Surfer’s Voice is our opportunity to connect with real surfers, pros and beginners, groms and old timers alike; to perhaps touch that mystical essence of surfing, the thing that drives us to crazy lengths for the opportunity to slide around on moving pieces of water. The Canadian surf landscape/seascape/liquidspace is as strange and beautiful as any, and there is no shortage of interesting people that populate our coastal waters, lakes and rivers.
For this installment of Surfer’s Voice we checked in with Luke Morstad of Outlier Surf, to find out what it is like to open a surf shop and teach surfing… in Calgary Alberta. Luke touches on the early days, and the future of river surf in the Canadian Rockies, and opens up about his own personal journey as a surfer.
*Stoke Warning* This interview may cause you to drop what you are doing and paddle out into the nearest river/sea/lake/puddle/bathtub.
Duke Kahanamoku (1890 – 1968) Hawaiian swimmer and surfer with Charlotte Boyle and Ethelda Bleibtrey. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hey Luke for starters, where are you from? Where do you live now?
I was born in Edmonton and moved to Calgary when I was 5 years old, Calgary feels safe but I’ve struggled to call it “home.”
All my greatest influences have come from outside the city. I spent some time growing up by the lake in Saskatchewan, joined the pro frisbee-golf tour when I was 18, and spent some time living in Colombia. I’ve also wandered around a bit taking various backpacking trips around the world.
Favourite local break?
10th Street, Calgary AB — this is where it all started. It’s not my favorite surf wave, but it’s the experience and the community that make river surfing in Alberta so special. It’s a place to hang out for a couple hours, see the stoke on a new surfers’ faces, share some laughs, and connect with new and old friends.
Favourite break in the world?
Tofino, it’s such an authentic little Canadian beach town. I love walking through the forest to the beach, smelling the pine needles of the spruce trees, hearing the waves crash in the distance, it’s a world of paradise as the sun shines through the trees. When you get to the beach, it’s endless views down the coast and out into the ocean.
There is something special about a cold water surf town and the experience that comes with it. Not only that, but the environment/ vibe of the entire town sort of revolves around surfing. Everyone has an appreciation for it, there are so many things to do that bring me joy after surfing (there is no better way to wind down than to hang out in the hot tub after a surf). Also here are so many breaks — there’s a different break for everyone. There is so much ocean to explore.
How did you first get into surfing?
The first time I tried surfing was in Tofino, BC. After my first session we visited Relic Surf Shop and I bought a brand new board. My parents thought I was crazy to buy a surfboard living in Calgary, AB, but I knew I wanted to make surfing a part of my lifestyle.
Getting stoked in the forest. Photo: Garret Corson
When did you first start surfing on the river?
I got into river surfing when I realized you could surf in our own backyard, downtown Calgary AB. In 2016, surfing in Calgary didn’t really exist. I made it my mission to create an environment and a community of like-minded people who could appreciate the sport as much as I did. It was my desire to share this experience with others that truly allowed me to fall in love with the sport.
How would you describe river surfing in comparison to a coastal break?
The immediate difference that comes to mind is the culture. Surfing in the ocean can be a notoriously difficult space to navigate. Physically — the spot has its challenges. But beyond that, you want to be respectful of the environment that you’re entering and be mindful that it’s a sport very close to peoples’ hearts. You never want to feel like you’re intruding on something that is sacred/ important to locals, rather you are sharing within the experience it provides.
Surf culture didn’t really exist in Calgary before we started. We were given a great opportunity to shape the culture and provide the vision for how we wanted it to become. We received incredible mentorship from Jacob Kelly when we first started up and he outlined the vision of what river surfing culture is all about.
To see the growth of this community has been one of the most rewarding things about this experience. We started in 2016 with 50 surfers in Calgary, since then we’ve expanded greatly and had the opportunity to share in unity with those who developed a passion for the same thing.
We’re 1000km from the nearest ocean — but we made it happen, this community makes it happen and everyone is entrenched in this culture. I have never been a part of a culture that is so inclusive — it is so special to me, surfing in the ocean can be extremely intimidating and frightening — river surfing gives people the opportunity to do something they maybe never would. We cheer each other on every single time we’re on the wave, we look out for one another and we all share the connection and appreciation for the sport.
Can you tell us a little bit about Outlier Surf, and how it began?
Walking back from my first river surf experience in 2016, I just knew I wanted to share the experience with others. I studied business in university but never imagined myself sitting in a cubicle. The best businesses succeed when the service/product is derived from passion. I saw this as an incredible opportunity for myself as I could make my passion for surfing and community and turn it into a lifestyle.
