Step out the front door of Atkinsons’ Market in Giacobbi Square, look south and a little west, and you’ll see surfboards. It’s no mirage—even though Ketchum is situated a mile up a mountain, and a good seven hundred miles from the nearest coast.
Ketchum has no ocean vista, but surfboards are leaning against the outside walls of a retail establishment called Room+Board. On the door is a large decal: “Surf Diva.” Strike up a conversation with anyone inside, and they’ll tell you that Paul Robinson made those Double D surfboards right here in the Valley.
Yes, oddly enough, there is a surf culture at 6,000 feet. In addition to a shop in Ketchum’s business core that sells surfing paraphernalia and a guy in Hailey who makes custom surfboards, there was once a restaurant in town—The Beach—with decidedly surf-related décor. And many of the guys who are the stuff of early surfing legend now gather annually in Ketchum to celebrate their passion … far from their beloved oceans. In fact, a significant number of those surfers live here.
Just two months after the Hobie San Onofre Classic surfboard competition took place last spring at San Onofre Beach (a notable surf spot just inside the north border of
Camp Pendleton Marine Corp Base in California), the San Onofre Surf Club—whose origins date to the 1950s—held their annual get-together and picnic … at Sun Peak campground in Ketchum, Idaho. And that’s not as surprising as it may seem.
It was Ketchum resident Dick Metz, one of the event’s organizers, who opened the original surf shop in Honolulu, selling surfboards with the name Hobie—the first name of the man with whom he would be linked in business for the next four decades, Hobie Alter. Now semi-retired, Metz is founder of the Surfing Heritage Foundation, which is developing a museum to document and celebrate the rich history of the sport. Metz proudly proclaims it “The Smithsonian of Surfing.” The museum will be in southern California; but it could almost be in Ketchum, considering the Wood River Valley’s somewhat incongruous enclave of surfers, surfing legends, and innovators in the sport.
Another connection: Riders participating in the Hobie Classic compete on longboards—often vintage surfboards, nine to eleven feet in length. All surfers rode longboards until the shortboard revolution of the late 1960s and 70s retired most of them to garages throughout southern California and Hawaii. One of those boards, made of redwood and belonging to Bill Janss, a well-known former owner of the Sun Valley Company, made its way to Sun Valley, where it took up a moribund residence behind a shed. It later turned up on the wall of a restaurant called The Beach, at the corner of Sun Valley Road and Main Street in Ketchum. Restaurateur Dennis Wheeler, a former Manhattan Beach surfer, used that board, along with fourteen others, to decorate the walls.
The surfboard of choice at San Onofre last May, according to Longboard Magazine, was the Bing/David Nuuhiwa Noserider. (Bing is the name of the surfboard, David Nuuhiwa the rider.) The name Bing was synonymous with quality surfboards for decades, as the 1950s turned into the ‘60s, the ‘60s into the ‘70s.
And where does Bing Copeland, the designer of that board of choice, now live? Just north of Hailey, of course. Copeland’s friend and frequent companion, Nat Young, is a Ketchum resident and was named World Surfing Champion four times. Nat’s son, Beau Young, was swept up in the surfing scene early in life and captured the same title his dad held.
At the San Onofre Surf Club picnic in August, reminiscing was the order of the day. Two locals, Fritz Watson and John Droege, swapped stories of their pre-World War II days as Newport Beach lifeguards. John Stansberry, another Newporter, pointed out that he grew up on the beach—and has “the skin to prove it.”
Surfing arrived on the beaches of southern California around 1907, but remained more of a curiosity than an obsession for almost half a century. That was to change.
Following World War II, the beach towns witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of surfers, and a surf culture began to develop.
