In the belly of the Snake River Canyon, on the river’s largest rapid, exists an unlikely surfer’s paradise. A wave called the Lunch Counter rises over five feet high when conditions are just right.
“That section of river is a truly sacred place,” longtime surfer Max Mogren says. “It’s like church on the river.”
Crowds of spectators congregate on the large rock ledge alongside the wave to cheer and whistle. Two huge eddies adjacent to the tongue of the Class III-IV rapid make the venue ideal for athletes to slip out of the water, dry off in the sun, and hoot for their fellow surfers before they plunge back in for another round.
“The river is counterintuitive to the ocean,” says Mogren, who learned to surf during a 19-month sailing trip from Oregon to South America. “The wave is moving, but the water is stationary on the ocean. In the river, the wave is stationary, but the water is moving. It took me several years and probably
500 tries before I stood up on the Lunch Counter.”
Rides can last two or three minutes, a sharp contrast to a 15 or 20-second ride on an ocean wave. Surfers use short fiberglass and epoxy surfboards. “It’s not like the ocean where it’s a competition to catch the wave,” Mogren says. “In the Lunch Counter, there is only one wave, and one or two people riding it.”
Conditions have to be just right to surf the Lunch Counter, and those ideal conditions can last for four days or four months, depending on snowmelt.
“When the sun comes up over the mountainside, it lights up the wave,” Mogren says. “Early season mornings are cold, and the rapid has a wild and dangerous feel, but the uncertainty adds to the thrill. It’s like standing on top of a couloir.”
The experts-only wave also has a reputation for being unpredictable. There are whirlpools and the eddy can be tricky. “We’ve had some close calls with people who didn’t give it due respect,” Mogren says.
In April and May, surfers ride fresh snowmelt in thick neoprene wetsuits with booties, gloves and hoods in the 40-degree water. By mid-summer, they don board shorts on sunny days.
“Once you get it wired, it is a magical feeling,” Mogren says. “It’s a great way to ground back to Earth’s natural frequency.”
Matty Berube grew up surfing in Florida, and moving to Wyoming in 2003 did not quell his craving to ride waves. He’s a regular surfer of the Lunch Counter.
“It’s another level of spirituality,” he says. “We use something that Mother Earth is providing. It’s something that you dream about as a kid—an endless wave. There is a definite draw to the river. It becomes all you want to do. It’s a meditative state, like Mother Earth having a chat with you.”