From the Magazine: Sam George’s Pure Stroke

RECENTLY, I WAS IN THE SIERRA NEVADA with a crew of alpine paddlers, gazing out over the vast, tranquil expanse of Lake Tahoe. So much beautiful water (191 square miles of it, to be exact) with myriad azure coves, rocky points and pine-forested headlands to stroke past. Easy put-ins, fairly predictable winds, charming aprés-paddle amenities, occasionally rideable windswell … in fact, just about the only thing Lake Tahoe doesn’t have in terms of being a legitimate standup heaven is a population of surly, self-righteous lay-down surfers to bad vibe their upright brethren.

That’s not to say that Tahoe paddlers don’t have to contend with grumpy locals. It’s just that instead of frustrated, middle-aged contractors floating up to their clavicles on 6’8″ thrusters, Sierra paddlers steer clear of the industrious black bears that congregate around Tahoe’s condo dumpsters like Salvadoran trabajadores outside a Home Depot. Not something your average SoCal standup paddle-surfer is prepared for. On the other hand, while reading a handy “Bear In Mind” safety flyer it occurred to me that many of the same tactics recommended for handling pesky bears would work on unenlightened lay-down surfers.

The pamphlet read, and I paraphrase, avoid contact. Be aware of your surroundings and of those areas where they might congregate. If you find yourself in a shared habitat, make your presence known—the last thing you want to do is surprise them. If you do see one, back away slowly, never taking your eyes off them. But never turn and flee—this might trigger their natural reaction to pursue. If confronted, stand your ground, arms spread, with something in your hand to make yourself appear larger. In a strong, assertive voice let them know that you’re not prey and that they’re the ones who should move on. If attacked, fight back, with anything at your means. But most importantly, if you want to avoid any of this unpleasantness, you should never, ever, feed a bear.

Good advice. A standup paddle-surfer should never feed an LDS (lay-down surfer) any reason to feel threatened. In other words, don’t be a prick first. A fed bear is a dead bear. Be courteous and don’t steal waves. And just accept that they don’t like what you’re riding, either. Longboard, shortboard, bodyboard, bodysurf, tandem, towboard, kayak, surfski—doesn’t matter, if it’s not what they’re riding, you’re not welcome. Even if you are, then they don’t like what you’re wearing (“Colored wetsuits are lame!” “Leashes are for dogs!” “Ron Jon T-shirts are for kooks!”), what flag you’re flying (retro, soul, pro, feral), or what skill level you’ve achieved (old guy, grom, or, worst of all, surf school student). Surfers can work up hate for just about every variation of their own kind.

Their cannibalistic nature is lamentable, but very understandable when you consider the ephemeral nature of the sport. Take my recent Sierra trip, for example. With a 10-foot snowpack piled high, aside from paddling, I found myself on a Squaw Valley chairlift with some very good skiers. It was a warm, sunny spring day and the slopes were moderately crowded; the lift lines were short and amiable. Sliding off of the lift we headed for Red Dog. We ripped down the run, all of us adjusting speed to each other’s trajectories, carving long S-turns through each other’s tracks all the way to the bottom where we hopped back on for another trip up the mountain, eager to take the same run again, and again, and again, so long as our quads held up.

Do I even need to drive the analogy home? Should I even attempt to articulate the difference between the supremely ephemeral nature of a breaking ocean wave and a mountain? Yet therein lies the root of all surfing evil: the fact that an ocean wave, after traveling thousands of trackless miles to reach some distant shore, breaks only once. Surfers, through years of dedication, sacrifice and physical effort—or sometimes just dumb luck—occasionally find themselves in perfect position to participate in this miracle of cosmic coincidence, this fragile moment when that singular band of energy briefly becomes visible, never to appear again. When looked upon in this light, who wouldn’t yell, “My Wave!”?

Should it be this way? No. But it is. Surfers are the most possessive of sportsmen because their medium is most precious. Mt. Everest and El Cap aren’t going anywhere, neither is Red Dog. Conditions may vary, but they’ll be there next year and the year after that. But that little 2-foot wave at Cocoa Beach Pier? That’s it, man. Just bear that in mind next time you paddle out into a break crowded with lay-down surfers: They’ve been programmed to hate you, just as they hated every other variation of their own surfing tribe who they perceive as competition for that precious resource. Don’t take it personally. Take your place proudly as merely the latest in a long line of wave riders that have been met with resistance from their own kind. You belong out there as much as the next surfer. So just like our paddling brothers and sisters in the High Sierra, be mindful, be assertive, and please, don’t feed the bears.

This Pure Stroke column, Bear in Mind, originally ran in the Summer 2011 issue of
SUP magazine.