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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Surf culture is riding high in landlocked Dayton

J. Reynolds
Brandon Burress rides a wave in the Great Miami River. Burress lives in Indiana and travels to Dayton to surf.

A Wave of Popularity

If you visit downtown Dayton on a sunny summer day, there’s a good chance you’ll see people surfing in the Great Miami River, just feet from all the office buildings and city buses.

And it’s not just locals. People come from all over. Cat Cook came up from Cincinnati with her cousins, her husband, and a handful of other family members.

Cook says one of her cousins is “a lifelong Beach Boys fan and loves surfing. So, she found out about Surf Dayton and has been coming here and wanted to share it with the rest of the family.”

Cook was surprised that she could learn to surf in Dayton, and she says everyone she shared her plans with was “very shocked.”

J. Reynolds
Surfers and kayakers line up to ride the waves at RiverScape MetroPark.

If You Build It, The Surfers Will Come

The surf scene in Dayton started up about five years ago. That’s when $4 million was used to build water features on the river.

Now, there are rock islands and barriers that create drops in the river, which in turn make rapids. If you’re in a canoe or kayak going down the river, you can shoot through those rapids, but if you point your surfboard against the current, you have an endless wave.

“You can just surf it as long as you want to,” Shannon Thomas, the founder of Surf Dayton says.

At first, Surf Dayton was an informational website that he built to explain how and where to surf the river. Then, he got an idea.

“I was like, ‘Well, how about I make it a business and start teaching people?’ Because there weren't that many people surfing. There were only maybe ten people in our crew, and we wanted to expand it, and so that's how it started,” he says. “I got the boards. I had a trailer, and we just built it.”

J. Reynolds
Tom Helbig carves a line on the "Art Wave," which is just down the hill from the Dayton Art Institute.

"The Adventure Capital of the Midwest"

Shannon says Dayton’s not the only surf city in flyover county. It’s become a movement, and he travels to other landlocked cities to surf their rivers.

“There's surf culture in other river towns like in Colorado, Salida, Buena Vista, Montana,” he says. “In Missoula, there's a great surf culture. And I mean, in Dayton, we are the adventure capital of the Midwest. It’s a great little town. We have cycling, kayaking, and now surfing.”

Surf Dayton is a love story, too. That’s how Shannon and his wife, Kate, were introduced.

“I met him actually his first week of lessons,” she says. “Then, we got married two years later.”

The surf scene has grown exponentially during that time. Surf Dayton turned an old shipping container into a storefront, where they sell and rent surfboards, lifejackets, and helmets. And Kate says the scene brings likeminded people from all different walks of life together.

“It’s almost like a counterculture in this little industrial Midwestern city,” she says. “It's not just about surfing. It's about bringing the stoke and having beers together and having taco nights together, and we hang out and have surf jams and grill out. It's a huge surfer culture. You could go to Florida and find the exact same thing. But you're finding it here, in the city.”

J. Reynolds
Jorge Sanchez surfs in the Great Miami as traffic goes by on the freeway behind him.

Worth the Trip

Cat Cook and her cousins, who came up from Cincinnati, are having varied levels of success out on the water today. Cat says she took a spill and wound up floating a little ways down the river.

“It was a little more difficult than I expected it to be,” she says, “but the water feels great. It’s a great day to be out on the water in Dayton."

J. Reynolds
Cat Cook says surfing in Dayton is a "unique Midwest experience, and something you should add to your to-do list."

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.