I took skills that were developed throughout post-secondary, those around me and something I really love. I get to both work and play and bring together – I like to dream big — essentially I wanted to be able to turn Calgary into a river surfing destination. I want people to be able to get away from the hustle and bustle of life in Calgary. I wanted people to not only connect with themselves but with others and with the natural environment Calgary is situated in.
Luke giving lessons on the 10th St. Wave in Calgary.
Is there a local trade for boards, ding repairs?
Yes, you have to call Tristan Goudet — he is a wizard. He knows the in’s and out’s, and there is no one who knows more about surfing than him, he is also one of the best individuals I know.
As river surfing in Calgary, and river surf in general has gained more exposure, what sorts of changes have you noticed?
I think with the uptick we’re experiencing the real capacity to turn Calgary into a destination for river surfing. Having said that, the challenge that comes alongside more exposure and more surfers is that our city only has one wave and there can only be one person on the wave at a time.
For those who have been around the scene since its inception – River surfing in the city is their baby. We have really emphasized safety and the culture, my hope is that as we continue to expand, we continue to live through our values and inspire those entering the sport to live through our values as well.
Do you have any surfing mentors or heroes?
Most certainly, Jacob Kelly laid the foundations and instilled trust in me to execute on our vision. Tristan, he will make you a better person and better surfing anytime you interact with him. The community as a whole. You can feel the love, energy, and unity every time you’re at the wave and that really gives me peace.
Do you have a vision of the future of surfing in Alberta?
The expertise and skills of the surfers in Calgary has been rapidly increasing since the development of the mountain wave in Kananaskis. With an increase in demand and incredible talent on the river I hope to see the addition of new waves in Calgary.
Luke making turns at Kan’. Photo: Chelsea Mackenzie
What are your aspirations for Outlier Surf?
To be the coolest lifestyle business in the world. It is the best part of my life and hopefully one day it pays me enough to move out of my parent’s house.
What is it about surfing that appeals to you?
It’s an escape in your life where nothing is relevant except for you, your board and that moment.
Can you describe some of your most memorable waves or sessions?
I’ll never forget the first time I was introduced to the sport and immediately falling in love with it. My next most memorable moment was visiting Skookumchuk BC after surfing the small local break at our 10th Street Wave for a few years. Skook is the most powerful moving force of water I’ve experienced in my life. My palms still sweat thinking about sitting on the side of that bank watching the surfers getting pulled into the wave by a jet ski and then pulled down through a 30ft wide whirpool which can continue holding them under water for up to 1 min.
From surfing our small local break to watching surfers train for a year to enter that wave with spare air tanks attached to their life vests. It was a contrasting experience and such a powerful moment for me.
Does your life as a surfer have any impact on your life out of the water?
Honestly, I’ve tried to embrace the river surf culture into everything I do in life. It’s brought peace to my soul and has been a great outlet for me. I have a wandering mind, I have a high intensity approach to life, and being a part of such a mindful practice reminds me of the importance to slow down. The river surfing community has introduced me to my people — there are so many interesting people from a variety of walks of life that I’ve been privileged to get to know.
Even if you don’t surf or like to surf, you’d be able to attend one of our events and walk away with a valuable experience in some capacity whether that be a new perspective, new friend, new ideas — you’ll get some form of enjoyment from the experience.
Do you think there is something unique about Canadian surfing?
When you’re introduced to surfing in a place like Hawaii it surrounds you — it’s essentially the equivalent of growing up in Calgary and knowing you can ski 10 months out of the year. There is a certain collective appreciation within the surf community in Canada where considering it is an untraditional sport — the appreciation for being able to participate in the sport and make the culture a lifestyle really holds together those within our community. Because it’s not seen as something most people learn how to do (like skiing in Alberta) it’s like finding love for the first time if you join in this community and become entrenched in the river surfing lifestyle.
Do you have any additional words you’d like to share with the surf community or those new to the river?
I would say that for anyone who has ever watched surfers on the river and said to themselves ‘ I could never do that,’ YES, YOU CAN. Everyone who surfs on the river at one point couldn’t, everyone has had moments of fear or uncertainty in the water. It’s the community that mitigates those feelings and pushes us forward in making this the best sport in the city.
Header Photograph: Luke posing on a 10th Street Wave ride. Credit: James Sakatch.
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