Every once in a great while, the Colorado mountains accumulate snowpack much greater than the annual average and when the snow begins to melt, the creeks, streams, and rivers swell to peak run off heights piquing my hopes for a very special whitewater phenomenon.
As each creek and river feeds into the next, the volume increases until finally all of the flow is being carried in one of the state’s main rivers. On the western side of the continental divide, the flow all converges into the mighty Colorado River which ultimately departs the state into Utah. But before it crosses the state line, it’s given one last chance to demonstrate its whitewater essence when the conditions are just right.
In De Beque Canyon sits the Grand Valley Diversion Dam which siphons off a small portion of the Colorado River while also being responsible for a rare and unique phenomenon that attracts kayakers and surfers from around the state and even the world. If the river flows reach levels in excess of 20,000 CFS and if the roller gates in the dam are configured just right, a spectacular, river-wide wave forms a half mile upstream of the dam. Although not particularly tall in height at only a few feet, the nearly 100 foot width of the wave and the perfect curvature of its face make for the most gratifying kayak surfing experience anywhere. The name of this mythical wave is Big Sur.
In 2011’s record whitewater runoff, Big Sur returned after a decade-long hiatus and I was fortunate to experience it on three separate days as seen in this video of mine. By the time I begrudgingly left the wave, I vowed that the next time it returned, I would come back and camp for three days so I could fully bask in its glory.
As 2014’s snowpack began its melt, it became clear that we were in store for some big flows once again and my thoughts immediately returned to Big Sur. I waited patiently week after week checking the USGS river gauge at Cameo until it crested above 20,000 CFS and reports started coming in from paddling friends about good times on the wave. Knowing that the flows would only last so long, I skipped work on Friday, June 6 and cruised 4 hours west on I-70 for some time on the fabled wave.
For the next three days, I lived out my dream of surfing my kayak on Big Sur and camping nearby at night. On Friday, the river was at 23,100 CFS and the wave had a perfect foam pile with a tall, glassy corner on player’s left. But despite the ideal nature of the wave, I felt rusty and not in control of my new Jackson Rockstar and wasn’t able to remain on the wave for more than 30 seconds to a minute.
On Saturday, the level dropped to 21,600 CFS which still proved to be a great level, and I had a huge gang of friends come out from the Front Range to share the wave with me. Most of the time, the wide wave supported three or four kayakers and/or surfers across its face in a scene reminiscent of Malibu Beach. As the day progressed, my skill and confidence increased and I found myself on the wave for longer and longer rides which culminated in an astounding, GPS-verified 32 minute long surf on Big Sur! For comparison, surfing on an ocean wave usually only lasts 10, maybe 20 seconds while a minute or two on a river wave is usually considered a long time. During the time that I carved back and forth across its face and felt the surging river water beneath my boat, kayakers and surfers came and joined me several times a piece even though they had to make the 200 yard hike back to the top between laps. The length of time I spent on the wave was unbelievable and resulted in a Zen-like trance induced by the reflected light off the rushing water beneath boat in combination with my body’s thousands of perceptible and imperceptible movements that were needed to keep me properly balanced on the wave.
As Sunday began, only a few friends remained and the wave dropped to 20,200 CFS which caused the wave to lose its foam pile and “green-out”. When we arrived no one was surfing yet, but rather than concerning myself with the possibility of the wave being uncatchable, I instead paddled out and immediately started surfing it again. It wasn’t nearly as easy to stay on the wave at that level, but it was still far better than most typical waves and a great way to spend a Sunday. Eventually, all my friends were gone and only one other stalwart kayaker remained. We each took turns on the wave for 20+ minutes at a time while the other sat comfortably in a chair on shore trying to save energy for their next epic surf. Eventually, my body grew tired and showed its protest with a few missed rolls in the must-make area above the dam, so I hung up my hat fully satisfied with my surfing safari.
Of all the kayaking I’ve done over the past decade, surfing at Big Sur ranks at the top of the list for pure fun. I’m so grateful to have experienced this Colorado gem again this year and can hardly wait for the next time Big Sur returns.
Here are a few photos of the fun we had surfing Big Sur in 2014!