The Demise of the Ditch: Remembering a Top-Secret Surf Spot
by Gerry Lopez
Since it’s gone, I guess there’s no reason to keep the secret any longer. What we had was a pretty neat surf spot almost 200 miles from the ocean. For the last three years, it’s been double top secret. Even so, like everything else in the surfing world, the word got out. That’s why it got taken away. Too many people knew and were having too much fun.
How does a surfing wave occur in the middle of the desert? Well I never would have believed it until I saw it. It starts with a long, cold winter season and lots of snow. Come spring that snow begins to melt, feeding the lakes and rivers, which are tapped for crop irrigation. Take a feeder canal transporting the water 50 miles away to a reservoir. Along that ditch are several features engineered to slow the gravity fed flow of the water. One of them is nothing more than a minor pinch on both walls combined with a slight drop in the slope of the bottom. Add the correct cubic feet per second of water discharged into the canal. Somehow this combination works just right at one particular site to produce a rideable standing wave suitable for a variety of watercraft.
My kayaker friend Ben, familiar with most of the standing waves in the various waterways in our area, told me he thought a surfboard could be ridden on this one particular wave. I laughed at first, but he persisted and finally I drove out there with him to take a look. It was a hot summer day with temperatures in the mid-90s, and I had been shaping surfboards for the past five hours. A break for any reason was a welcome distraction.
We drove through a subdivision on the northeast side of town and then down a dusty dirt road. Suddenly he stopped, turned off the key and I could hear the sound of rushing water although nothing was in sight. We got out and walked up a slight embankment and there was the canal full of water. Directly below was – well – it was a wave. It was a glassy peak about two feet high breaking in the center of a concrete ditch.
Ben had a beat up old Becker mini-tanker that had seen better days, and was about to see worse. The sides of ditch were sprayed gunite, they were rough and soon to be especially tough on the fragile fiberglass skin of a surfboard. He stripped off his shirt, grabbed his board, carefully stepped down the rugged wall and launched himself into the water.
For anyone who hasn’t seen a standing wave, it is a peculiar phenomenon; the wave breaks upstream against the current: the water moves while the wave doesn’t. Ben took several quick paddles, and just like that he caught the wave. Slowly and deliberately he climbed to his feet and began surfing the wave. I stood almost close enough to touch him, but perched on a concrete wall, high and dry.
There have been times, on the edge of reefs or on rocks, that I have been this close to someone surfing. But the surfer would approach, go past and be gone, and I would have to deal with the crashing whitewater with varying degrees of success, most often the lesser. Here I was right next to Ben as he concentrated fiercely to keep the ride going, the water madly rushing by, and although he moved from side to side on the peak, he stayed in the same place. I had never seen anything like it.
I remember the kids at Waimea Bay digging a little groove to open the river when it was full and much higher than sea level. Once they got the water flowing, it would cut a channel through the sand until it was gushing out into the bay. At a certain point, a standing wave would form that could be ridden on boogie boards. I had heard about some guys riding that wave with surfboards, but never saw it. I only remember that the stagnant river water – brown and smelly – wasn’t anything I wanted to get my body near.
Here the water was fresh and clean, running from a high alpine reservoir, cool and refreshing on that hot summer afternoon. I watched Ben from the bank, completely mesmerized. Finally, he caught an edge and the current whisked his board away from him. He swam after it, grabbed it, stood up and scrambled over to the opposite side of the canal. Here the water eddied and the current actually ran back upstream. He walked slowly back with a huge smile on his face. When he got back to the wave, he paused holding the board in both hands, then launched himself back into the peak and did it all over again.
At one point, still riding the wave, he looked over at me and said, “What do you think?”
“Let me try it,” I answered.
He kept riding until he lost the wave again, chased his board down, stopped himself in another eddy on my side and climbed out. I peeled off my shirt and he handed me his surfboard. I stepped down to the water’s edge and jumped. The board had lots of flotation so it was easy to gain my feet. I was surfing, pointed upstream and like Ben before me I wasn’t going anywhere, but the dynamics of the fast moving water created a sensation of great speed. At first I just trimmed, keeping the nose pointed straight upstream. Then I carefully moved back towards the board’s sweet spot and tried some gentle turns. It felt just like a wave – a fast wave. Back and forth I turned. As long as I returned to the center of the peak each time, I stayed in the wave. Using the board’s glide, I found I could go out pretty far on each side of the peak: It was a small wave with both a left and a right shoulder.
Eventually I stuck the nose and wiped out. I grabbed the board, put my feet down and found the flat concrete bottom about two feet under the surface. By angling towards the side, I could step out of the mainstream current down the center and reach the eddy. There was no sweep at all along the wall. The bottom was flat and easy to walk on. I couldn’t believe it: here in the middle of the desert was a wave as refreshing as any on the ocean. I rode a few more times on Ben’s board, but already my shaper’s mind had gone through my own surfboard quiver in the garage at home. I couldn’t wait until the next day to try out a smaller board.
Ben and I returned the following afternoon, and I enjoyed a much better session on a 6’2”. But already, I had imagined a new, ditch-specific design. That’s the beauty of having my own surfboard factory. It's something I’ve enjoyed throughout my entire surfing career, ever since I made my first board. Whenever I had an inspiration for a different type of surfboard, I could just go build it. Which is exactly what happened the next morning, the first thing I did was shape the initial 5’6” Ditch Bitch. Using UV resin makes building a surfboard almost an instant endeavor, and by the afternoon, I was ready to take the Ditch Bitch on her maiden voyage.
The first wave was a little tricky; I had never ridden such a short surfboard and only had two days on a fresh water wave. I was used to the buoyancy of salt water, and needed to adjust. I tried to push myself up, but the board didn’t offer much resistance and sank almost underwater. I adjusted to a lighter-footed approach, and once up, was delighted to find that the short little board turned like a dream. It fit its intended wave perfectly. Unlike an ocean wave, this one never stopped, and the ride, unless the rider messed up, could go on indefinitely.
Turning a surfboard back and forth as hard as one can takes a lot of energy. After about 25 turns, my legs were pumped up and I was out of breath. I remembered that while riding long waves like Honolua Bay on a north swell from Outside Subs all the way through the Cave, my legs would start to cramp. But on an equally long ride at G-Land they never did. I had wondered about that and figured I was going faster and doing fewer turns at Grajagan, but turning hard and often at the other spots. At the ditch, I could do turns to my heart’s content, rest up to catch my breath, and continue until my legs were screaming. One afternoon I went alone and timed myself on one ride. I quit after riding one wave for 30 minutes.
Ben and I vowed to keep it a secret, but the word, as always, slipped out. One day a group of high school kids showed up and soon became regular ditch riders. They promised to stay mum about it, but like any new wave, it was big news.
One day a guy drove up, parked his truck next to the canal, tied a rope to his front end, put his board in and used the rope to water-ski into the wave. When he fell off, he walked back, introduced himself as Jesse and watched how we were getting into it.
“I didn’t know you could do it like that,” he said.
We got talking and discovered that he never had ridden a wave in the ocean. He had surfed a few other standing waves in the area, but had just heard about this one. His board was Oregon-made in a shop out in Lincoln City. He found it in a second hand store here in our desert town and it worked well for him.
Over the course of hitting the wave daily we discovered that the trailing thruster fin was unnecessary; a twin-fin set up was much looser and easier to turn. We clued Jesse, our new ditch surfer friend, into this. He returned the next day, and before he got in the water he pulled out a cordless Sawzall® and sawed off his back fin, a minor modification to better tune his equipment.
We had a cool thing going: our small group would congregate after work or after school, have a good time, try each other’s boards and go home refreshed from a great little surf session – 200 miles from the ocean.
The collection of surfboards was interesting. Except for my little Ditch Bitch all were built anywhere from the 1970s through the present with ocean waves in mind. The local second hand stores immediately were cleaned out of the few boards they had that were sitting unsold for years and collecting dust. One of the guys had an aunt in California who found a cheap, used board in a surf shop and sent it up to him.
The Ditch Bitch worked best, and one kid offered to buy it. I had an improved design in mind and gladly sold it to him. I built two new boards, one for Ben and his 200 lb. size and the other a 5’6” twin fin. The improvement was dramatic and our performance level went up. We were stoked.
My surf training before this had consisted of a long two-mile paddle down river then a hard push upstream against the current. It was a beautiful section of the river, empty except for an occasional fisherman or mountain biker on the shore-side trail. Fish jumped, osprey wheeled overhead, deer grazed in the meadows, squirrels danced in the trees and once in a while I heard the loud slap of a beaver’s tail. But having a wave to ride was tremendously more exciting and a lot more action. We went on a regular basis and hit it with gusto.
But the word was out. More and more guys arrived. The lineup started to become exactly that: a line up of surfers standing along the canal wall waiting their turn. Yet like any surf spot, sometimes there wouldn’t be a soul and I found myself hoping someone would come to share the moment.
In the fall, the water stopped. I arrived to find the ditch empty and dry. It was amazing that there had been a wave there at all. The bottom was just flat concrete. I don’t know what I expected, but there was nothing there, just the slight dropping slope and insignificant squeeze in the sides. Water is a strange and wonderful thing, full of energy that can be at once either still and placid, or flowing fast enough to create a wave that can be surfed.
But it was all over for now, the ditch board went back on the shelf and the winter season rolled in, snowboards and waves of snow were what we rode for the next six months.
When springtime finally arrived, ditch anticipation was at a fever pitch. A phone call came, there was water flowing again. Snow still covered all the mountains. The air was cold and the ditch water freezing. Full wetsuits kept the chill away for a while, but eventually numbness set in and the early season sessions were shorter than we would have liked. The days became longer as spring moved into summer, and the weather warmed up. New people showed up almost daily. Ben and I changed our timing, using the middle of the day, but others had the same idea. Our idyllic, secret little surf spot was becoming a full-on surf scene. Every new guy told all his friends and sometimes there could be 10 to 15 people waiting in line for a turn.
It was against the law to be in the waterway and we knew it would not be long before the authorities got wind of this lawless surfing. Sure enough, the sheriff drove out one day and told everyone to leave. That cooled things off for a short time, but before long the surf mob was back.
Dan Malloy came for a visit and I took him to the only surf in town. He was stoked and everyone was more stoked to watch one of the best surfers in the world ride our little wave. Jack Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter and G-Love came to town for a concert and wanted to see the wave. Ben and I drove them, and most of their band members, out for an epic session. Our town had a legitimate surf spot and it was a good thing.
The following year, there were still occasions when no one was there, but more often than not it was crowded. Surfing attracts people and energy like honey attracts bees. It’s always the same. It starts with a few guys who are happy to have others to enjoy the fun. But soon their enjoyment begins to fade as the popularity increases.
There were small incidents of friction between some of the groups. Empty beer bottles and other rubbish appeared where once we had tried to leave no sign of our having been there. Ben and I got even better boards, as the precise design for this wave evolved. They kept our enthusiasm high, but we knew something was going to happen. The sheriff returned several times, chasing the surfers away temporarily, but there were too many people, and nothing was going to keep the local surfers away from this wave. Fall rolled around and the water was shut off. Another desert surf season came to an end and the crowds went home.
Recently, I ran into one of the original group having lunch one day. He surprised me by saying he’d heard a wall had been built across the canal. Then another friend said someone flying a small plane overhead had seen a backhoe and concrete truck at the ditch. Information in the surf world has always traveled quickly – we used to refer to it as the Coconut Wireless. I passed the info on to Ben who immediately went out there and sadly reported that it was true. A short wall had been constructed from side to side right where the wave would be. They had found a way to keep the surfers away.
Yvon and Malinda Chouinard were in town for an American Alpine Club conference and we were touring around one morning. An avid surfer himself, Yvon knew about the ditch wave so we took a drive out there. The canal was still dry and the new wall was painful to see.
“Where was the Surfrider Foundation when you needed them?” Yvon said with a laugh. But he meant it with all sincerity. Both of us are old surfers, and the loss of any surf spot is a great tragedy that we’ve painfully experienced before and will continue to do in the future.
In Hawai’i, in the early 1960s, John Kelly started Save Our Surf, another group that fights to protect surfing spots. Their mission is to gather and spread information regarding the beaches and shoreline where existing surfing areas were threatened by the state’s development plans. Save Our Surf is an ongoing battle against those who don’t or can’t understand what a wave means. SOS’s and the Surfrider Foundation’s efforts continue to this day.
Riding waves, any kind of waves, is a very good thing; preserving and sustaining them is even better. Keep surfing.
If you're interested in more stories from Gerry, check out his new book Surf Is Where You Find It – a hardbound collection of 38 stories with new and vintage photographs. Choose from the regular edition or the boxed, limited edition that has extra photos and is signed and numbered by the author.