Missoula’s vibrant river surfing culture wasn’t created overnight, but two sizable community projects — one construction, one demolition, both born from a desire to heal from devastation — put a renewed focus on the health of local waterways and introduced a whole new generation to recreational opportunities.
On June 25, 2006, a crowd converged at Caras Park to dedicate a new whitewater park on the Clark Fork River called Brennan’s Wave. The underwater concrete structure forms a playful wave for boaters and surfers. It's named for 32-year-old Brennan Guth, an expert local kayaker and teacher who died while paddling in Chile in 2001. He had long advocated for cleaning the nasty jumble of rebar, concrete and garbage in that highly visible stretch of river, and a coalition of community organizations rallied to make it happen in his name.
Not quite two years later, on March 28, 2008, the Milltown Dam just east of town was finally breached after a long and expensive cleanup to remove 7 million cubic yards of toxic sediment that had washed downstream from the mines and smelters near Butte for decades.
With the dam removed, the Clark Fork River was finally able to flow freely for the first time in a century, and the people of Missoula began a slow awakening to the potential of the treasure that runs through the heart of the city.
Kayakers took to the wave, while more and more inner–tubers, paddleboarders, rafters and recreationists of all kinds began using the stretch of river through town every year.
Slowly but surely, the surfers came as well. Using ever-more sophisticated boards, they began to line the banks and island near Brennan’s Wave, waiting for their turn to catch a few exhilarating seconds of the delicate gravitational balance on the rushing water.
Instead of a place to discard trash and install parking lots, Missoulians began viewing the river as the lifeblood of the community, a place to play, socialize and connect with nature. Now, hundreds of surfers take to the river in spring, summer, fall and even winter. In addition to Brennan’s wave, a wave beneath Triple Bridges in the Alberton Gorge west of town is also a popular spot, and surfers flock to the nearby Lochsa and Blackfoot rivers as well during high water.
Karen Knudsen, the executive director of the nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula, said humans are generally quick to assert their rights to use waters, but slow to recognize their obligations to preserve and protect them. The removal of the Milltown Dam was a high–water mark for an ecosystem repair, she said, and it has been a spiritual and economic boon for the entire community.
“I think there’s no question about it, the removal of Milltown Dam and cleanup of the contaminated reservoir absolutely has been a driver of what we’re seeing … a dramatic uptick of use in the Clark Fork corridor,” she said. “People put a high value on free–flowing rivers."
Before the dam removal, the river was manhandled, Knudsen noted.
"The last vestiges of the ‘river as a waste receptacle’ mindset were removed when the dam came down in ’08," she said. "The Clark Fork quickly became the heartbeat of the city. It went from a back-alley dump to wild, wonderful and accessible. It’s a focal-point for civic life, for our connection to nature and a source of hope and awe.”
Linda McCarthy, the executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, said the increased use of the river has benefited the local business community, from surf shops to river gear rental companies to downtown cafes.
“River recreation on the Clark Fork as a whole has increased dramatically since the removal of the Milltown Dam and the creation of Brennan's Wave,” she said. “We are fortunate to be a community that has a river running through it, and river surfing has become a popular activity in Missoula, as well as many other communities in the Rocky Mountain West.”
Many local businesses have taken to using the river as a way to attract tourists, she noted.
“Notice how many publications and websites feature photography of folks using Brennan's Wave,” she said. “Watching the kayakers and the surfers from Caras Park or the Higgins Bridge has become a ‘must do’ for Missoula-area visitors, and the wave has been a contributor to Missoula's growing river culture for quite some time."
The sight of all the vehicles around town with surfboards or kayaks on top is testament to the river's influence.
"Personally, I just love to see that young Missoulian riding his bike down Front Street with a dripping wetsuit on and a surfboard tucked under one arm while steering the bike with his other," McCarthy said. "It makes me smile every time.”
Kevin Benhart Brown, known as KB, and his staff and friends played a crucial role in promoting river surfing in Missoula when they opened Strongwater Surf Shop on Higgins Avenue near the wave right around the time the dam came down. They built custom boards, and rented stand-up paddleboards and surfboards to barefoot kids running across the bridge. The store was ahead of its time, although the brick–and–morter shop is now closed.
