“Hueco Tanks is the best bouldering in the world,” someone boldly posted on the encyclopedic climbing resource MountainProject.com. The best? Pretty strong words. I’ve been to a lot of famous climbing areas in the world and it was going to take more than a hyperbolic online endorsement to change my reservations (not the kind you need to climb here, alas, but I’ll cover that later).
As a climber, I had obviously heard about Hueco. There’s no disputing that Hueco stands as an iconic place in American climbing significance. Like Yosemite is to big wall climbing, Smith Rock is to sport climbing, and Indian Creek is to splitter crack climbing, Hueco is to bouldering. And Patagonia’s presence at the 21st annual Hueco Rock Rodeo was the perfect excuse for me to finally make the pilgrimage to the famed bouldering mecca.I respect and enjoy all disciplines of climbing, but, if I had to choose, I’d say bouldering is my least favorite. It just seems silly to try so hard for such small terrain gains… but mostly because I suck at it.
Training for not sucking. I was so intimidated by the prospect of going to Hueco and not being able to climb anything that I trained in a cold garage for the entire month of January. Part of that training was dead hangs off a campus rung with weights attached to my waist. Photo: Steve Maisch Training archives
Way high in Hueco. Photo: Sam Davis
The Rock Rodeo follows a format similar to most of the grassroots climbing events I’ve attended (which is pretty much all of them): vendor tents, a climbing comp, slide shows, food, beer, DJ and dyno comp.
Key elements to a successful climbing event: Booth, bonfire and, of course, beer bowls. Patagonia donated over 300 reusable origami bowls which resourceful climbers used for pancakes, burritos and even beer. We also “traded” donations for T-shirts and raised $400 for The Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coalition. Photos: Justin Wood
The climbing comp was open to all ages and all levels. The fact that four different countries were represented in the top six male and female finishers in the open category of the bouldering comp illustrates the international status that Hueco holds.
The fact that many famous climbers attended the event is great, but what we should all be most proud of is the fact that this event helps to support and sustain climbing in Hueco for future generations.
“The Hueco Rock Rodeo proudly donates proceeds to Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, The Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coalition and local El Paso Youth Outreach Programs. These organizations strive to preserve The Park, our privilege to climb at the Historic Site and help the climbing community give back to the local community.” –huecorodeo.com
One doesn’t hear about the virtues of the climbing in Hueco without hearing about the access issues. It’s a sometimes confusing and frustrating (not to mention costly) system that involves reservations, waiting, paying, waiting, rules and waiting. All things most climbers typically don’t gravitate toward.
Yet despite the restrictive policies of the Park (or maybe a phenomena as a result?), I curiously witnessed an uncharacteristic display of patience and a more harmonious coexistence with rules than I would have expected of climbers. Something I, as well as many other climbers, could stand to learn more.
Not everyone who hangs in Hueco is a dirtbag or on a climbing vacation. Sam Davis lives, trains, and studies electrical engineering with Hueco in his backyard. Sam and his wife, Ana, let me, a complete stranger, squat (in my Mercedes Sprinter van…) on their land for two weeks. Even though I’ve climbed around the world for the past 20 years, and been shown the upmost hospitality, I’m still impressed when people do this merely based on the fact that I’m a fellow climber.
Does Hueco have the best bouldering in the world? Is the system f***ed? I don’t know and I don’t really care to argue. But what I will defend is that there unquestionably exists what is most important to me as a climber: a community. A community of climbers that live and breath Hueco, that deal day after day to spend time in a place they love, and this is what ultimately makes Hueco world class.
Brittany Griffith is a Patagonia climbing ambassador and a regular contributor to this blog. She’s led 5.13 sport and traditional routes and vows someday to lead the gym’s 5.11c purple route. She obsesses over her garden and vacuuming and holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. As a former McDonald’s employee, Brittany served an estimated 12,308 Happy Meals.
Blast from the past: Here’s a video of Lynn Hill at Hueco Tanks in 2009, making it look way too easy.
We all know the feeling of remoteness. The stillness. The perspective. It's part of what keeps drawing us outside. But what does it feel like to be standing, literally, in the most remote place in a state? In the country? And what might those places reveal about the fate of our country's wild lands? In 2010, Ryan and Rebecca Means embarked upon Project Remote to find out.
Visit dirtbagdiaries.com for links to past episodes, featured music and to pledge your support. You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, RSS, SoundCloud and Stitcher, or connect with the Dirtbag Diaries community on Facebook and Twitter. The Dirtbag Diaries is a Duct Tape Then Beer production.
