave in Bend is perfect for both beginners and experienced surfers. That wave doesn’t do barreling as we do not license that technology. I’m really hoping the first one we build will be in Eugene. I’m pushing hard for it.
For more information, see mclaughlinwhitewater.com. Mack says in the next few months, the website will include a section dedicated to river surfing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.