Montana is renowned around the globe for its recreational access, from blue ribbon trout streams to world-class ski areas. But, surfing? As a land-locked state hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, Big Sky Country wasn’t on the radar of many surf enthusiasts. As a feature article in Surfer magazine began:
“Sure, you’ve done the Mentawais. You honeymooned on Bali. Got beat down on the North Shore, feasted on tapas in Mundaka, drank tea in Morocco, and threw back six-packs of Atlas in Bocas Del Toro. Your passport is dusted with a thin film of salt and sand from dozens of surf trips all over the world. Been there, done that.
Well, not Montana. You’ve never even thought about surfing in Montana.”
That is, until two entrepreneurs in Missoula made surfing in Montana a thing, and started hand- crafting the boards that made catching waves on rivers a seriously fun past time for thousands of new fans around the world.
Luke Rieker and Kevin Brown (KB) were whitewater kayakers and students at the University of Montana when they met during a day of paddling on the Clark Fork River that runs through downtown Missoula nearly a decade ago. They shared a passion for whitewater paddling, and a common interest in opening a kayak shop that had more of the surf shop vibe:
“We both loved kayaking, but the scene in surf shops we’d been to was way more relaxed and inviting. We saw a good opportunity to blend the two cultures for the benefit of customers.”
In 2008, they opened the doors of Strongwater, a retail store selling the highest quality kayaking gear, as well as flip-flops, board shorts and other surf scene gear. They were also the first ones to bring stand-up paddle boards (S.U.P.s) to Montana - a new way of exploring lakes and rivers that quickly became a hot new trend across the state.
One Spring day in 2007 during high water Luke and KB decided to give surfing on Brennan’s wave a try. The wave was a little green and flushy for kayaks, so they decided to give ocean surfboards a go on the wave. They were hooked instantly. As athletes, they were first inspired to learn how to river surf on shorter boards as a new challenge. As entrepreneurs, they saw an opportunity to make a better board that would elevate this new sport and bring it to whitewater enthusiasts looking for something new to explore. Luke remembers when the potential for river surfing really sunk in for him:
“We thought we would go back to our kayaks, but we kept finding new waves…it was so fun I pretty much stopped kayaking all together. I knew there were a lot of people out there who would be as excited about this sport as KB and I were, so we jumped on the opportunity to expand our business with the gear people would need.”
They couldn’t find a surfboard from an existing surf and S.U.P. manufacturer that met their specifications or standards, so - as Luke remembers - KB simply decided he was going to start making his own.
“KB basically spent the winter of 2012 researching and watching tutorials to figure out how to make the best surfboard, and just started making prototypes from foam blanks to perfect his technique…and he nailed it pretty quick after that.”
KB and Luke expanded their retail shop into Strongwater Mountain Surf, a company that is now “redefining mountain surf culture”, and is the very first river surfing brand in the North America. The entrepreneurial duo are now selling a full line of hand-crafted river surf boards, while operating a fully-functioning surf gear shop. Since March of 2013, KB has made over 100 custom river surf boards that have been crafted to the exact specifications of buyers who come to them from all over the world.
Being pioneers in the adventure sports world is paying off for KB and Luke. In addition to bringing river surfing culture to the world via Surfer, Outside, and National Geographic, Strongwater is growing as a business. Starting in 2015, they’re looking to hire full-time employees to cover the retail shop while they focus on potentially expanding their board-making capacity.
Of course, being a surf shop in Missoula, Montana doesn’t come without some cynicism from the public. As Luke explains “a lot of people kind of scoff at the idea of a surf shop in Montana…then they come in and they’re blown away by what we’re doing. We actually get a lot of new customers out of people who come in just out of curiosity.” And, to cover the months when ice over takes the local rivers, Strongwater developed a line of powder boards that bring the simplicity and fluidity of ocean surfing to the snow. KB and Luke are currently working with the Missoula Economic Partnership to explore grants and other funding opportunities that will help them continue to fuel their expansion in coming years.
As Luke explains, Strongwater also has some significant advantages when it comes to leading the charge in the evolution of river surfing:
“For river surfing, Missoula is what the North Shore [of Hawaii] is to ocean surfing. There are over ten great river waves within a 90-mile radius, and our overall access to recreation is phenomenal. People here like to get out and have fun in nature - and that’s good for business.”