[Graphic by Walker Cahall]
Some people call me an environmentalist. What in the hell is an environmentalist anyway? Growing up in my family, it was a dirty word to describe privileged and over-educated people who got their education out of a book instead of the woods. My upbringing taught me that hard work, hard damn work, was the way to make it in life. I was raised by a farming family in the Kispiox Valley and we made our way as loggers, guide outfitters, rodeo stock contractors and, from time to time, we worked in the mining or oil and gas industry running heavy equipment.
Editor’s note: It’s a pleasure to welcome Shannon McPhail back to The Cleanest Line. Shannon is the executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a group Patagonia proudly supported during their historic fight against proposed methane wells in Canada’s Sacred Headwaters. Now she's working to get her community fired up for another potential battle against liquified natural gas (LNG) development. Note: minor profanities ahead.
[Above: My great uncles packing into the Skeena Mountains. Photo: Wilfred Lee]But when we weren’t working the land for food or in the bush for money, we were on the rivers or in the mountains. My family vacations were spent on pack trips by horse going into the Skeena Mountains or the Atnas. But of course, we couldn’t take a vacation for a mere vacation, that would have been considered a complete waste of time. We had to get enough moose, caribou, grouse and maybe a black bear to bring home for winter’s meat. Black bear makes damn good ham and bratwurst, and you can render the fat for lard. We grew up growing or wild harvesting a lot of our own food because we couldn’t afford to buy it. Even though we raised cattle, we couldn’t eat much of it because that was money out of our pockets. So we hunted wild game to fill our pantries. The line between bankruptcy and paying the bills was incredibly thin but we certainly had an incredible life.
Living in the Skeena region has not been the easiest existence, especially in the winter. Communities are bonded by enduring the cold months together and it’s the time where we get out and get more social to chase away the long darkness. We dream of the warm summer sun, floats down the river, sitting with family and buddies around a picnic table and eating salmon so fresh that it curls when you cook it.
I love this place. It’s my home. It was my home long before I was born – more than 100 years with six generations in the Kispiox Valley. We are known as the cowboy farmers, some might say rednecks. Actually, everyone says rednecks. My dad was known for being one helluva boxer and regularly got into fist fights. I don’t know if he ever lost a fight but then again, I don’t know that he would ever tell me if he did. He taught me how to go fist-a-cuffs and I was pretty good at it. The fact that I grew into almost a 6-footer and spent the summer tossing hay bales around for hours and hours every day might have had something to do with it. Still, I avoided conflict like the plague. I despised conflict or disharmony. They made me cringe and still do to this day. I would always try to walk away, feeling sick in my stomach, wanting to run, but growing up in the bush you know that running away only encourages chase and the best way to deal with it, or at least the most instinctual way, was to face up and deal with things because they will only get worse if you don’t.
This is why I have trouble with the word environmentalist. It’s not really inclusive of people like me or my family. We aren’t fighting for the environment. We’re fighting for our homes and for our families because we need clean water and wild game. If we protect habitat for salmon and wild game, we can eat good clean food. I can’t believe I said habitat. Hell, I even catch myself talking about “ecosystems” these days.
My husband is a rig welder in the oil sands. He makes a damn good living over there but he’s gone 16 days then home for 12. When I first heard about Shell wanting to drill for coalbed methane in the Headwaters, I thought it was a great idea. Can you imagine how much money we could make? Shell is no small potato. With a big company like them comes big money and I wanted a piece of it. The history of my evolution into becoming an enemy to Shell’s proposal is a long one but the gist of it is that the more I learned about the development, the more my hackles went up. I couldn’t believe what they were proposing and moreover, I couldn’t believe they were trying to tell us that it would all be okay.
I did the only thing I knew how to do, I sat in people’s kitchens and drank coffee with them and asked them for help in figuring out how we deal with these guys who were coming into our watershed telling us that they were pushing forward with a development that we didn’t want and couldn’t stop. I wasn’t branded an environmentalist. I was Gene Allen’s daughter so there were no worries about being a NIMBY or a CAVE’r. Everyone around here knows that if anyone is going to get on the development bandwagon, it would be my family.
Working in the oil sands, SWCC logo on helmet.
I went to my peer group, the rod and gun clubs, fishermen, the old farmers, the guide outfitters, hunters and trappers. These were simply the people I was comfortable talking to because they were people I could relate to. It wasn’t long before some people told us about the Tahltan and that I should head up there to meet some of them because they had blockaded some of these big developments. The Tahltan had long been supporters of development with most of BC’s major mining projects being proposed on their territory, so I was curious as to why they had changed their tune.
The Tahltan were no strangers to my family. My dad had horse traded for decades with some of the Tahltan guide outfitters. He would take his champion stud named Simon (after Simon Gunanoot, the famous Gitxsan outlaw) to breed the mares in Tahltan country and in three years, he would take half the foals back as broncs while the other half became mountain horses. Simon bred amazing broncs, some of the best in the world. He also had the perfect genetics for mountain horses with big, wide feet, strong backs and a quiet demeanor about them for packing hunters and gear.
I remember making the trip to Telegraph Creek every spring with a horse trailer full of 10 horses. One was Simon and the other nine were Simon foals that just didn’t buck. That was the thing about Simon foals, all of them were quiet and loved to snuggle but some of them genetically loved to buck while the others wouldn’t buck, ever. The ones who wouldn’t buck became great horses for kids or working in the mountains. We’d get into Telegraph, give the horses a day’s rest and protein-rich grain before turning them out into the hills. Fletcher Day, a Tahltan Chief and guide-outfitter would send his Tahltan wranglers out to gather his horses and off they would go with some halters and a bucket of oats. One-to-three days later they would return with all the horses that had been turned out for the winter. I don’t know what those wranglers ate or where they slept while they were out there but they came back looking as fresh as when they left. They would gather in the round-pen and everyone from the community would come out to watch Tahltan cowboys get on the three-year-old foals to see which ones would make their living on the rodeo circuit and which ones in the mountains. All the while, Simon was having a great time with the mares.
I didn’t enter into the Sacred Headwaters campaign as an enviro or a campaigner. I came into it as a concerned citizen, a cowgirl, a hunting guide and just talked about plain old common sense. People described it as a David and Goliath story but that never resonated with me because our region is where the power lies, not industry. If anything, we would be the Goliath. When we unite, we’re unstoppable. We’ve seen it time and time again. Industry has to come in here and tried to convince us that their project is worth it, that they are good, corporate citizens. They have to spend millions to figure everything out, to “consult” and try to earn social license. Some companies have realized that you can’t buy social license in the north, you really do have to earn it. Those are the companies I want to work with.
We don’t have millions. We don’t have slick PR budgets and executive types to woo government. We simply have our truth, our stories and our relationships with each other and to the land – those are assets I’d much rather have than vast amounts money any day. These companies have to counter our truth with all that money and history has shown that it just isn’t enough. If they come to our watershed, our communities and they don’t tell the truth or genuinely have our best interests at heart, they will lose. We have a culture of uniting against bad ideas. Government knows it and they refer to us as the “Republic of the Skeena” with Kitimat included. That makes me feel pretty damn good and has given so many others hope too – hope that they can stand up to ill-advised development and the big corporations behind them.
“We simply have opposing world views,” was a comment made by one corporate executive. Well let me give you an education, sir. You don’t live here, you don’t depend on the return of the salmon each and every year and you don’t drink the water. When PR teams come to our communities I wonder if they recognize that the First Nations territory they’re proposing their development on is the only territory that nation has? If you’re Gitxsan and someone destroys your traditional territory, you don’t get to pull up stakes and move. You don’t get another traditional territory. You have only the territory that has been passed down to you from countless generations and that you are borrowing from the generations yet to come. We are left with the consequences of our own decisions and those of industry and government, whether they are positive or negative, and as such, we should be the decision makers.
The thing about being a northerner is (something us settler types learned from the First Nations), if the shopping sucks, or we don’t like our kid’s school, our jobs or the weather, we don’t move. We work our asses off to make our community better – we have to because no one else will. Opposing world views? This place is my whole world. It’s the centre of my universe. It’s my home. It’s where I was born, where my father was born and where my grandmother and great-grandparents were born and buried. It’s where I will be buried and my grandkids and their grandkids will continue on.
No amount of money can counter the truth. It can’t counter our commitment to our home and to our future generations. It can’t counter our real connections to this place and to our neighbours. We are the people who live here and as such, we have a say in what happens here. We have a big say!
