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Iowa: The Nation’s Hottest New Surfing Destination
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Iowa: The Nation’s Hottest New Surfing Destination

Yup, you read that right.

If the title has you scratching your head thinking, “cowa...bunga, dude?”  don’t fear! I promise Iowa hasn’t managed to break apart from the US and float off into the ocean, nor has the rest of the country become flooded and engulfed.

None of those things are necessary for Iowa to be the country’s hottest new surfing destination.

How, you might ask?

River surfing, that’s how!

Yes, river surfing is a real thing. Whitewater recreation parks are popping up all over the country, but one of the most recognized and fastest growing of them opened in Charles City in 2011. The Whitewater Recreation Area in Riverfront Park is situated on the Cedar River, right in the heart of town.

It’s free to the public and open year-round and is an ideal place to practice kayaking, rafting, and yes: surfing. In fact, it’s known for its near-perfect waves.

So how do people surf in a river, anyway?

To start out, you need a “standing wave,” which means a wave that is uniform in nature and always rolling. Many rivers have these naturally in certain places, but most of the safest ones are in whitewater parks that are constructed to keep the waves even more steady than nature originally intended. They often achieve this with an underwater bladder that can be filled fuller or drained to keep the wave even during all levels of water flow.

Next, you need a SUP (stand up paddleboard,) a tow line, and some safety equipment. Surfers tie their SUPs to the tow line, situate themselves, and then practice riding the wave until their quads give out. Not only is river surfing fun, it’s a great way for novice and professional surfers alike to hone their skills and condition their bodies for the more traditional ocean waves.

If you want to see what this looks like for yourself, check out this video of Iowa native (and burgeoning SUP superstar) Hannah Ray J riding the waves at Riverfront park:

Hannah Ray J SUP Highlights Chuck Town from Hannah Ray J on Vimeo.

As you can see, river surfing is a real thing, but if you’ve never heard of it, it’s not because it’s a new phenomenon. An article on the history or river surfing dates this phenomenon’s inception back to 1972, when the Pauli brothers from Munich, Germany surfed the Flosslaende River’s famous standing wave. From there it spread to Australia, Canada, and the United States, among other places. The article also says that  “Iowa is fast becoming a Midwestern surf destination,” and that,  “The Whitewater Park in ‘Chuck’ City is the current epicenter of the Scene.”

So how can you get in on some of this action?

Well, you’ll need a SUP and some safety equipment, like a helmet, to start out with. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere local to rent paddleboards (yet,) but if this trend grows, that will likely change in the near future. The best time to ride the waves is during spring runoff, which happens May through July. The park is accessible year-round, but if you are planning on braving the water during the fall, winter, or spring, you’ll definitely need a wetsuit that is rated for cold water surfing and a dry set of clothing to change into after you get out of the river.

If you’re a first-timer, it’s a good idea to do some research on river surfing techniques and safety precautions. Also, keep your eye out for surfing lessons and classes, which are rumored to be coming to Chuck City very soon! Don’t forget, Riverfront’s Whitewater Park is also a great place to practice kayaking and rafting.

Cowabunga, dudes!

Leave a Comment

  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
    Who knew?! Thanks for this fascinating story!
    Log in to reply.
    1. AJ Earley
      AJ Earley
      You're welcome! I'm happy to get the word out!!!
      Log in to reply.
  2. Hannah Ray J
    Hannah Ray J
    #SurfIOWA! Come find me at #CharlesCItyWhitewater and lets surf! I have an extra sup for surfing with me!
    Log in to reply.
    1. AJ Earley
      AJ Earley
      Holy moly, Hannah Ray J herself! Thanks for dropping a line and encouraging this awesome local sport. I can't wait to see you down there!!!
      Log in to reply.
      1. Hannah Ray J
        Hannah Ray J
        So when are you coming to river surf with me?!
        Log in to reply.


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