Surf's up

Surf's up

Downtown Dayton is your typical urban Midwestern city, filled with blacktop and busy streets, high-rises, and noisy traffic.

But wait: There are also surfers, who are apt to be happily catching a wave out on the water.

That’s right. They’re hangin’ loose in the heartland, where river surfing is catching on, hooking surf-newbies and seasoned devotees alike, who find a sweet spot on the Great Miami River.

Surfing lessons on the coast of the Great Miami River

Would-be surfers get a lesson before catching a tasty wave on the Great Miami River in Dayton.

Surfing on the Great Miami River

River surfing is similar to ocean surfing, but instead of catching waves caused by the wind, it’s done on standing river waves created by flowing whitewater.

“It’s a rush,” says Shannon Thomas, a Dayton native and pro river surfer and paddleboarder. “Anyone who has surfed knows that special feeling you get when you’re on a wave. It’s amazing; very spiritual, very addictive.” 

Always an avid kayaker, Thomas quickly fell in love with river surfing and whitewater paddleboarding. He spent a few years traveling around the country, living out of a van with his dog, Bailey, and searching for perfect waves from Florida to Colorado.

Today, he’s back in his landlocked hometown, where he and business partner Jake Brown own Surf Dayton, a river surfing and SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) operation they launched in 2017. Jake, a former ocean lifeguard and avid surfer in California, recently returned to Ohio and is a Dayton firefighter. 

“Any excuse to be out on the water, and I was there,” Thomas says. “I had been river surfing in Dayton 
for a while and figured if I was going to stay here, why not share the surfing culture with others? From there, it has snowballed.”

Now, on any given nice evening, there may be 15 or 20 people surfing on the Great Miami.

Surf Dayton is one of the scarce whitewater surfing outfits in Ohio. A full-service surf shop, it offers lessons, clinics, board rentals, board repairs, Badfish boards for sale, and even some pretty cool apparel. This year, they’re tricking out a new surf shop, too. Built from a shipping container, it’s currently situated in the parking lot of the screen-printing shop that Thomas also owns. 

“People see a wave, see people surfing, and take a lesson. They pick it up, and then they want to go again and again, maybe buy their own board,” he says. “Our crew just keeps growing tremendously.”

Whitewater “parks” like the ones Surf Dayton frequents are being built around the country. The manmade whitewater rapids in the area are created when dangerous low-head dams are removed from rivers.

“Blowing out those old low-head dams is awesome. It allows fish to migrate, opens up the waterway, and creates a whitewater feature that’s a whole lot safer than the low-head dam,” Thomas says. 

When a dam is removed, it leaves a top pool and a bottom pool in the river, creating a drop where fast water meets slower water. “That’s what makes the waves stand up and that’s what you surf,” he adds. “You’re surfing ‘stationary’ with the water rushing underneath you.”

In the Dayton area, Thomas and Brown surf on some splashy class-2 and class-3 waves downtown at Riverscape Metro Park on the Great Miami. They also can be found shredding the waves on a 4-mile stretch north of town on the Mad River.

Surfers will learn the ins and outs of the extreme sport — like safety and surfing etiquette; how to catch a wave and safely swim in the current; and surfer know-how like catching an eddy, carving, and reading a wave.

For the less adventurous, Surf Dayton also offers flatwater stand-up paddleboarding on the so-much-quieter Eastwood Lake and Huffman Metropark. 

Thomas still travels part of the year, following river waves and spending whole days on the water. 

A few things have changed, however. His trusty sidekick, Bailey, is turning 16 and is happy being a couch dog these days. Further, Thomas is no longer living out of his van. He bought a house in anticipation of his September wedding to fellow river-surfer Kate, who took a lesson on the Great Miami a couple of years ago … and became smitten with more than just the sport.