Ketchum resident and legendary triathlete Charlie French, an aerospace engineer living in Los Angeles at the time, caught the surfing bug in the 1950s. He was a frequent visitor to San Onofre Beach: “I’d sleep up in the hills on Saturday night and be at the Marine Corps gate at 7:00 when it opened on Sunday. Only 500 visitors were allowed, and they became the San Onofre Surf Club. Stickers were eventually issued to control the numbers, and I had a row of stickers on my car.” For French, those halcyon days of relative solitude came to a halt “with the first Gidget movie. Now everyone wanted to be a surfer.” >>>
With the release of Gidget, starring Sandra Dee, in 1959, American adolescents from coast to coast were exposed to Hollywood’s version of the southern California beach-and-surfing lifestyle. Within months, woodies—wood-sided station wagons, the car of choice for the surf-set—began showing up everywhere. Even in places like Nebraska, gremmies (novice surfers) were driving woodies around with longboards sticking out the back. Hang the fact there weren’t any waves on the Platte River: surfing was “in.” (Ketchum has a few resident woodies—one, a 1957 Willys owned by local clothier and skiing legend Bobby Burns for 25 years. “It has four-wheel drive,” he grins, “probably making it America’s first SUV.”)
Not inclined to miss a trend in the making, the music industry rushed to capture what was clearly a large potential audience. It didn’t take long. Three singing brothers from Hawthorne, California, with the last name of Wilson, had added a cousin and a friend to form a singing group that was first called Kenny and the Cadets, and then Carl and the Passions, and then the Pendletones. Dennis Wilson, who surfed, thought it would be a good subject for a song, with the common vernacular giving the lyrics a certain esoteric mystique: ho-daddies, gremmies and hotdoggers, hang ten, woodies, wipeout. His brother Brian wrote “Surfin’” and then “Surfin’ Safari,” demos were recorded for both songs in 1961, and the name of the group soon changed to The Beach Boys. With Jan and Dean also competing for spots on the Top Ten, the surfing culture was chronicled in hit songs and sub-sequently memorialized.
As in all sports, surfing has been subject to frequent, often radical change, moving from longboards to shortboards and back, from redwood to boards made of foam.
Innovations such as multiple fins made the ride more stable, while O’Neill Company wetsuits allowed southern Californians to surf in winter, northern Californians to surf in all seasons (55-degree water being a significant detriment to the enjoyment of this sport). The ankle strap or leash tethered the board to its rider, ending the significant amount of “fetching” that had been involved when board and rider parted company and the breaking wave carried the board up onto the beach. Now everyone could more comfortably and safely be a surfer.
The 21st-century trend is toward “big wave” surfing. Time Magazine featured an article in July 2004 in which Billabong, an Australian surfing company, offered $250,000 to any surfer who rides and conquers a 100-foot wave. Such waves travel at over 40 miles per hour, so the surfer is pulled on a line by a jet-ski, catapulted to the wave’s crest, where the surfer then drops into the maw as it breaks.
Sets of mammoth waves occur infrequently, so it’s up to a company called Surfline, a forecast service, to let surfers around the world know, for a price, when “surf’s up.”
Bing Copeland remarks, grumpily, that you once had to follow the adage, “You don’t know if you don’t go.” Now, subscribing to the forecast service can ensure that you’ll know before you go—but you certainly won’t be the only one. Surfline.com gets a million hits a month. “I admit,” says Copeland, “I have a love-hate relationship with Surfline.”
Surfing is now a 4.5-billion-dollar industry, with surfers cropping up on China Beach in Vietnam, the shorelines of Indonesia, and the long, gentle swells of South Africa (Bruce Brown found the perfect wave off Durban, South Africa, in his 1966 movie Endless Summer). For the present, it appears that the sport is in no danger of losing its momentum.
And the Wood River Valley, far from the places where people surf, continues to draw a disproportionate number of residents whose daily lives once included—still include, in many cases—riding a board and/or designing one. The myriad reasons are obvious in some cases, more subtle in others.
In the “obvious” category … surfing, skiing, and snowboarding are all gravity sports, where balance is a key ingredient. They’re done in the open air, in a natural setting, by an individual instead of a team. As picnic attendee Herb Nolan, a surfer on Hawaii’s big waves in the 1950s, puts it, “Ski or surf, it’s all the same.”
