Catching the sawtooth swell
By Kitt Doucette
The sun rises slow over Pettit Lake. Picturesque mountain peaks duplicate in the morning water’s still glass as a handful of friends gather on a wooden dock. Somebody is speaking in a mixture of surf slang and country twang: "I reckon it’s gonna be two feet and glassy all day long." The dialect is as incongruous as the day’s sport: longboard surfing a lake hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean swell.
Wake surfing is no new phenomenon; Hawaii’s surfing pioneers rode wakes in Honolulu Harbor when the ocean relaxed. Some enterprising Texans have gained notoriety for riding the wakes—often several miles long—of giant oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico.
In central Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley, longboard lake surfing can be traced back to two brothers and their dad’s 1964 Hansen longboard. Jim and John Grossman grew up traveling between Santa Monica’s sun-kissed beaches and Idaho’s whitewater rivers. Their father, Sam Grossman, was an early Malibu surfer and a lifelong Idaho kayaker who instilled his taste for nontraditional sports in both sons at an early age. In the early 1980s, Jim brought his father’s 1964 longboard to Idaho on a whim. Envisioning shredding for hours on never ending whitewater play waves, he strapped the Hansen onto his car roof and toured Idaho for a summer, surfing waves and turning heads on rivers like the Payette and Salmon.
Two decades later, Jim’s younger brother, John, was gearing up for his own kayak trip when he discovered the old board buried deep in the recesses of the family garage. The fiberglass was yellowing and the deck was covered in candle wax, but the old V-fin was still rock solid. He grabbed the board, and once again the relic toured Idaho’s back roads and rivers.
On the way home from one such trip, John Grossman stopped to meet his older brother at their family cabin on Pettit Lake. The brothers were swapping Idaho river surf stories when an idea took hold: riding the old board behind the ski boat, using its small wake to propel them. If it could be done in Texas, it could be done here. A gang hit the water to test the theory; the Sawtooth Surf Team was born.
Landlocked thrill seekers have been wake surfing for years, and these days many ride short, maneuverable boards behind boats equipped to amplify wake heights. But as that high-adrenaline brand of the sport spidered throughout America’s interior, the far-from-official Sawtooth Surf Team made longboard surfing a mainstay on central Idaho’s high alpine lakes.
The sun is creeping higher into the Sawtooth’s infinite azure ceiling, and a surfer in a cowboy hat glides across a ski boat’s wake on the Grossmans’ relic board. After just one session, the appeal of lake surfing becomes as clear as Pettit Lake itself. With no ropes and low impact and as much fun to watch as it is to do, surfing pristine alpine lakes is a joy born of improbability. It’s no wonder surfboards have become fixtures on wakes spreading throughout the Gem State.