The thing that lies between the bullshit future promised by liquefied natural gas (LNG) development and an economy and environment that actually works, is us. By “us” I mean the folks who make this watershed their home. We are the people we need to turn to. We tend to look around for someone to save us but we are it, and I thank the powers that be that it’s us. Who better? But that also means we gotta get our asses in gear. We’ve got a lot of work to do and if there’s anyone that can get it done it’s the citizens and First Nations of the Skeena watershed. I’m not trying to blow sunshine up anyone’s ass or give a false sense of hope. I simply know that we are winning.
Wild Skeena salmon contribute $110 million to our economy every year. Guide outfitting contributes another $28 million. For a watershed of 50,000 people, that’s an awful lot of money. Every seven years it’s $1 billion just for keeping our watershed healthy. And that doesn’t take into consideration the sustenance or cultural value of these things.
I get pretty grouchy when someone tries to say that we can’t be against everything because we are not. There is over $10 billion dollars of development happening in northwest BC right now, that doesn’t include the Northern Gateway pipeline or a single LNG project. People have been shipped in from the USA, South Africa, Alberta, etc. to work the jobs that are in our watershed. It’s happening right now. We are already overwhelmed with development, hundreds of mining referrals, railway expansions, power projects, etc. Then you add LNG and it becomes something out of a science fiction movie. We are a resource extraction region, it’s what we do and we’re good at it. Not one single “enviro” group or First Nation is saying we need to stop all of it, but they are ALL saying that we need to stop the ridiculous proposals that give us more to lose than gain, that trade our wild-salmon economy for bigger corporate profits in some bank account with a mailing address in another country. We are reasonable folks who want reasonable solutions and it’s up to us to help build those solutions.
That’s where my head is at these days. I want solutions. I want to help figure out economic developments that will help us more than hinder us, build infrastructure that gives us employment and energy and does so without messing with our clean air, wild salmon or water. The more we look into this, the more we discover that there are alternatives – good ones. Ones we can implement right now. Machines that convert plastic into oil from plastic we can mine from our own landfills. Wood to gas electricity systems using sawdust from lumber mills, wind power, solar heat and power, and the list goes on and on. The more we research, the more solutions we find. If we had a tiny fraction of the PR budget being spent promoting LNG, we could be completely self-sufficient and even export power as additional income. The solutions exist.
LNG is natural gas that has been frozen to -160 Celsius to turn it from a gas to a liquid. The name “natural gas” is another slick PR deal. Because it’s called “natural” gas, it invokes a vision of some kind of organic product naturally emitted from the Earth that we capture and use for clean, green energy. I call bullshit.
The Northern Gateway pipeline will never be built, of that I have no doubt. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work yet to be done. It simply means that we have a big, bright light at the end of the tunnel. LNG is far worse than Northern Gateway in my opinion and we’ve got a government who has put the blinders on to try and bulldoze it all right through. Proposing terminals as big as oil sands infrastructure in our Skeena estuary where our wild salmon and steelhead go. Air quality assessments conclude these terminals will more than double the pollution in BC and result in acid rain. The gas supply will be obtained by drastically increasing fracking all over the Province when more and more countries are banning that practice daily. They’re changing our entire economic structure to be based on LNG and we don’t have a single buyer for our product. Even if we did, there are some pretty knowledgeable folks who say we don’t have the gas supply to keep the industry going long enough to pay back the investment. The problem I have with learning about LNG and educating people about LNG is that there is so much wrong with this industry that it makes it confusing. It’s so hard to keep track of all the government promises versus the contrasting reality.
The BC government is trying to get support by motivating people with fear, telling us how LNG will save us from the impending economic peril. They tell us that it will keep schools and hospitals open, that infrastructure will be maintained and the story goes on and on. Meanwhile, schools are being closed, hospitals are slammed and underfunded, ferry routes are being canceled and foreign workforces are still being shipped in.
Bottom line, it’s all bullshit and no matter how much perfume or potpourri you put on it, it’s still shit. Being a farmer, I’ve shoveled my fair share of bullshit and in the end, if we put it in its proper place, it can fertilize our gardens.
Time to get your shovel.
Shannon McPhail is a mother of two and the Executive Director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a non-profit group formed by friends, family and neighbors to fight proposed coalbed methane wells in the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia where three of Canada's greatest wild salmon and steelhead rivers, the Skeena, Stikine and Nass, are born. On December 18, 2012, after a 10-year battle, the Sacred Headwaters received permanent protection. “My ultimate goal is to help people understand the true gift of living here and encourage active and informed citizenship.”
By Kelly Cordes
“Holy guacamole,” I mumbled to myself. “There are a lot of ties in this room.” Lots of exquisite dresses, too.
