The landlocked surfer is a special kind of junkie, constantly pouring over forecasts and blowing through cash to get their fix. The thought of going anywhere, for any reason, is consistently overshadowed by the question “Can I score some surf there, brah?”
And when my family decided to travel to Montreal for my Granna’s 100th birthday at the end of June, the answer to that question, surprisingly enough, was yes.
Granna was pumped to have us all there. It was the first time we’d all been together since her daughter (my aunt’s) funeral ten years earlier. And her eyes, fashionably framed by the same bright green glasses that she’s been wearing for the last 40 years, were aglow with appreciation of such loving company.
She also seemed genuinely interested in me surfing the river that had flowed alongside her for the better part of a century.
I didn’t take my surfboard, which proved to be a mistake, but I figured I’d at least find the wave and take it from there. Armed with the name of a location, a few mental images and the insatiable desire to get wet, I skated out from my Granna’s place searching for surf on a sunny metropolitan morning.
The streets of Montreal can be a dangerous place, especially on a skateboard. I actually had a few overenthusiastic lunatics swerve at me, and not in that funny kind of way. But the pavement was smooth and the travel was fast, so I let gravity take me towards the Old Port of Montreal.
I took a slight detour to have a drink and practice my French (literally, not figuratively) with a nice girl who I’d met at Le Club Supersexe the night before. We connected in La Place Jaques-Cartier, hit the Dépanneur and crushed a couple of frosty beers in Le Champs des Mars, a sunny park that holds archaeological remnants of the old city’s walls that date back as far as 1690.
I was getting a taste of the old culture with a touch of the new and it occurred to me that my Poppa Bear, pre-Momma Bear and definitely pre-Mikey Bear, must have had a hell of a time growing up in this riverside city of beautiful humans.
The thought passed quickly enough and I reminded myself that the day was about finding the surf, not lounging around in the sun with some sexy Frenchwoman (did I really just say that?). So I said my goodbyes, hopped on my skate and connected with the paved trail that winds its way through the intricacies of the Lachine Canal.
“Où se trouve le Habitat 67?” got me on the right side of the Canal and all the man-made islands that dot the river there. Ultimately though, it was a man towing a kayak on a bike who led me directly to the spot.
“Merci, mon ami.”
All of a sudden, I found myself in the midst of a legitimate surf check. There were a few surfers lazing about in the sun, so that was a good sign. I still couldn’t see the wave, so I connected with the beaten path that makes its way upstream along the river bank, eventually hearing the wave before I saw it, roaring gently atop the steady hiss of the current.
And then there it was…just as I’d seen it in the magazines. This hydrological phenomenon of backflow whereby a beautiful wave is created in a set of rapids, standing almost defiantly in the face of the mighty river’s current.
It wasn’t long before a goofyfooter backed himself into the scoop of the magical beast and popped into a glassy, waist-high righthander for two minutes straight. He would have kept going for longer too, but another surfer paddled in from upstream, cordially kicked him off and claimed his own turn on the machine-like feature. He didn’t stay up as long, but he was doing some high performance shit, taking advantage of his forehand to work speed from the pocket and arc his way through a few stylish cutbacks.
This was surfing in Montreal, and damn it looked fine.
There were about 10 people sessioning the wave, two of whom were beginners and would just get swept through the wave and the rapids afterwards, finally clambering out about 50 metres downstream. Looked like fun though and from what little I could tell from the shoreline, it seemed relatively safe.
This is when not having my own gear really started to sting. I’d heard that Imagine Surfboards was the spot to rent gear, but their phone was disconnected and their website was down. So I did some asking around at Habitat 67 and a fellow onlooker mentioned a place upriver called KSF that rented gear and was conveniently located right next to another surfable river wave.
I felt like I was a few steps closer to getting in the water. For now though, it was time to skate back to Granna’s and get bossed around by my dad and mom simultaneously. My parents have been divorced for 30 years, so taking shit from both of them at the dinner table was a whole new adventure for me…
The whole situation's a testament to Granna's (and my mom's) character. She's my dad's mom, but they've managed to stay close over the years.
Anyways, the next day it was time to get after it. With only one vehicle and eight family members, snatching Granna’s ride proved to be difficult. Habitat 67 was within skating distance, but this other spot up in LaSalle was not. So my cousin and I took what we could get and hijacked the family’s Ford Fusion for a few precious hours.
My cousin Geoff and I are two very different humans. He’s seven years younger and works driving big rigs in a shitty town just south of Fort Mac. In other words, his Montreal experience would inevitably be different than mine. All I wanted to do was surf, whereas hopping behind the wheel and street racing a couple babes at a stoplight gave the little guy an immeasurable amount of joy.
“This is our grandma’s car, you girls wanna race?” proved to be a surprisingly effective line.
They crushed us, but seeing my cousin so happy was a highlight of the trip. Eventually, we found KSF and I hastily rented some gear. We were on borrowed time, so we undertook the whole endeavour with a solid measure of hustle.
La Vague à Guy (directly translated to Guy’s Wave) is a ten minute walk upstream from KSF and is known to be a lot more gentle than Habitat 67. It’s still a beautiful thing though, and I spent a couple hours trying to solve its nuances while Geoff smoked cigs on the riverbank and spoke terrible French with the locals.
“As tu uhhhhhhhhh lighter?”
At one point, there were about 15 people surfing the wave, which made for 15 minute waits between attempts, but everyone was super friendly and happy enough to offer pointers (in French, of course).
River Surfing's catching on in Montreal and the culture that surrounds it is taking a form that's unique to the incredible city. Wetsuits hang from clusters of bikes in the parks next to the river waves. Surfboards lay scattered in the grass while their owners take five to recharge in the sun. River exploration has played a huge role in the city's history, and this latest form of it seems very natural.
La Vague à Guy was super mellow and the swim afterwards was nice and easy. Although I found out afterwards that this is where a girl had drowned while surfing here at the end of May. Very sad times, but I suppose it's the harsh reality of the sports we love to do.
According to the surfers I spoke with, the swim after the Habitat 67 wave is a lot faster and you get swept way further downstream. But the power of the wave there makes it way better for surfing and the added risk, so long as you're a comfortable swimmer, is justified. Unfortunately, logistics held me back from surfing there before I flew back out west.
But that’s not what I was there for.
Granna’s party was a smashing success. We ate Egg Salad sandwiches, drank Gin and marveled over her congratulatory letter from the Queen. She stayed up later than usual, smiling non-stop through the whole event.
So the trip was successful where it should have been, and I’m super happy that I was able to get in the water at all. Because when it comes to surfing in Canada, especially in the summertime, you just shut your mouth and take what you can get.
Here's a solid clip of Oz Albiya shredding the wave at Habitat 67:
And if you want to learn more, this is a good resource: