An athletic-looking man in sunglasses emerges from a small cement building next to the Boise River in Garden City and walks toward the water. The buttons and levers he just finished pushing and pulling have created an industrial-sounding whine as the machinery secured beneath the river at the Boise Whitewater Park begins to move.
Paul Primus, 31, is checking on his work, watching as the hydraulics and inserted dams move up and down, controlling the volume of the river and pushing water into the correct channels to form the ideal wave for surfing a board.
Boise’s whitewater park hasn’t just been a gift for water enthusiasts like surfers and kayakers. It’s created new jobs for two lucky river experts: Primus and Andrew Webb are the Boise Whitewater Park’s wave technicians. They work with the elements and equipment, and combine those with their knowledge of waves that suit surfers and kayakers to form the features at the park on a daily basis.
These guys have dream jobs. Most of the time.
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“We’re kind of obsessed with the sport,” said Primus, who’s originally from Minnesota and moved to Boise to attend Boise State after finishing junior college in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He always had an obsession with surfing and wanted to live the life. So he and his girlfriend moved to Portland so he could surf the northern Oregon coastline four times a week. “I opened a Wells Fargo account and they force you to get a credit card,” he said. “But I hate credit cards. I realized I needed a surfboard and wetsuit after I’d cut it up. So I called and got the credit card number to buy my first board and wetsuit and paid 25 bucks a month on it.”
Primus lived in Portland for two years before returning to Boise for work. But the surf bug remained. Luckily, when he moved back, it was the high water year of 2010-2011 and the wave at 36th Street in Garden City, where the whitewater park is now, was working. “I just started chasing river waves,” he said.
While Primus is the surf expert at the park, Webb, 35, lends his expertise as a whitewater kayaker. A 2000 graduate of Capital High, Webb has been kayaking since he was 12. And like many of the river enthusiasts who use the park, he’s a gifted athlete. He earned a scholarship to play football at Fort Lewis College, an NCAA Division II school in Durango, Colo. (he was a quarterback). Durango just happens to be a fantastic river town, too. “We had a play park on the Animas River, so during school I just got in the habit, after football practice, of going down and paddling,” he said. Webb worked as a safety kayaker and guide for Idaho Whitewater Unlimited during his summers.
Primus and Webb work on the river part time, although Primus has more hours and the schedule is anything but straightforward. It’s based on river time. If things change, someone has to be at the park adjusting the machinery, and they do a lot of covering for one another. Generally, one of them arrives around noon to change the park over from a surfing feature to a kayaking feature or vice versa. “That’s when we can share ideas on what’s going on with the conditions,” Webb said.
Both are expert watermen. They’re also educated professionals (Primus works as a manager at a mental health agency while Webb is a math coach for the Boise School District). And after the park was built, they found themselves hanging around the new attraction, curious how it all worked. So they started watching what the former shapers were doing, like Mike Vorhees (the park’s first wave tech) and successor Ryan Richard. “Ryan explained what he had learned,” Webb said. “Moving the shaper, all the variables, pushing buttons and watching how the river reacts, based on how to get the best waves in.”
Richard was subsequently hired away last year by the city of Bend, Ore., to run that city’s new whitewater park. “They hired him out from underneath us,” said the City of Boise’s Paul Schoenfelder, who also hired Primus and Webb. “There’s not a lot of cities doing things quite like this. A lot of it is developing and learning. It’s complicated because the river is very dynamic by nature. We’ve never had two years in a row where it’s been the same.”
That might be slightly understated. The dynamics of the park easily make it one of the most complicated facilities the city runs. It’s not like turning lights on and off or finding umpires to work city league softball. These two wave technicians must deal with a complicated mix of machinery and Mother Nature’s whims. According to the technicians, every time the water goes above 5,000 cubic feet per second, a massive amount of sediment is pushed through, drastically changing everything. Plus the pool level above and below the park is extremely delicate in shaping the wave and how that water pushes against the features.
This year was especially dicey. Unless you’ve been lost in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness for the last six months, you may have noticed the record water levels on the Boise River this year, which ran above flood levels for much of the spring (above 7,000 cfs) and went above 9,000 in June. The water shoved sediment and dirt into one of the hydraulics, making it inoperable, so Primus and Webb were forced to shape waves, as Webb analogizes, “without their starting quarterback.”
They used other tools like adjusting the pool levels above and below the wave and tweaking the air in the bladders to create a workable feature while waiting for the machinery to be fixed (crews came out earlier this month to work on the park). At full operating capacity, the facility features a series of hydraulic panels and inflatable bladders that are used in sync to create the waves (the staff has years of notes, calibrating waves at different river levels.) But when one part isn’t working, they compensate.
And sometimes the general wave-riding public doesn’t empathize. The two wave technicians, while doing their jobs, also must interact with the community and explain what’s going on when things aren’t going to plan. That requires patient personalities.
“It comes down to listening to everybody,” Primus said. “That’s important. I understand what it’s like not having a perfect wave to surf. That was me. The complaints, the criticism, whether it’s constructive or not, I’m OK with it. Because we’re passionate about making really good waves, too, and that passion fuels the progression to keep making it better.”
Joe Carberry is a freelance journalist who grew up in Boise. He has covered sports and the outdoor lifestyle for nearly two decades. He kayaks and surfs at the Boise Whitewater Park.
Will the progression of the park require more employees?
This fall, when the river drops to winter flow, the completion of Phase II will commence with the construction of three new features below the current facility. The bustling park already requires two employees but will the expansion require more hands? City of Boise’s Paul Schoenfelder is taking a wait-and-see approach. “We won’t have as many adjustable features in the second phase,” he said. “We will have some elements that we can manipulate. We’ll be doubling the scale and scope of the park but we hope that doesn’t double the workload. We’re assessing things now and anticipating more (users) down there. It may require more resources.”