I was at the recent American Alpine Club Annual Benefit Dinner, which begs the question of place: What was my broke ass doing in a VIP seat, wearing a borrowed bow tie, at a fancy fundraiser?
It just so happens that I know people who know people who know people. Well, OK, the secret to my magic trick: Patagonia was the title sponsor, Yvon Chouinard the keynote speaker, and the dinner was in Denver – an hour and a half from my cabin in Estes Park.
I agonized over wardrobe. As a person, I’d planned on jeans and a T-shirt. After all, it shouldn’t matter how you look on the outside. Then again, we have cultural norms, and I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, no matter how silly the norm. Ahhh, the issues that burn.
Regardless, a guy like me doesn’t miss many free dinners, and I knew enough to never scratch my head during the live auction. Some observations from the American Alpine Club (AAC) dinner:
• Several years ago the AAC made the wise decision to separate the fancy dinner from other events spread throughout the weekend. Some events are more open and appeal to the younger audience, while the fancy dinner is for fundraising and connections between old friends. We all get old, and memories are all we really have.
• My friend Janet Wilkinson was inducted as a new member to the AAC’s Board of Directors. Which is great not only because she’s a real-deal climber, smart, and about half the age of the typical BOD member, but because it immediately worked to my benefit. Her husband, my friend Freddie (who received the AAC’s literary award), came along and happened to have an extra bow tie. Bingo.
• Side note: On occasion I’ve been asked by active young climbers if they should attend the AAC dinner. (For 12 years I was one of the editors of the American Alpine Journal, and twice I attended annual dinners for work.) No way. If you’re scraping to spend all your money climbing, keep doing it. Climb. When we’re old, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to give back to the thing we love, do it then. But first, create the memories.
• Best comment at the Saturday panel discussion, The Extra (X) Factor: Pioneering Women in Climbing, came from Melissa Arnot. As the distinction between “climber” and “female climber” becomes less relevant in discussions of accomplishment, potential and drive, tiresome questions remain. When asked about motherhood, Arnot astutely replied that the question would never be asked on a panel of men.
• Steve House, the finest American alpinist of his generation, and one of the best ever, received the Underhill Award for lifetime achievement. Little more needs said, as his incredible list of accomplishments speaks for itself. He does, by the way, have a new book out, with co-author Scott Johnston. It’ll surely become a bible for current alpinists: Training for the New Alpinism: A manual for the climber as athlete.
• Jim Balog received the Brower Conservation Award for his incredible work with the Extreme Ice Survey and Earth Vision Trust (his nonprofit). His work is not only the definitive documentation of the world’s rapidly receding glaciers, but he’s trying to do something about it by advancing policy and education (by now, I think all but cave-dwelling troglodytes have plenty of “awareness” of the problem – Kickstarter climbing expeditions to raise awareness for global warming take note…).
• When it came time to support the youngsters emerging from climbing gyms, the “old guard” raised a shitton of money for a new AAC program to educate those making the transition from climbing indoors to climbing outside. It’s another problem of which, as per the abundance of yearly accident reports, we’ve got plenty of awareness. Much to their credit, the AAC is doing something about it.
• For the main event, Yvon spoke and showed old photos from his early life and progression, including the golden age in Yosemite, and held the audience of 600 rapt with his classic style – the one-liners, his sincerity, honesty and a spirit that values the past – without getting stuck in it – while looking to the future. That’s what I love about Yvon and the best of the old guard: they embrace what’s worth keeping and ditch the rest.
A few more photos from the weekend:
Friday night event at Earth Treks gym in Golden, Colorado. Photo: Liz Cunningham
Celebrity climbing comp emcee, Timmy O'Neill, chats up Brittany Griffith and Lynn Hill. Photo: Lee Pruitt
Lynn Hill came in second in the women's division and stole the applause from the crowd. Photo: Jenna Johnson
Jeremy Collins, Jenna Johnson and that dude with the bow tie photobombing a perfectly nice moment. Photo: Jeremy Collins Collection
Steve House and Scott Johnston, co-authors of Training for the New Alpinism. Photo: Jimmy Hopper
When you think about it, as we age there is no greater honor than to watch the next generation go zooming past our previous highpoints. Everything builds on everything else. Maybe the unspoken goal of the AAC fundraiser dinner was to enable the zoom.
I still maintain that ties are stupid, but what we wore around our necks didn’t matter – a love of climbing really tied the room together.
More coverage of the event and Yvon's speech:
"When Climbing Was Dangerous and Sex Was Safe" by John Heilprin, AAC
"Sharma to Chouinard in a Weekend" by Alison Osius, Rock & Ice
Ready to join the American Alpine Club? Become a member
Nowadays there are a lot of people making wooden surfboards. Environmentally it makes a great deal of sense. Wood is a natural, non-toxic material that is infinitely less harmful to work with than polyester, epoxy, polyethylene or polystyrene, and that can be assimilated back into the environment once the life of the board has ended. Also, wooden boards are generally made to last longer, which reduces the environmental footprint at the manufacturing end and at the waste-management end. And if the raw material (i.e. trees from the forest or offcuts from other industries) is extracted at a rate that is slower than the rate of natural re-generation of that material, a wooden board can be close to being truly sustainable.
When one thinks of modern wooden surfboards, those that immediately spring to mind are longboards, retro-fishes and single-fins – boards where a little more weight and perhaps a little less speed are not too much of an impediment. Boards for riders whose top priority is having fun without necessarily being able to land an aerial 360.
[Above: Patrick Burnett (left) with his 11’0” hollow wood board and Jason Hayes (right) with his 11’4” agave board.]
Sunset Reef. Photo: Javi Muñoz Pacotwo
Tony Butt (TB): What were the waves like and how did the board feel out at Sunset that day?
Patrick: It wasn't maxing but there were some really defined and good quality peaks breaking off the back. The board paddled very well, had a liveliness entering the wave and the drive that I needed through the bowl section. I was stoked!
Jason: Surfing the board out at Sunset Reef, on a fairly onshore 12- to 15-foot day, was not the ideal conditions to be surfing in. The board has more weight than the conventional foam guns and ended up not riding the bumps all that well. However, the other day I took the board out on a clean, 10 foot day with no wind and the board was magnificent.
TB: How is the board constructed?
Patrick: It's constructed using a hollow wood frame and rib method. Glassed with epoxy.
Jason: The board is constructed from many machined Agave stems that are made into stringers, and then laminated together with cold waterproof glue in a chosen rocker profile. This gives you the blank, which you then shape in the same way as a foam blank. The board is then glassed with epoxy.
TB: Why did you choose that method over other wooden board building techniques?
Patrick: I've been making hollow wood surfboards for six years. This is the method I have chosen to experiment with/perfect and I've made fishes, single fins, eggs, mini-malibus, longboards, the lot. I make my living from making these boards and so it followed that I would use it in making this board.
Jason: One reason I chose the Agave wooden board over other timber designed boards is that right from the beginning the process brings you closer to Nature. You first have to go out into the bush, choose each plant by hand and imagine how it will form part of the board. Then, once you have laminated it all together to form a blank, you have to use your carpentry tools to shape it into a surfboard. As a master carpenter by trade, I like the idea that the process is as close to carpentry as you can get.
TB: What are the dimensions of the board and why did you choose those particular ones
Patrick: It is 11’0” x 20.5” x 3.5” thruster. I wanted it to surf Sunset Reef. Sunset is a wave where you need the length because it moves so much water and the waves move so fast. You need a big board to be able to catch waves.
Jason: The dimensions are 11’4” x 22” x 3”. At the time I had not heard of a big wave gun longer than 11’2” in Cape Town or in South Africa and I had never heard of an Agave gun that long anywhere in the world. The width ended up 22” because I battled to get out more than 3” on thickness and so compromised with more width. Note that Agave plant grows up to 15 or 18 feet long, but you need extra length in the plant in order to get the rocker in the board.
This is what the agave plant looks like in the wild. The trunks are about 15 to 20 feet high.
Agave trunks ready to be brought back to the shaping room.
Jason with the 11’4” agave board.
TB: How many hours did the board take you to make?
Patrick: It is hard to say. I made it over a 4-5 month period and was working on many other boards at the same time. But I took my time on this one. At a rough estimate, up to 80 hours of labour. I was as meticulous as I could be.
Jason: The board took many days to make. First I had to drive into the bush and look for Agave plants, choose the ones I wanted, cut them down, load them up and drive back again. That took about two days altogether. Then stripping them down and getting them into stringers that I could laminate together took another couple of days, and the laminating itself took about a day. I haven’t shaped many boards before, so the shaping probably took me a lot longer than normal – about four days. The board was glassed by a friend of mine, which took him two days. So there you have it, around eleven days altogether.
TB: How did the idea of building a wooden gun evolve?
Patrick: I've been surfing bigger waves for about eight years. Boards I surf in other conditions are hollow wood surfboards that I made myself and it has always been in my mind that I also wanted my big wave board to be a hollow wood surfboard. The first hollow wood gun that I made was a 9’6” single fin. I surfed it once in eight-to-ten foot waves and then started to tinker with it in the workshop. Eventually I put it aside, unfinished, and stored the lessons it had taught me in my memory bank. That was about four years ago. When I started making this latest board I felt like I was ready to make it.
Jason: The idea to make an Agave gun was inspired by my friend legendary Cape-Town big-wave surfer Simon Lowe. Originally my plan was to make a Pat Curren Gun, 10’6”, shaping it as close to the original lines of that board as possible. But then Simon inspired me to make a more modern board that would surf much bigger waves than Curren surfed in the 1960s. I had already cut the Agave stems, and 11’4” was the biggest I could get out of them.
TB: Apart from the environmental side of things, what are the principle advantages and disadvantages of wood compared with plastic for big-wave guns?
Patrick: I think it is an area that I'm still learning about. I haven't surfed it many times and so it is a bit early to say. But there are a few things that I'm thinking about and exploring. Firstly, the strength of the board is in the rails and although I have put some reinforcements in the central area of the board, the strength remains in the rails. But there is still flexibility through the board. I could actually feel this flex in the board on some waves - there seemed to be a real 'spring' in it coming off the bottom and setting a rail. Given that wood has good flexibility and flex retention properties this has interesting performance implications. One of the tricky questions, however, is how much flex can be built for without compromising strength. I don't know. It's an experiment.
Jason: The principle advantage over plastic I would say, for this type of construction method anyway, is strength. Even though they have not been put to any proper tests, I have no doubt in my mind that these boards are extremely strong. You are using natural growth curves to strengthen your boards and by the end of it you have natural fibres from nose to tail, side to side and top to bottom.
TB: Some people don’t like the fact that these boards are heavier than plastic ones, yet others think that weight can actually be an advantage in big waves. What are your feelings on that?
Patrick: I feel that weight does help, but there's a tipping point. You don't want too much weight. The theory is weight helps with momentum and makes the board better able to handle chop, bumps etc. I'll go with that. But I think the other aspect to wood that is related to weight is how wood with its organic, cellular structure absorbs/transmits energy and deals with or dampens bumps, ribs and all the other extreme wave conditions that big waves present, given that the board is glassed anyway and that this will therefore negate some of the natural properties of wood. I think the right kind of weight in the right areas of the board can definitely be an advantage, but must also be seen in conjunction with other design elements like rocker, fins, rails etc.
Jason: Whether a heavier board will give you an advantage or not in big waves on a particular day probably depends on one or two other factors. For example, your own strength to weight ratio – lighter, fitter surfers are generally better paddlers, giving them an advantage for catching waves under normal circumstances. But if there is a lot of wind and chop coming up the face, then heavier surfers would have an advantage and lighter surfers might need to compensate for that weight advantage with a heavier board. Ideally, you would perhaps want to have a few different weight boards of the same length for different spots under different conditions.
Precision cut-out for Patrick's big-wave board build. Photo: Burnett Wood Surfboards on Facebook
Hollow core in progress. Photo: Burnett Wood Surfboards on Facebook
Patrick with the 11’0” hollow wood board.
TB: What are the environmental advantages and disadvantages of your particular construction technique over other wooden board building methods?
Patrick: I can't answer this question – I haven't done or seen an analysis of hollow wood surfboards versus solid wood or chambered boards, for example. I have seen a study that compared polyurethane (PU) foam boards with hollow wood boards, and stated that wood surfboard production produced less than half the CO2 emissions and other noxious emissions of foam boards.
Jason: One advantage is that Agave is considered an alien species in South Africa, and it grows pretty fast. So, even though it would be best that they never appeared in the first place, cutting them down and making surfboards out of them is certainly not doing any more harm to the environment. The other advantage is that the core of the plant can also be used to make tequila.
TB: A friend of mine thinks that a surfboard to a big-wave surfer should be like a sword to a Samurai warrior: to be treasured and looked after during one’s entire life, and never replaced. Do you think we might ever get anywhere that concept, particularly with wooden boards, or does the constant evolution of design really mean we have to keep replacing them?
