The Wave We Choose
arts & culture

The Wave We Choose

In early Spring 2019, Jacob Kelly Quinlan completed his goal of surfing 100 river waves around the world. His years of surfing rivers has allowed him to connect with various international groups, develop course curricula, deliver presentations and surf some of the most remote river waves ever discovered. This week, Quinlan alongside filmmaker Nico Walz, released a short film documenting his journey. 

Jacob Quinlan River Surfer Canada by Nico Walz

Jacob Quinlan river surfing in Canada. Photograph by Nico Walz.

From the glacier runoffs of the Rocky Mountains, to the streets of Munich, Germany, to the uncharted rivers of Afghanistan, Quinlan and Walz surf some of the world’s most remote river waves, while learning and connecting with different cultures and communities, and forming new friendships along the way.

“It’s all about the adventure and dichotomy of surfing places that aren’t supposed to have waves. I’ve surfed in corn fields, bottoms of dams, dessert irrigation canals, and isolated canyons. It really is a constant hunt.”

Jacob Quinlan River Surfer Afghanistan by Nico Walz
Jacob Quinlan River Surfer Afghanistan by Nico Walz

Jacob Quinlan river surfing in Afghanistan. Photograph by Nico Walz.

Like the ocean, surfable faces can be found in the wildest and most urban rivers. As water flows over a drop in a river bed, it gains speed and energy. When this energy faces any form of resistance, it creates an upstream standing wave. As gravity pulls upstream and water pushes downstream, a surfer can harness the energy of the river. This phenomenon was first documented in 1975 in Munich, Germany, but has become a trending sport in recent years.

While reaching the 100 wave mark is a major feat for Quinlan, he says his journey is a sign of where the sport of river surfing is, and how far it has come. “Teetering on the brink of mainstream the only thing holding back the world from surfing in their local river is development of manmade standing waves like skate parks,” he added. Though Quinlan acknowledges that numerous working models for manmade river waves exist around the world, he wanted to use his journey as a learning process. “I started my mission in the hopes of learning about river waves and potentially finding the perfect wave. I want to use this knowledge and experience to build artificial waves in communities around the world. So that others can have the same opportunity I have, to surf where they call home.”

Jacob Quinlan River Surfer Calgary by Chris Dowsett

Jacob Quinlan river surfing in Calgary. Photograph by Chris Dowsett.

Quinlan’s artificial wave vision is not only driven by adrenaline, but also a desire to do better.

“It seems so strange that surf culture, which I grew to know as being environmentally responsible, is moving toward surf parks that uproot natural landscapes and require huge amounts of carbon emissions to generate waves every day, the key to surfing inland can be crafted in a river for 1/10th the cost to build and zero cost to the environment to operate.”

Jacob Quinlan river surfer Canada by Nico Walz

Jacob Quinlan river surfing in Canada. Photograph by Nico Walz.

Quinlan's passion and pastime is river surfing. Like most Rocky Mountain surfers, he learned to surf in warmer waters and came home looking for its closest next relatives—snowboarding, longboarding, SUP and slackline—but nothing seemed to scratch the itch. The only thing that would light up his soul was trips to the coast. Over time, river surfing consumed all that.

For over a decade, his love for river surfing brought him around the world. He delivered presentations and took part in competitions in Europe and the US. He discovered new waves never before touched by a surfboard. He helped build new river waves and helped fostered river surf communities in places like Austria, Idaho and Ontario.

River surfing scene in Alberta. Photograph by Rob Bishop.

River surfing scene in Alberta. Photograph by Robert Bishop.

In his home province of Alberta, he introduced hundreds of people to the river through one of the world's first educational programs and the efforts of the Alberta River Surfing Association. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his community and played his part in building the world's first government approved, community built river wave in the Kananaskis. In 2017, he brought the North American River Surf Championships to this wave they call, "The Mountain."

Jacob Quinlan river surfer Calgary Slam Festival

Slam Fest river surfing event in Alberta. Photograph by Neil Egsgard.

Quinlan is currently working with a local nonprofit to build a world-class wave in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, and also owns a river wave consultancy company called Surf Anywhere, with his business partner Neil Egsgard.

The hardest part in setting a goal is never know if you have what's required to achieve it. When Jacob Kelly Quinlan took on the goal of surfing 100 river waves he faced the biggest challenge - one that would shape ten years of his life. Right up until the last moment on his final expedition he froze in fear, still with doubts of knowing if he had what it takes. In the end, it all comes down to taking a leap of faith.

A Film By Nico Walz.
Starring Jacob Kelly Quinlan.
Produced by Surf Anywhere.
Music by Johannes Hertrich.
Sound Design by Alexander Clement.
Motion Design by Hannes Denker.
Additional Footage by Justin Gullickson and Neil Egsgard.