“I was 100 percent the first person anywhere inland to sell stand–up paddleboards,” Brown explained.
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The store played a key role in introducing river safety, ecological awareness and surf culture to the town. Tourists marveled at the surfers and kayakers on the wave, and national magazines like Outside began writing pieces about the mountain town where surfing was alive and well.
“It was my passion,” Brown said. “Basically for me, it goes back to when that dam was built, and the riverbanks themselves were built in downtown Missoula behind Taco John’s, and there were old bridges and asphalt and car bodies and car parts in the river, (when) the overall view of society towards the river was it only served an industrial purpose."
Brown said he's seen the attitudes of his friends and neighbors change regarding the river's importance.
"When I was a kid growing up, you’re taught to stay out of the river, it’s death and destruction," he said. "You look at old photos of the area where Brennan’s Wave is now and there’s nobody fishing, nobody kayaking. There’s no ducks on the island laying eggs, no bald eagles. There’s just big broken chunks of concrete.”
Brown’s mission for Strongwater was to teach a younger generation to view the river differently than previous generations.
“What surfing has done in Missoula, especially with kids, is create new stewards for the river that maybe never would have got in the river,” he said. “They want to see it clean. It’s 2018 now, we know better than the riverbank being built out of old cars."
He said that back in the early part of the century, the mindset of using the river for trash was just standard.
"The dump in Missoula used to be the parking lot at Orange Street and every time the river flooded it would wash the garbage away," he said. "Just out of sight, out of mind. And now, just think, the river is the jewel of the city.”
The slow uptick in recreational use of the river has a snowball effect every year, driving more use. People walking across Higgins Bridge see tubers and kayakers down below and decide they want to do the same the next chance they get, Brown said.
“The inner–tubing traffic created all this recreation, which is great,” Brown said. “I saw Brennan’s Wave as a beach in downtown Missoula and I wanted to have a surf shop a block away. We saw tourists coming to town for it, we did a lot of events, and the city got to see there’s some good money to be made of this wave and all the economic advantages it brings.”
Knudsen said the wave and the cleaned-up river have become community assets.
“Much of the development we’re seeing in downtown is stemming from the river corridor,” she explained. “The economic benefits that river is now producing are going to be felt for years to come.”
Jason Shredder of Zootown Surfers credited KB and Luke Reiker of Strongwater for “putting Missoula on the map” as a surfing destination. He also said Brennan’s Wave had a huge impact on Missoula’s identity.
“Oh, my God, it’s undescribable what that wave has done,” he said. ”It’s unbelievable what that wave has done for the community on so many levels. A lot of people don’t realize what used to be there. To see the surfing and kayaking going on, it’s positive for that area and positive for the community and businesses.”
The young kids who take to surfing recognize the value of the river and will become its protectors in the future, Shredder said.
“It disconnects them from video games,” he said. “They’re surfing all day long with their buddies. And those are the future river advocates. Getting them to connect to the things they care about is super important and that’s why it’s great. We have a youth kayaking club and I’ve been coaching kayaking for 15 years. They love the river, that asset, and they recognize the need to continue to protect it.”
Shredder and McCarthy both advocate for the construction of The Max Wave, a proposed structure that would be located just downstream from Brennan’s Wave.
“Missoula has now turned its focus down river from Brennan's Wave to the proposed Max Wave, as we work to improve river safety and recreation opportunities below the Orange Street Bridge,” McCarthy said. “We have great opportunities before us to improve the river corridor throughout Missoula, but we must be advocates for taking care of this precious resource and community asset."
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is currently conducting an evaluation of the city's application for a water easement for construction and maintenance of the structures for the proposed Max Wave.
Shredder said the Max Wave has the potential to transform a neglected stretch of river into something the community can be proud of.
“Missoula has made some great progress with the dam and Brennan’s Wave, but we’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “The Clark Fork river is one of the greatest resources that Missoula has.”