A surfer waits his turn to jump into the Snake River on a beautiful day in Wyoming; photo by Travis Burke
You may not think of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as the perfect locale for surfing, but the ridable waves churned up by the Snake River’s Lunch Counter Rapids just outside of town have been an open secret among surfers for years. The waves are produced when snowmelt and release activities from the Jackson Lake Dam cause water levels to rise and the river to flow 8,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second.
During most years, the Lunch Counter wave is active for two to six weeks, usually from late May until June. But the wave is inconsistent, sometimes lying dormant for days at a time. This year, however, the folks in Jackson Hole have been experiencing a rare event, with the river producing consistently ridable waves for 40-plus days, and at the time of this writing, the waves are still pumping.
Before you make your trip out to Wyoming for this wave, remember that the dangers of river surfing must be taken seriously. River surfing requires a different skill-set than ocean surfing, and if you mistime your entry into the river, you can get swept downstream. If you fall off your board, you must know how to navigate the river without crashing into rocks, and how to make your way to a nearby eddy—because any river play without a life jacket is scary river play.
Despite the river’s dangers, hundreds of people have successfully surfed this wave over the decades, and below is a look at how surfers are enjoying this year’s extraordinary wave.
The wave changes every day depending on the water level of the river. If you hang around the local surfers, you will hear them constantly talking about the CFS (cubic feet per second) levels, and making predictions about how much longer the wave will last. The wave typically works when the river is flowing anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second. (When the river flows faster than 12,000 cubic feet per second, it is too swollen to surf.) Here Larry does a nice cutback while the levels are around 9,700 CFS. Photo by Travis Burke
Surfing on the Lunch Counter Rapids is difficult in and of itself, but surfers must make way for kayakers and whitewater rafters, who have the right of way. Generally the surfers don’t grumble about this, as most of them are paddlers themselves. Photo by Travis Burke
This surfer, Larry, is one of the few regulars who has ocean-surfing experience, and it definitely shows with his smooth turns and great style. Photo by Travis Burke
This female surfer, “B,” demonstrates the correct technique for entering the wave. It takes practice to create the proper trajectory, and if you miss it, you’ll be swept down the river and it’s back to the end of the line of surfers waiting their turn. Photo by Travis Burke
Surfer Kate Ceronsky is one of the few women riding the wave. Photo by Travis Burke
Jackson Hole is about 900 miles from the nearest seaside town, so surf shops are hard to come by. This means that most boards get used a lot longer than they would in your typical surf community, and some of the boards have developed real character. You can’t help but wonder what their histories are and where they originated from. Photo by Travis Burke
If you fall off your board, you get swept into some decent-size rapids. It’s not for the faint of heart. Photo by Travis Burke
This surfer, Brent, who lives near Jackson Hole, has traveled all over the world searching for waves. He says the Lunch Counter definitely takes some getting used to, but he takes every opportunity he can get to surf it. Photo by Travis Burke
This surfer, Austin, catches a few rides before the sun sets. Photo by Travis Burke
If you’re here enough, you might even score a session by yourself. Photo by Travis Burke
This gentle trail allows even young kids up-close views of the action. Photo by Travis Burke
Kayakers are also big fans of this wave. Photo by Travis Burke
This surfer, Will, is pushing the boundaries of what is possible on this wave, doing ollies, 360s, and even coming close to landing kickflips. Photo by Travis Burke
This story’s photographer, Travis Burke, tries his hand at surfing the wave. Photo by Will Taggart
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