Patrick: With big wave boards I think the question gets taken out of your hands. A big wave will break anything if the board is put in the wrong position, no matter how you build for strength. For shorter wood boards where the power of the wave becomes less of an issue then, yes, it is realistic to have one board for a long period of time. The question also depends on the performance aspirations of the surfer in question – someone wanting to constantly push the boundaries of size and wave type is obviously going to have more of a motivation to experiment with design.
Jason: Your friend is correct in saying that these boards should be considered like Samurai swords. There is no reason why one should have to replace these boards if they are looked after properly. If you experiment a lot with boards, but then are lucky enough one day to find that ‘magic formula’ – a board that you would be quite happy to keep for the rest of your life – it makes total sense for that board to stay under your feet till the very end. And for that to happen, of course, the board must be strong enough.
TB: Is this just a one-off or do you envisage making more and perhaps selling these boards?
Patrick: It will be hard not to make more. They are such grand pieces and I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from the process and the final product. I always find surfing the boards I make is the greatest motivation to make more – it's in the interplay between surfer, board and wave that I make realisations about changes I'd like to experiment with.
Jason: This is definitely not a one-off. These boards inspire me tremendously. As a carpenter I can feel that making more of these boards will give me immense satisfaction. I would like to see more surfers riding these boards – worldwide. A dream of mine is to be able to make a board for someone, deliver the board personally and then join them for a session at their local break.
TB: Now after having tried the board out at Sunset, do you see any particular reason why it shouldn’t be ridden on much bigger waves?
Patrick: I see no reason why it shouldn’t be used on bigger waves. I plan to surf it regularly, to learn and discover what it is capable of.
Jason: After having tried the board at largish, lumpy Sunset Reef, I’m not sure if I’d personally want to charge bigger waves with it. Perhaps if conditions were super-clean and long-period with no wind, things might be different. I feel that, with the right conditions and the right surfer, 20-foot waves could be surfed with this board.
Dr. Tony Butt holds a BSc in Ocean Science and a PhD in Physical Oceanography. He lives most of the year in a forgotten corner of Northwest Spain, where he has pioneered a couple new big-wave spots and works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves. He makes a meager living writing articles about waves and the coastal environment for Surfer’s Path and other publications. For more from Tony, check out his books Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2004), The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), A Surfer's Guide to Sustainability (2011) and his previous articles here on The Cleanest Line.
By Travis, Matt, Ben and Beda
10, 9, 8… the DamNation premiere countdown has begun! After three years of planning, researching, shooting and editing, the film is finally complete. And we’re thrilled to announce the world premiere of DamNation will be at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
For those unfamiliar with the project:
This powerful film odyssey across America explores the sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. DamNation’s majestic cinematography and unexpected discoveries move us through rivers and landscapes altered by dams, but also through a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.
[Above: Official film poster for DamNation. Click for larger image.]
For Everyone in Austin and Those Attending SXSW
Come to the premiere! We would love to see you there. Details are on the SXSW Film page for DamNation (date and location coming soon). Follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates on panels and after-parties.
For Everyone Else Who Would Like to See the Film
Premiering the film is just the first step. DamNation will be screening at film festivals nationally and internationally throughout 2014. Sign on to our e-mail list to receive updates at DamNationfilm.com.
Beyond film festivals, we are embarking on a nine-city U.S. tour this April-May, and we are partnering with non-profit groups across the country to host screenings of the film in a town near you. The U.S. tour will be coming to Seattle, Portland (OR), San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Denver, Washington DC, New York City and Portland (ME). Please join us at one of the tour stops – the whole film crew and some of the starring characters will be there, along with local non-profit groups who are working on river restoration projects in your area.
An Elwha River chinook comes to rest below the now removed Elwha Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (fall 2011). Photo: Ben Knight
If you would like the film to come to your town, ask your local river restoration or recreation group, club, church or school to e-mail us. We are making it easy to show DamNation locally and will provide critical tools to help make your event a success. Non-profit and educational screenings begin May 1, 2014; our goal is to have over 500 screenings in 2014.
DamNation will be available to download through our website, iTunes, and other streaming video services by mid-summer 2014. As the distribution of DamNation evolves we will keep you posted. Stay tuned to DamNationFilm.com, Facebook and Twitter for the latest news, action alerts and updates.
We’re ready to blow this film up and we can’t wait for the premiere. As the explosives expert says before blasting an old dam, “Fire in the hole!”
[Video: DamNation - Official Film Trailer on Vimeo.]
Travis Rummel, Matt Stoecker, Ben Knight and Beda Calhoun are the filmmakers behind DamNation.