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Catch a wave in Wyoming

By Rich Addicks, Special to CNN
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Surf's up in Wyoming
  • Lunch Counter Rapid is one of the country's premier river surfing spots
  • Surfers stay in basically the same place as water churns under their boards
  • Runoff from melting snow makes the surf best from May to early August

Jackson, Wyoming (CNN) -- A surfboard atop a vehicle, 700 miles from the nearest ocean, is your first clue that the surf's up in Wyoming.

Along the Snake River, just south of Jackson, Mother Nature provides a unique venue for the surf-obsessed in a region better known for wolves, grizzly bears, bison and the rugged Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

As winter's snow melts in the nearby Teton Range, local skiers and boarders pull out another toy from their quiver of recreational equipment -- their surfboards -- and head to what the local Jackson Hole News & Guide calls one of the best surfing rivers in the country.

Gannett Horn, 40, remembers his first attempt to surf Lunch Counter Rapid, Mother Nature's version of a washing machine on steroids. After only three tries, he went home defeated and exhausted. Others leave after just one attempt, admitting that the experience was too intense and dangerous.

Horn, like most, eventually mastered the rapid, where rock walls squeeze one of the West's mightiest rivers into a perfect river wave. So don't bother trying to reach him on his cell phone this time of year, because there's no service at Lunch Counter. It's moments like these that cause people to move to places like Jackson, and never leave.

Surfing this rapid is much like walking down an up escalator, eyes focused down, staying in basically the same place as water churns underneath your board. The constant flow leaves some in a mesmerized trance. And compared to the ocean, which river surfers will admit is a better spot for the sport, the wave time on the river is "huge." Some river surfers have reported staying on a wave for up to 20 minutes or more, and wonder aloud about the world record for time spent surfing a wave.

During the prime season (May to early August), when the melting snow creates a runoff ideal for river surfing, the first thing most local surfers do each day is check the river levels online. They will tell you that the best surfing is between 10,000-12,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), the snow skiing or boarding equivalent to a big powder day.

According to local lore, ski bums from California started surfing Lunch Counter in the late '70s. Back then they had to scramble their way down a steep hill to get to the river. Today, there is a paved parking lot at the top of the trail and a dirt path that winds its way to the river, where surfers, kayakers, tourists, photographers for rafting companies and the curious gather.

Some come to drink beer and work on their tans, but most come to watch and mumble words like "crazy," "nuts" or "that's cool." Some even bring inflatable sharks, an homage of sorts to the ocean.

On most days, a handful of surfers and kayakers compete for wave time. Most are locals and understand the unwritten rules about when to exit the wave so that the next river junkie can enjoy. Some surfers show up in the early morning, usually staying a little too long, and can be found sprinting up the trail barefoot, in their wet suits, cradling their boards, late for work. After work, more surfers trickle in, and some will stay way past sunset, even surfing under a full moon.

As summer winds down and the roar of the river lessens, some put their surfboards away and grab another toy from their quiver, their fly fishing rods, and head to the river one last time before the cycle starts anew with the first big snow.