What does a glacier runoff in the Rocky Mountains, a canal in downtown Munich, and an uncharted river, deep in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, all have in common? Aside from encompassing rich aquatic ecosystems, and hosting complex rapid systems, they were all surfed by Calgary-based expeditioner Jacob Kelly Quinlan on his worldly endeavor to surf 100 different river waves.
“It’s all about the adventure and dichotomy of surfing places that aren’t supposed to have waves,” said Quinlan. “I’ve surfed in corn fields, bottoms of dams, dessert irrigation canals, and isolated canyons.”
Alongside German filmmaker Nico Walz, the duo spent the past decade hunting, surfing, and studying some of the world’s wildest inland waves with a few questions in mind: What sets superior river waves apart from the rest, and how can we make them more accessible?
As the co-founder of artificial wave-building company Surf Anywhere, Quinlan’s sense of adventure is driven by his desire to grow the sport and promote a sustainable approach to inland surfing for future generations.
“I want to turn my experiences into tools, so others can have the same opportunities I did—to be able to surf wherever they call home.”
Surf Is Where You Find It
Like the ocean, surf-able faces can be found in the wildest and most urban rivers. As water flows over a drop in a river bed, it gains speed and energy. When this energy faces any form of resistance, it creates an upstream standing wave. As gravity pulls upstream and water pushes downstream, a surfer can harness the energy of the river. The phenomenon was first documented in 1975 in Munich, Germany, but has become a trending sport in recent years.
Quinlan’s journey began in 2013 when his local river wave on the Kananaskis, outside of Calgary, was changing due to flooding—new waves emerged, and old waves disappeared. Nothing was permanent, and he knew these natural phenomenons needed to be documented. At this point, he’d surfed only 10 different river waves.
Later that year, Quinlan and a few friends ventured to British Columbia’s Skookumchuk Narrows to ride its famed tidal rapids. Twice daily, 750 billion liters of seawater rushes through the narrows between Sechelt and Jervis inlets, creating a standing wave that can reach two meters in height.
“The big, beautiful, glassy wave, had me in awe,” Quinlan says. I spent the day riding a world class wave, surrounded by the camaraderie of fellow surfers—it was a feeling I never found in ocean surfing. At this moment I realized there were beautiful waves everywhere.”
“That’s when the dream was born.”
Scoring Waves and Finding Beauty In Afghanistan’s Uncharted Waters
In the spring of 2018, Quinlan and Walz were presented an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams. They were invited to take part in a 10-day legendary expedition film project—led by Afghani surfer Afridun Amu—to find surfable waves and spread the joy of surfing in Afghanistan.
The crew landed in the capital city of Kabul, hired a security team, loaded surfboards and cameras into a pair of bulletproof Land Cruisers, and headed north into the mountains. They endured broken roads, sketchy rivers, temperature swings, and cultural differences in order to claim the title of being the first surfers ever to ride a wave in the country.
The expedition was labelled a “surf trip,” but the project was much larger than surfing itself. Walz was tasked with capturing the natural beauty of the Afghani countryside, and the untamed, adventurous spirit of the Afghan people—a job he claimed came easy.
“At first, I didn’t really understand the importance of the project,” said Quinlan. “It wasn’t until we surfed in front of a school one day. The pure stoke we saw in those kid’s faces—especially in a war torn country like Afghanistan—exceeded any feeling you could ever get from riding a wave.”
The power of surfing seemed to transcend and subside any East-West preconceptions and divides, bringing together two cultures over the joys of sport. “It was truly a life-changing experience,” Quinlan added.
No matter the medium, surfing is beautiful thing.
As Quinlan and Walz traveled the world, learning and connecting with different cultures and river wave communities, they learned about the true value of surfing.
Whether it be on a concrete, ocean, river, snow, or any other weird and wonderful type of wave, the act of surfing distracts us from the hustle and bustle of everyday life—teaching us to be 100 percent present the moment we stand on a board. It teaches us patience and adversity, and connects us to a rhythm that exceeds the scale of any human timeline.
“Every time I’ve ever stepped foot in the water, I’ve exited in a much better mood,” said Quinlan. “Surfing makes my life better in so many different ways, and I know I’m not alone.”
Photo caption: Additionally, the social and environmental benefits of surfing are immeasurable. Boardsport communities foster concrete communities and lifelong friendships, while connecting users to the health and value of the environments in which we play.