In a bare room with neon green walls, in the basement of Strongwater’s Hip Strip storefront, Kevin “K.B.” Brown wears flip flops, a respirator mask and a zip-up plastic suit that says “Dude” in black magic marker where a name patch would normally go. It makes sense that his attire combines the relaxed with the industrious: Brown is hard at work, shaping a Strongwater brand surfboard.
The board is short, wide and thick, with a blunt nose and tail. It’s designed not for cruising down the long barrel of an ocean wave but for riding the small, tight and often artificial swells of Rocky Mountain rivers, like Brennan’s Wave in Missoula or the Lunch Counter Wave in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Even though the board is only in the first stage of production, it’s already been sold. In fact, there’s a wait list for the next 10 boards Strongwater can churn out.
Brown is working as fast he can, but he can’t work fast enough—not even with help from Strongwater co-owner Luke Rieker and a handful of employees. Since Brown started making surfboards in 2013, demand for them has been entirely self-generating, mostly through word of mouth.
“We haven’t even tried to sell a surfboard,” Brown says.
That’s about to change. To meet demand, increase production and allow for further growth, Brown and Rieker say they are aiming to partner with an established stand-up paddleboard manufacturer to launch North America’s first line of mass-produced river surfboards. Though reluctant to divulge too many details, Rieker says the partnership could be finalized as soon as next month.
“This is the future right here,” Brown says. “It’s the frontier. It’s the beginning. It’s crazy. The sky is the limit right now, for sure.”
Brown and Rieker's optimism about Strongwater’s potential for growth isn’t unfounded. People have been surfing rivers since the 1970s, but it has long been an obscure niche of an already fringe sport. In recent years, however, industry patterns show river surfing on the rise. According to Sean Smith, executive director of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, the popularity of stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, has made the biggest difference. Both SUP and river surfing allow inlanders access to activities long confined to the coast. River surfing, though, preserves more of surfing’s initial appeal.
“I think one of the advantages [river surfers] have over SUP is that there still comes with it that thrill factor that you don’t necessarily get from stand-up paddleboarding,” Smith says.
Brown and Rieker agree. They have long been looking for a way to tap into the thrill of surfing without leaving the inland Northwest, where both were born and raised.
“For me,” says Brown, “I kind of just grew up chasing surfing, doing everything from skateboarding to snowboarding, wakeboarding, wake surfing. Kind of always chasing that surfing in the mountains.”
Over time, Brown and Rieker came to see that there was a simpler way to surf a river wave: on an actual surfboard. In 2012, they started stocking ocean surfboards at Strongwater. While those boards worked on inland rivers, they weren’t ideal. “It just didn’t seem like the right tool for the job,” Brown says.
After a major surfboard manufacturer initially expressed interest in working with Strongwater to produce river surfboards, but failed to follow through, Brown decided to take matters into his own hands. The only problem? He’d never made a board before.
“It was kind of wild,” Brown says. “I was going to take a class on shaping down in California. When I was researching that, I kind of just started researching the process of building surfboards. It’s really an art thing. It was something I felt I had inside me and could see it and knew exactly what I wanted to build to start with, and I just kind of watched a bunch of videos and read a bunch of literature on it and just started doing it. It’s like anything. It’s like surfing itself. It’s like one of those things—you just gotta do it.”
“That guy, when he gets an idea in his head, look out,” cracks Rieker.
Brown first experimented with spare foam from Dave Taylor Roofing and quickly dialed in a design. Then orders started to flow in and a wait list was created. The price of a board increased from $500 to $750. Rieker jumped in to help with production, and another employee was hired. Even with the extra manpower, Strongwater can’t keep up with customer demand or its owners’ ambitions.
While Brown and Rieker are eager to ramp up their business, they both remain committed to Missoula.
“The future, I really kind of see this being what it is down here,” Brown says, gesturing around the Strongwater basement. “This is going to be the lab where the prototypes are made, where if a customer wants a custom handmade board we’re still going to do that down here. But we do need to get a product out that can reach a broad market. … You can spin some boards out of here, for sure, but not when you want to supply them all over the world.”