Mike McCann, a principal in the real estate firm of McCann, Daech, Fenton, recalls the Dawn Patrol on southern California beaches, where true believers paddled out to surf the “glassies”—waves that had not been blown out by the on-shore winds that arise after 10 a.m. These days, when there’s fresh powder on Bald Mountain, the Dawn Patrol is out again, in this case riding skis or snowboards. One moppet in the surfing movie Step Into Liquid summed up the feeling these athletes are seeking: “It’s like flying … it’s not like soccer, where all the moms are on the sidelines yelling at you.”
Scott Hansen, a former world-class freestyle skier, avid surfer, and Sun Valley resident, remembers sitting in class at Orange Coast College in California, “while saltwater dripped out of my nose directly onto the examination paper in front of me.” Hansen started his school days riding “glassies,” as did Mike Pyrzinski, a Ketchum finish carpenter who always surfed before his high school classes. Both are now part of the Dawn Patrol on Baldy.
Snowboarding easily captures the hearts of surfers and former surfers, bearing, as it does, a strong relationship to their first love: you carve a wave, and you carve a turn.
One of the first prototype snowboards was called a “Snurf” in an obvious, but perhaps not very attractive, attempt to link the two in surfers’ minds. McCann, still an avid surfer, says he can tell as he glides down Baldy which snowboarders began as surfers “just by the way they hold their hands and stand on their boards.”
Another reason so many surfers have relocated to the Wood River Valley is also shared by most neo-local non-surfers, and even non-skiers: “Too many people,” as Fritz Watson puts it sosuccinctly. McCann’s explanation is a little longer, but it amounts to the same thing: “Many southern Californians, as they saw the Los Angeles area grow into a megalopolis with the beaches packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder, said, ‘Let’s find a place that mirrors the way beach towns were in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.’”
For many of these expatriates, the Ketchum area seemed to be the place.
The Wood River Valley has always prided itself on a certain egalitarian sensibility. And despite a wide disparity in material wealth, there is still a recognized commonality among residents: “All responding to the same vibe,” as Room+Board owner Kimberly Sesnon muses.
In Malibu, Laguna, or Manhattan Beach, the term was “laid-back”—free of pretense. In surfing’s early years, posers were called “ho-daddies.” Here in Ketchum/Sun Valley, as one wag puts it, “If you’re in Aspen or Vail and your net worth is $50 thousand, you try to act as if you’re worth $5 million. In Sun Valley, if you’re worth $5 million you try to act as if you’re worth $50 thousand.” The local Chamber of Commerce says the same thing in a different way: “You go to Aspen to be seen. You come to Sun Valley to vacation.”
In addition, there seems to be a common meritocracy of sorts, and it’s based on athletic prowess—or, at least, athletic engagement. That’s what the old surfers remember. Here, too, area residents are not spectators, they’re participants; and the sports from which they derive pleasure are often individual. In most cases, the only one to notice a well-carved turn or a well-negotiated mountain-bike trail is the one who did the carving or the negotiating. Don Burgess, a cinematographer who splits his time between Malibu and Sun Valley, says, “The Pacific or Bald Mountain: it’s an opportunity to challenge nature.”
And so, surfers gathered in August at Sun Peak campground in Ketchum, comfortable in their mountain retreat, secure that what they once found elsewhere was rediscovered here. And like the ocean whose permanent yet ever-changing countenance gave them both recreation and personal satisfaction, Bald Mountain was the backdrop for their festivities—a more than acceptable surrogate.
Bob Doyle has been a frequent contributor to Sun Valley Magazine since 1983. A Hailey resident, he taught history and English at The Community School in Sun Valley from 1989 until his retirement in 2003. His favorite place to surf is Rincon, to golf, the Sun Valley Resort Course, and to ski, the new track up Quiqley Canyon.