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A surfer is no stranger to water—surfers are a collection of people who belong to the water. Whether lake, river, ocean or sea our tribe will find their way to their liquid home. However, what happens when our tribe is faced with situations where we don’t find our way to the water? What happens when the water finds its way to us, and what does it mean for us? Recently, in Ottawa, Canada a series of floods have driven locals out of their homes and has damaged land. Local residents and surfers alike have faced the relentless force of rising water levels and have been forced to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Ottawa is no stranger to flooding. In the past floods have delivered disastrous blows of high water levels to its communities. This year’s floods have surpassed the historically-high 2017 levels by more than 30cm and have remained near that level for several weeks now. Floods with such ferocity and destructive power not only affect local homeowner’s land but also pose serious damage to infrastructure. Roads and highways are rendered useless causing back ups and traffic. Urban expansion coupled with an increasing concrete footprint is also at the root of exacerbating flooding. Concrete blocks the porous soil that can act to absorb water. Flooding at this scale also notably threatens riverbank erosion and increased sedimentation in basins leading to less water storage capacity. Public health is threatened through the dispersal of pollutants and debris. For example, pesticides and pollutants can be carried far distances leading to turbid waters, the growth of algae and blooms of phytoplankton damaging the ecological integrity of the environment.

Surfers volunteer during floods in Ottawa / Gatineau. Photograph by Britta Gerwin

Surfers volunteer to help those affected by flooding in Fitzroy Harbour © Britta Gerwin

While this is one thing to read and study, it is another thing to experience  first hand. I sat down with anthropologist and executive member of River Surf Ottawa-Gatineau (RSOG) Michael Billinger. Michael was one of over 20 local river surfers who volunteered with flooding relief in Gatineau and Ottawa Region. These surfers provided help to locals whose homes were damaged by the floods. In areas most affected by the rising waters, the damage to homes was “astonishing”. This year it was more than lawns that were flooded, instead primary stages of homes were at risk and already damaged and in many cases, completely underwater. Roads and highways also bore the brunt of the force with some being completely unnavigable by the water levels.  

While the damage of the water alone was devastating, it was the response and determination of our tribe helping those in need that was truly remarkable. A group of surfers more accustomed to searching for water, found the roles reversed as the water levels came looking for them. When the water came to us, Michael found that it was the same commitment surfers learn and use to get in the water that was used to help stem its flow. The grit, patience and live wire attitude surfing the lakes and rivers teaches translated to surfer’s zipping up their wetsuits and getting in the water to build or repair sandbag walls. Spending countless hours in the river provided surfers with a knowledge of its force that  gave them confidence, comfort and unbridled motivation to act with planted minds and feet.

Ottawa Gatineau River Flooding by Britta Gurwin

Surfers in wetsuits sandbagging during floods in Gatineau Fitzroy Harbour © Britta Gerwin

During our chat Michael and I believe that it’s action like this that truly represents the freshwater surfer tribe. Volunteerism like this is what shakes people out of the popular preconception that surfers are only bums who consume, and never give back. “We are not a bunch of young delinquent surfers, we are lawyers, doctors, public servants, construction workers,” Michael stated this was a chance to show we are “contributors, not just takers.” As river surfing and lake surfing grows exponentially, we are redefining what our tribe can do in and out of the water. During sandbagging Michael partook in conversations clarifying what it is river surfers are doing in the water when they aren’t helping out. It’s this more intimate interaction with the public who are usually onlookers that opens our arena to expand it in a positive way. It may also lead to a more serious culture of standing wave surfing in Canada. After all, the white water sport scene is already strong. In the past, Canada has acted as a frontier in many occasions for the white water scene, notably in rafting, kayaking and canoeing. Why not introduce standing wave surfing into the mix?

Rising waters have and will lead to changes to the lake community as well. Access to consistent locations can be compromised and some surf breaks temporarily lose their predictability and familiarity. Wave formation will change, spots where peaks may normally break may not break or they can shift. Surfers have learned to adapt to changing conditions and freshwater surfing is no different. New challenges lead to new discoveries and sometimes looking further afield can lead to broadened horizons. The upcoming River Runoff Surf Competition in Ottawa/Gatineau is a perfect example of communities coming together. While the competition has been delayed by a few weeks due to the conditions, it has not been an idle holding period. Local surfers, with the necessary gear and comfort around cold moving water, have kept busy helping the inhabitants of the homes along their precious waterways.

River Surfing Ottawa Surf the Greats Lucas Murnaghan

Local surfer Nasser Yassine riding one of the standing waves in Ottawa/Gatineau © Lucas Murnaghan

Michael put it best, when helping the surfers kept commenting on how it would feel wrong having fun on the river while they knew people needed help. There is an immense gratification that comes with not only meeting the type of people and surfers who volunteer, but getting in the water afterwards. Let’s make sure not only to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon for surfing, but also stay aware and ready to use the same child like excitement and motivation that a punchy wave would provide to get up and help our neighbours. We all know we have it in ourselves. Just as surfing stokes a fire in us, I believe we can find that same motivation and gratification in lending a helping hand.

Surfers volunteer at floods in Ottawa / Gatineau. Photographs by Britta Gerwin

Surfers in wetsuits sandbagging during floods in Gatineau Fitzroy Harbour © Britta Gerwin

Words by Surf the Greats team member Zane Elias.


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