As river surfing has increased in popularity over the last half decade, a few opportunistic engineering firms have turned rivers into surf destinations, designing machines that can alter the flow of rivers to create real, rideable waves thousands of miles from any coastline.
But rivers are finicky beasts, fluctuating by the day and requiring manmade whitewater parks to adjust constantly in order to keep the good wave rolling.
Enter Ryan Richard. A surf bum that has never lived within a few hours of the ocean, the 30-year-old began river surfing seven years ago, chasing floodwater swell up and down the rivers of southern Idaho.
After a chance meeting with a fellow river surfer and whitewater park engineer, he landed a job as a wave shaper for the Boise River Park, adjusting a series of plates submerged under the water to create different wave conditions for surfers, kayakers, and SUPers.
Fast forward two years and Richard has brought his skills to the high desert, helping Bend, Oregon’s whitewater park become an award-winning wave facility and rubbing shoulders with pipeline legend and Bend local Gerry Lopez on a weekly basis.
When he’s not shaping waves, Richard shapes boards, a parallel he says helps connect work with play.
“I’ve made a couple of surfboards for myself and there is a sense of satisfaction that you get from riding something you built with your hands,” says Richard. “Wave shaping is kind of like that but on a higher level.”
If someone sitting on an airplane next to you asks what you do for work, what do you tell them?
My most common response is that I’m a wave shaper, which is pretty much guaranteed to invoke another question. It’s usually followed by a confused look and a “what the heck does that mean?”
What’s a typical day like for you, starting from when you get to work to when you are done for the day?
It varies by the season. There’s a lot of maintenance with water levels throughout the day regardless of whether I’m there or not. In the summer, it is also about being a presence and interacting with the users and making sure that things are tuned just right.
In the fall and winter, I get to experiment a little. At one point last year, the center two waves were co-dependent on each other so you needed to have either one or the other and one of those waves was very surf-specific and the other was very freestyle kayak-specific. We had to basically divide up days whether we had one in or the other.
To shape the waves, we run it all off an iPad. I stand out next to the wave or in the water next to the wave and I’m moving large pneumatic gates. Some are steel, some are rubber, and they are these big flaps that shape the water essentially in different ways. The controls are quite simple, you put air in or take air out or hold it. The caveat is that the system is extremely sensitive and you’re working with a changing variable in the river that is fluctuating at every moment.
How does your job affect someone’s day?
It’s people’s lives. I watch people get into this sport, especially river surfing, and it just takes over their lives. They explain how they need to switch things around with their wives or their jobs and how everything is getting in the way of their surfing. It’s great to watch. People just fall in love with it.
What was your first job in the outdoors industry?
That was probably a maintenance personnel for a golf course, not sure if that counts though.
In whitewater stuff, it would be my position in Boise, which I held for a little over two years. I’ve been on a lot of whitewater trips and done some guiding with friends. But I’ve grown up around rivers.
How does someone get your job?
I’d say river experience is great, natural river stuff. It’s definitely a huge plus to have the person in one of the disciplines as far as kayaking, SUPing, surfing—they know the dangers of the wave. Being able to read water is super important.
What are the pros of your job?
Definitely getting to surf in between work hours.
What are the cons?
It can be a super political. There’s a weird phenomenon that develops when there are adjustable parts. People think that that means a wave should be perfect for them at all times because it’s manmade. The truth is that this is very simple mechanics that have tons of variables and restraints.
It sucks telling people that I can’t do things for them and having them not understand and get mad at us. They’re extremely passionate about what they do—we all are—so that type of thing is inevitable.