White woman in her 40s wearing a blue helmet, black wetsuit, and purple PFD in front of the Office Wave on the Arkansas River in Salida, Colorado

Becca Williams in front of the Office Wave on the Arkansas River in Salida, Colorado

Is hard.

This is our third summer living in the Arkansas Valley and we’ve watched river surfing quickly grow in popularity in a very short time. Nearly every day, I walk by the Staircase Wave in Buena Vista and there’s often at least a dozen people gathered there, sometimes multiple dozens. As we’ve seen in photos, lines have consistently been long at Salida’s Scout Wave.

Despite living within walking distance of one of the “most rafted” rivers in the country, however, we haven’t spent much time on the water. We went rafting a couple of summers ago, have floated in wet suits at The Numbers a couple of times when water levels drop at the end of the season, and went tubing once, but that’s it.

I was fairly certain when I made the reservation for my river surfing lesson with the RMOC that I’d be able to stand up at some point today. I’ve surfed in the ocean a few times, standup paddleboard every summer, and have a long history of snowboarding. During a surf lesson earlier this summer in Costa Rica, I stood up the very first time. It seemed like these skills should be reasonably transferrable. 

Mother River quickly leveled (drowned?) my expectations and humbled me. 

I told the instructor that I am not often afraid of things. 

But even the swimming evaluation at the very beginning of the lesson came with fear. I had to hold out my arms in front of my face, dive in, float with my toes up down river a bit, then swim to the side. The instructor demonstrated first and then I took a few calming breaths before starting my journey. 

There were a lot of words and suggestions to process when I actually tried to surf for the first time. Hold the board flat, jump out over the whitewater to the corner of the triangle, aim for between the seams (not sure I’m getting those words right!), quickly swim to the eddy as soon as you lose your stability in the wave…

It took many more calming breaths to get me to leap in with the board. How am I going to land this? Am I going to smash my face on the board in the process? What happens next? Not sure how many times I counted to three for myself.

I finally launched myself into the wave and couldn’t find my groove quickly enough, so I inhaled some water and floated down river a bit on my back before remembering I needed to start swimming. Something similar happened on my second attempt.

Just before my third attempt, I felt a visceral sense of dread, like if I did it again I was surely going to die, or something else awful was going to happen. I fought back tears and just about quit. I had a real conversation with myself about whether this was fear or the universe trying to tell me not to proceed. I asked myself what I would say to my kids about facing this kind of fear. Eventually I found the courage to make wave attempt number four. I got closer to balance this time, which encouraged me to give it one more shot. On attempt number five, I finally got into a position that allowed me to surf on my belly. Being able to stay in the wave on the board for even a few seconds felt like a huge win at that point.

We headed down to the Scout Wave next, just to see it. Photos don’t do it justice, but it’s quite intimidating in person. I gave a confident yeah, no, but really enjoyed watching others for a bit. The collective vibe was super encouraging, with periodic cheers of support for new river surfers reaching personal milestones.

River surfers wait on both sides of the Arkansas River in Salida, Colorado, to surf the Scout Wave. S Mountain is in the background.

Scout Wave + S Mountain | Salida, CO

I need to build up some swimming confidence before I give this another shot. This level of fear surprised me. I can’t remember the last time I felt fear tears, or if I ever have in my 45+ years of life. A response from deep in my core that I don’t fully understand surfaced. I’ve long wondered whether I drowned in a past life based on dream patterns and this inexplicable feeling makes me wonder even more.

Ending on a positive note, I’d still definitely recommend taking a lesson from RMOC (thanks, Jackson!) and I’m 100% glad I did this.

Categories: ColoradoOutdoor Life