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River surfing ambassador Jacob Kelly Quinlan on finding the stoke in Cowtown

When you feel the need to surf, and you live in Alberta, you do what you have to do. For more than a decade, Calgarian Jacob Kelly Quinlan has been at the forefront of the growth in river surfing in Canada and around the world. Not just surfing the river, but creating surfable river waves that bring a culture and sense of community all its own. 

“Growing up in Western Canada, surfing couldn't have been any further from my mind. I played hockey in the winters and loved swimming in my summers,” says Quinlan. “I remember a few key moments when a film or magazine brought surfing into my life and I knew it was something I wanted. It wasn't until taking a year off university that I found myself in the ocean for the first time and absolutely loving it.”

Quinlan spent eight months in Australia and fell in love with surfing. And, before he knew it, he was back in Calgary hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. But one might not realize it looking at Quinlan walking around campus with a longboard, flip flops and board shorts even with an inch of snow outside. He was that addicted. And before long, he found others suffering from a similar ailment. 

Jacob Kelly river surfing on the Kananaskis

Jacob Kelly Quinlan winter surfing on the Kananaskis River (Photo: Neil Egsgard)

“In the big picture, my river surfing started at about the same time as my ocean surf trips. Life was the stuff that happened in between my next surf trip,” Quinlan says. “River surfing was merely a way to keep my surfing legs strong and scratch the itch until I could sink my toes into the sand again.”

But, a funny thing happened to Quinlan every time he hit the beach in an exotic oceanic destination. He would miss family and friends and mountains and head back to Calgary. So, he knew what he had to do.

“Calgary is my home,” he says. “It's a wonderful feeling to do what you love where you call home rather than being a tourist somewhere else.”

Quinlan and a ragtag group of stoke seekers in Cowtown set about establishing their own surf community. 

“River surfing in the early days was a trip. We were a ragtag group of guys with a whole world of ocean experience but very little knowledge of the river,” Quinlan says. “We were a united front. A family really. That or some kind of support group for surfers who found themselves stuck in the mountains.”

What they lacked in organizational skills and awareness of safety measures, they made up for in passion and big dreams of making surfing accessible to everyone, even those in Western Canada. 

“The handful of pioneers brave enough to bare the glacier rivers with terrible wetsuits and patched up old boards really crafted the culture that is the foundation today,” Quinlan says. “It's all about the good vibes.”

At last count, there are now more than 700 river surfers in Alberta, according to Quinlan. There is the annual Slam Festival, surf competitions, lessons and equipment are redly available, there are safety resources and a vision for how to shape the future. But one thing has remained the same. 

Jacob Kelly and friends at the Slam Festival of river surfing, 2017 

At the Slam Festival of river surfing in 2017

“It's all about having a good time and making it welcoming for the next person,” Quinlan explains. “It has taken a lot of blood sweat and tears to get us where we are today but that is what fills our rivers with a sense of gratitude.”

Soon, the Alberta River Surfing Association was established, and from that sprung the Surf Anywhere project to build great surf waves on rivers near and far.

“The Surf Anywhere project started back in 2007 as a grassroots initiative inside of the Alberta River Surfing Association. We had been working with the local Whitewater Association but uncovered that kayakers wanted to build river waves but these were not the same waves surfers wanted,” Quinlan explains. “So we started a movement to collect information from around the world as to what makes a great surf wave. It took seven years of research and design but in 2014 we unveiled the Mountain Wave on the Kananaskis River and shared the fruits of our efforts with the world.”

Since then, founder Neil Egsgard has transformed Surf Anywhere into a consultancy that offers a service to communities like Alberta for guiding the path of river surf wave construction. 

“We learned through the process that the wave design is kind of the easy part. The secrets that hold us back from seeing these waves pop up in every river is more in how to navigate all the steps required to receive the approvals for building a wave,” Quinlan says. “We have an ongoing list of projects that we consult on around the world and have used the last decade to build a library of resources we can share with wave builders.”

In addition to the Mountain Wave in the Kananaskis, another one of Surf Anywhere’s notable projects is the surf wave in Bend, Oregon. 

“There are a few more we are very excited about but can't share the details on just yet,” Quinlan says. 

For him, river surfing isn’t about replacing his love of surfing in the ocean, it’s about opening new doors and having new experiences in his home city. 

Jacob Kelly river surfing in Jackson, Wyoming (Photo: Justin Gullickson)

“The wave we built in the Kananaskis is my favourite because it is a remarkable feeling to go from a surf starved landlocked kid who's flying all over the world to do what I love to being able to surf any day of the week,” Quinlan says. “It makes me smile every time I'm there. When I run into someone down there who is having a bad day or blaming the wave for not being what they want I just need to remind them that it was not so long ago the spot in which they are standing was just a flat river with no chance of surfing.”

River surfing is different from traditional surfing because it is a static wave, such as you might see in freestyle whitewater kayaking. According to Quinlan, the wave time is the largest adjustment to make when moving from ocean to river surfing. In the ocean, a ride might be a few seconds long. On the river, the wave is just there and a one-minute ride is considered a quick on. As a result, the other thing to get used to is the lineup. 

“Because the wave is always in the same spot we line up and take our turns. No matter if you're the Alberta champ or on your second day, we all wait our turn,” Quinlan says. “Not to mention, the people waiting and watching are so close to you, cheering you on. 

Not to mention, there is a serious environment benefit to surfing at home instead of hopping on a plane to get to the ocean.

“All in all, I have peace of mind that I have greatly reduced my carbon footprint from flying from ocean break to ocean break and my general state of happiness is improved when I can make it out even just twice a month,” Quinlan says. “I am more able to focus at work and in my relationships rather than looking to book my next escape.”

Last spring, Quinlan achieved a personal goal he set for himself of surfing 100 river waves. 

 I'm so stoked to claim this honour after working on it for so long. I have really expanded my knowledge of rivers and made some great friends along the way,” he says. “I’m actually working on a film with filmmaker Nico Walz as a way to announce my big accomplishment.  The film will be out mid-summer!”

Quinlan says August is a great time to check out the wave in Calgary and he is also working on a kids surf camp. 

“Our wave downtown is naturally formed and a great wave to learn on. Some of the typical dangers found at river waves are totally not a problem at this spot,” he says. “The City has been very receptive to the work the local River Surf Association is doing to improve the area and increase access. Everyone in the water is super welcoming and stoked to have newbies working on the vision together. You can find out more about our Calgary project here.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has changed most people’s travel plans, including Quinlan's, he is excited to dedicate more time to the development of the sport in Alberta. 

“I spent a long time looking for the perfect river wave but I have come to realize that the perfect wave is one that feels like home. Now I spend my time working on ways to make the river more inviting to all people,” he says. “We are soon to see river surfing facilities popping up around the world that will change the way we think about surfing. I'm really excited.”

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