Bryan Murray has surfed in the zone. Deep inside a tube of rushing water and light. So removed from the rest of the world that he can see individual droplets of water tumble slow-mo like so much dandelion fluff.
“It’s the closest you can come to touching God,” Murray said. “It’s that meaningful to me.
That said, it no longer takes an oceanic roar to get him to that spiritual place. The Outer Banks-bred Murray said he can feel the same peace and joy much closer to his ancestral home of Wheeling.
It’s there when he’s wake surfing behind a specialized boat or a coal barge on the Ohio River. And, on a day trip to whatever Lake Erie beach is hitting the best waves. Or, even when he’s swooshing down nearby ski slopes in the Laurel Highlands snow-surf style, an old-school form of snowboarding that has come back into vogue.
“I go out and scout for waves all the time,” Murray said of wake surfing on the Ohio River specifically. “Heavy, low-lying barges are the best. They push a lot of water up on the north end of Wheeling Island and also on the turn at Martins Ferry.
“The rolling energy created by this displaced water can really get you moving. Life jackets are very important because the strong undertow near the barge can hold you down. You can see the water boiling behind the barge because of this undertow. Best to be ahead and away from the barge and paddling in the same direction of the waves.”
Murray, who’s also heard it is possible to wake surf behind a sternwheeler, noted local surfing isn’t always as dramatic. Recently, even a gnarly bit of white water on a tributary to Wheeling Creek caught his eye.
“I fell in love with that wave,” Murray said. “I watched it and watched it. It was just beautiful.”
He wanted to river surf it — a newish water sport in which the surfer uses a paddleboard to explore a single wave zone in treadmill fashion, letting the water rush continually underneath. But, he was daunted by both rocks and a steep drop off. Finally, a fellow outdoor enthusiast suggested they suit up and try boogie boards instead.
“I bought a couple of foam boards and in we went,” Murray said. “It was great.”
That kind of love for the water is what took Murray’s family from Wheeling to the Outer Banks a generation ago. Growing up on island time, with a daily life that included bicycling to ferry docks and youth surfing clubs, was great. But, ironically enough, so were the West Virginia mountains he visited regularly with his parents.
In his 20s, the journalistically trained Murray moved to Snowshoe, West Virginia. He promptly made a documentary about snowboarding. Jobs in television and sales eventually drew him to Wheeling, where his extended family still lived.
For a time, he traveled to surf when he could. Then, he and a couple of friends — Steve Yount and Jade Vamos, both of Pennsylvania — began to explore inland surfing. They now chase waves on Lake Erie and regional rivers. (Murray’s most recent film, Steel City Surfers: The Journey to Gerry, details how their regional pursuits relate to a group admiration of surf legend Gerry Lopez.)
“We get skunked a lot, and the waves are often very small,” he said of the reality of Great Lakes vs. oceanic surf. “(But), Lake Erie can throw out some good waves.” Sometimes they are four to eight feet or even higher on especially windy days.
Murray navigating a wind-driven wave on Lake Erie.
Murray and his fellow inland surfer, Steve Yount, prepare to head out for the waves at Geneva on the Lake, Ohio.
The group watches weather and wind reports and makes day trips to spots along the coasts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Skunked or (almost) shredding, Great Lakes surfing is actually more dangerous than ocean surfing, he noted. There’s no concern with sharks or jelly fish, but the less-buoyant, fresh-water waves are more likely to push surfers too close to rock jetties or onto equally dangerous parts of the shoreline.
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“It can be frightening to jump into the lake,” Murray said of a rip-roaring day. “But, you find the nooks and crannies where the waves are beautiful.”
SURFING ON THE RIVER
On days when Lake Erie wind and waves aren’t cooperating, Murray and friends can often be found on the Ohio River or other local waterways. In addition to wake surfing, river surfing (paddleboard style) has recently captured his attention. This sport, in which a pole-supported surfer rides over a continuously flowing natural or man-made bit of white water, is fun. It’s also tough.
“I paddleboard the local creeks and rivers looking for waves to river surf,” he said of this style. “Some river waves, like the one in Dayton (Ohio), are powerful enough to surf without a paddle.
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While he’s still working his technique for this surf style, Murray is enthusiastic enough that he’s already spoken to city officials about Wheeling joining the ranks of river cities that have installed man-made wave features for such surfers. He said the installations are pricey, but cities such as Dayton have tapped into federal funds intended for the removal of old dams that are now drowning hazards. When the old dam goes out, the wave feature goes in.
The other river-based option, wake surfing, is relatively easier, he said. Surfers can follow a coal barge as described earlier in this story, or behind a speedboat with an inboard motor. An outboard motor — mounted on the back of a boat rather than in the middle — isn’t safe, as the surfer is riding in the wake directly behind the boat.
Some wake surfers go so far as to purchase “wave shapers” that either come with the boat or are installed on the side. Boats dedicated to wake surfing can additionally be weighted down with ballast water almost to the point of sinking, Murray said. The heavier the boat, the bigger the wave.
Murray recommends readers interested in trying inland surfing start with wake or paddleboard surfing. He said there are supply stores and surf schools in both Pennsylvania and Ohio that can get newbies going.
Murray said serious surfers — inland or otherwise — don’t stop when winter hits. They just head to the slopes.
He learned to ski as a teen at Wheeling’s Oglebay, later switching to snowboarding while living at Snowshoe. It was a natural segue. Surfers invented snowboarding, after all. But, it had its limits for Murray, who wanted to feel like he does when he’s in an oceanic tube.
“On my snowboard, I could do that, but I couldn’t hold it,” Murray said. “You might feel it during a turn or going through the trees.”
Then, Murray, who teaches at the ski school at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, saw a film about snow surfers in Japan. These surfers, who lived on an island, had never switched to modern snowboards for their winter pursuits. They were still snow surfing the way the founders of the sport had done.
Murray switched to a retro-style board, which he said are getting trendy, and his surfer’s stance suddenly felt exactly right.
“From the top of the mountain to the bottom, it can feel just like a tube ride,” he said of snow surfing in particular and the wonder of inland surfing in general. “For everything to slow down and truly live in that moment — in places other than the ocean — is an amazing experience.
“Now, if the surf’s up, I can go. To live in West Virginia and be able to surf — it’s a miracle.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household