Surf’s Up on the Truckee River
July – August 2019
Hitting the jackpot in Reno can happen in more places than just casinos.
BY JASON LOPEZ
What do surfing and casino games have in common? They’re both a gamble. Ask any surfer if they’re guaranteed to get waves during any session and most will tell you that it’s always a bit of a crapshoot. First, nature needs to provide surfable waves and surfable conditions. Then, when there are waves and the action is pumping, other surfers, surfing rules, and etiquette can inhibit getting waves.
It’s not the same if you’re surfing in Reno, though, where even beginner surfers can hit the jackpot and get some wave time.
Wait. You can surf in Reno?
Yes, you can surf in Reno even though there’s no ocean—you go river surfing. For about the past two decades, the art of riding a floating board on waves has been expanding inland. Surfing is no longer confined to oceans and seas, thanks to the pioneering spirit of landlocked surfers who first ventured into the raging flows of rivers on surfboards. River surfing is currently riding a wave of popularity around the world and Reno’s Truckee River is one of the places where it’s taking off.
RIVERS VS. OCEANS
Waves on rivers are called standing or stationary waves. There are some main differences between surfing standing waves in rivers and other waves. First, once you’ve caught a river wave, you’re “moving” at a speed of zero miles per hour…basically at a standstill on the water. Second, it is not advisable to wear a surfboard leash around your ankle (most prefer to attach them above the waist) when river surfing. River surfers and stand-up paddleboarders (SUP) have drowned when leashes caught on submerged objects such as tree branches and rocks and they were unable to release from their leashes because of the relentless force of the river’s flow pushing against them.
The third difference is the paddle-in. To catch a wave river surfing, you either get swept downriver to a wave and then paddle into it, paddle-in from the riverbank in a sideways fashion, or simply hop onto your board from the riverbank. Each method depends upon the wave and the current conditions. And while river waves are generally nowhere near as big or dangerous as ocean waves, there are some exceptions. There are even a few super gnarly river waves that you can, as surfers say, “get tubed” on.
In many rivers, waves only appear during spring when flow rates are peaking, but surfing Reno’s Truckee River is not as much of a gamble as other locations. The flow rate of the Truckee River is consistent enough that there is at least one surfable wave pretty much year-round.
In the Reno-Sparks area, there are two easily accessible waves. The Reno wave is called Hole Three and is at Wingfield Park in downtown, just below the Sierra Tap House craft beer brewery. The other wave is at Rock Park in Sparks, just a short way downstream from the Grand Sierra Resort. The wave is near the Rivers Edge RV Park end of the parking lot, and is the wave that can generally be accessed all year.
The quality, size, and fear factor of these river waves vary depending on river flow rates, which are measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). During the summer and fall when the river is at 300-500 CFS the waves are fun, little ankle-slappers. That all changes in the winter and spring however, when the Truckee’s water flow is often raging at 2,000+ CFS and higher. In those conditions, Reno’s river waves can be about 3-5 feet from trough (lowest point below the water line) to crest (highest point above the water line).
Winter, spring, summer, and fall, Jon O’Brien surfs them all on the Truckee River. A Reno teacher, Jon is one of the hardcore Truckee River locals, along with his buddy Chase Evans, who is the owner of Reno’s first surf shop. Chase and Jon are part of a small but growing community of surfers helping to put the Truckee River on the map of river surfing destinations.
Asked about his initial experience surfing Reno’s Truckee River, Chase recalls, “The first time I surfed the Truckee was right before flood season in March 2018. I remember the flow rate was fairly low, around 250 CFS, but at the time it felt nuts! I remember thinking the power of the river was intense, and that element of danger was pretty trippy. I was expecting to stand the first time but it was way harder than it looked for sure.”
Jon got into river surfing after moving to Reno in 2017. He saw the Hole Three wave one day, and having been an ocean surfer since childhood, figured he could surf it, which he did.
Much like saltwater surfing, river surfing can be strangely addicting. On a rainy and freezing cold day in February, Jon was at Rock Park and about to go for a surf. The flow rate was at about 2,300 CFS, and the river was a bone-chilling cold, raging torrent.
“When I went in one time at 6,500+ CFS, some intermediate kayakers were scared for me but I was fine,” he says laughing. “The river is pretty navigable at any flow if you put your time in.”
Chase reckons the longest he’s ever surfed a Truckee River wave for is about 7 minutes, but Jon can top that.
“I think I had a 40-minute ride in the winter last year on an 8-foot SUP board I’ve got that’s crazy stable. It was pretty fun. I did one long ride and then went home,” he says.
Offering his advice for anyone who wants to surf the Truckee River, Chase advises, “Be careful. Like any surf break, it is best to study up on the spot and find out what the dangers are, how to get in and out, etc. I also highly suggest being aware of the dangers of wearing a leash on your ankle. Leashes are the number one killer in river surfing. Be aware of that, come up with a good solution, and just be safe.”
The fact that a person can surf a wave on the Truckee River for 40 minutes is flabbergasting. It’s exactly the kind of thing that is promoting the surge in river surfing. Summer is the perfect time to head to Reno’s Truckee River and see it, or try it for yourself. The future of river surfing is wide open, and it’s time to catch a wave at 4,506 feet above sea level.