Gunnison, CO

Gunnison's Surf Jam offers new river surf workshops, contests, and a women's clinic

Morgan Tilton
Surf instructor PJ Brown surfs the second wave at Gunnison Whitewater Park in Gunnison, Colorado.Photo by Dustin Doskocil, courtesy PJ Brown.

The 20th Anniversary Gunnison River Festival is featuring a full day of river surf events this year, as the nonprofit celebrates its two-decade birthday in Gunnison, Colorado, 200 miles southwest of the Mile High City.

Sharing a mission to maintain the Gunnison Whitewater Park, the environmental group collaborated with Gunnison Waves, a newly founded organization that represents river surfers and helps advocate for river surf waves on Gunnison River.

With more than 30 river surf waves across the Centennial State and a band of Colorado-based river surf engineers, instructors, organizations, retailers, and brands like Badfish SUP, river surfing continues to grow in popularity statewide.

“There has been a surf competition with the Gunnison River Festival for the past four years, at least, but we wanted to create more of a community building event,” said Jason Lakey, cofounder of Gunnison Waves. The full day event will include a women’s-specific clinic, which is among the first-ever women’s-specific river surf courses to be held in Colorado.

Lakey added, “This all-day event is for all levels of surfers. We want to make sure everyone feels included, and every surfer can win a prize in the contests, even if they’re a beginner.”

The festival’s full lineup will take place from June 10-12, 2022, with Sunday, June 12th dedicated to river surf workshops, community building, and contests. The registration cost for participants will benefit the proactive reconstruction of the second wave at Gunnison Whitewater Park (there are three waves total), which needs to be replaced before the concrete structure crumbles or settles.
The Surf Jam for rivers surfers of all experience levels is June 12th at the Gunnison Whitewater Park.(Poster by Mallory Logan, courtesy Gunnison Waves)

Women’s Intro to Surf class

To kick off the morning, the Surf Jam is offering a Women’s Intro to Surf ($25) class led by Gunnison local PJ Brown, an avid ocean and river surfer, at 9:30 a.m. Brown is a certified Level 3 American Canoe Association (ACA) stand up paddling instructor specializing in standup paddleboard (SUP) and surf therapy.

Starting riverside, the beginner-centric class will cover body positioning and how to pop up on the surfboard, as well as dryland training exercises. Brown will teach how to assess a river wave entrance, safely exit the river, and catch a river wave, which students will have an opportunity to practice.

“The surf therapy curriculum is inspired by my experience volunteering with the Groundswell Community Project, based out of California,” said Brown, who has also facilitated standup paddleboarding SUPport therapy groups for Project Hope participants, those that have been impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault.

Brown added, “I am in my master's program in clinical mental health counseling with the goal to offer more SUP and Surf therapy opportunities.”
Surf instructor PJ Brown river surfing the second wave at Gunnison Whitewater Park.(Photo by Jeff Erwin, courtesy PJ Brown.)

River surfboards with a safety leash will be provided for the women's clinic, and there will be a handful of wetsuits, too, which are worn over a bathing suit. The size run of the wetsuits is limited, and Brown recommended that participants bring their own wetsuit to ensure a correct fit. Due to the cold water, neoprene wetsuit booties and gloves can be helpful, but secure water shoes or sandals can be worn, too. A personal flotation device (PFD) and helmet are also important for safety, and those will be provided.

While the Intro to Surf class is capped at 10 women, the Surf Jam ladies’ workshop will launch off the River Surf Sister Sessions, a summer series of weekly surf lessons for women that starts July 6th. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Gunnison Whitewater Park. Female-identifying students can register through the contact page at

Land Surf Jam for kids

Kids will also get a chance to learn how to river surf on land, thanks to a Goofboard, a long board that balances on a roller to provide dry surf training.

Tailored to groms (note: grom is short for grommet, a term for a young surfer) ages 4 to 10 years old, the session will be open free of cost at 2:15 p.m.

If kids and parents choose to, the kids can also surf in the water. All surfers will receive prizes.
The river surf community enjoying laps at Gunnison Whitewater Park.(Photo by Jacob Spetzler.)

Paddling upstream contest

The first contest is the Against the Flow Paddle Battle ($10), where river surfers will paddle upstream along a specific route, at 11 a.m.

“Paddling upstream can be done and sounds ridiculous but is a blast and people will have fun,” said Lakey, who learned about the concept from another river surf event. “There will be really good prizes for 1st, 2nd, and middle of the pack, so no matter what, participants will win an awesome prize,” he added.

Contingent on the day’s water flow, which is referred to as CFS (cubic feet per second), Lakey said that the route will start down river above the third wave. In a prone position on their surfboards, participants will paddle across the river, catch an eddy on the other side, paddle upstream, then cross the river a second time to exit at the boat put-in next to the dirt parking area.
Gunnison Waves cofounder Jason Lakey river surfing the second wave at the Gunnison Whitewater Park.(Photo by Gunnison Waves cofounder Andy Sovick.)

Surf Jam contest for all experience levels

River surfers of all experience levels are invited to surf the second wave together from noon to 2 p.m. with the awards at 3:30 p.m.

River surfers will have a one-minute time limit each time they catch the wave, and they can surf the wave as many or few times as they choose.

A range of titles will be awarded such as the Most Stoked and Most Improved river surfer, and all participants will choose a prize at the end.

“We have a cool local river surf community, and anyone that wants to come and be a part of it is welcome,” said Lakey.

Registration can be found at

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO

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