Montreal Together is a series that explores how Montrealers come together in unusual and surprising ways. It a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal. This story is the work of a team of student journalists.
The St. Lawrence River is blanketed with sheets of ice and snow for most of the winter — hardly inviting for water sports.
And yet there exists a singular breed of surfer — the so-called Ice Warrior — who will venture into its frigid waters in February, dodge the ice floes and fight ruthlessly for a perfect ride.
"There are probably only about 10 of us who go out regularly throughout the winter," said Orion Miller, a Montreal river surfer originally from British Columbia.
Many find the conditions and the preparation required for winter surfing to be too burdensome.
Before paddling out, Miller must shimmy into a thick neoprene wetsuit, gloves and boots. But his strategy is straightforward: "Run in, run out, work hard, stay warm."
"Everyone respects people who go throughout the winter," Miller said.
The determination of Miller and Montreal's other Ice Warriors is emblematic of the city's surfing community as a whole.
In spite of the odds — besides the weather, the closest ocean is a five-hour drive away — the community has grown over the years, and now by some estimates counts as many as 10,000 members.
Montreal catches a wave
There are two main surf spots in Montreal: a wave behind Habitat 67 and another just off des Rapides Park in Lasalle.
The current in the St. Lawrence, combined with the slope of the river in these locations, creates a wave similar to those found at sea.
These "standing waves" are relatively small and consistent, but nonetheless pose their own challenges, especially in winter.
More in this series: The popular church in the heart of Montreal's Gay Village
Though river surfing has been popular in the U.S. and Europe since the 1970s, the scene in Montreal is only about 15 years old.
It is believed that, in 2002, Corran Addison, a world-champion kayaker, was the first person to ride the wave at Habitat.
He opened a river-surfing school a few years later, and since then surfing has gradually become a cottage industry in Montreal.
"Surfing is by no means a fad. It's one of those things where you learn how to do it and usually, you're hooked," said Mitch Martin, a Montrealer who has been involved in the city's surfing community since its early days.
Last year, Martin decided to channel his passion for the sport into a business.
His brainchild, September Surf Café in Little Burgundy, has become the caffeine-powered heart and soul of Montreal's surf community.
It hosts surf-centric meet-ups, movie screenings and vernissages. There is even a studio where enthusiasts can build their own surfboard.
'A lifestyle community'
The cafe — which is named after the peak month of hurricane season — serves as a cozy refuge for surfers on days when the weather keeps them off the waves.
"Instead of spending their days out in the water, like they would if they were living on the coast, Montreal surfers are discussing their next projects and trips," said Alexandra Côté-Durrer, a photographer and one of the newer members of the community.
"But I think it all stays in the same category. Surf culture is always the same, no matter where you go."
"It's more of a lifestyle community," she said.
Montreal's surfers are constantly looking for ways to remain involved with surfing between seasons and surf trips to the East Coast.
One popular pursuit is surfboard shaping, the craft of building a board from scratch.
"It gives them a project to work on and keeps the passion alive. It keeps them excited," said Martin.
Along with running September, Martin also offers do-it-yourself shaping workshops at the cafe's in-house studio.
He acknowledged there is a certain mystique around shaping, as many believe it requires years of practice.
But for the price of an average surfboard, workshop participants can customize the height, width, thickness, shape and colour of their board.
"We're trying to make it accessible for everyone and teach people that anyone can learn how to shape a surfboard," Martin said.
When it finally does get warm enough to throw on a swimsuit and soak up the sun, the Montreal summer has plenty in store for its surf family.
For example, Boutique Archive has an annual "Surf Swap" to celebrate the beginning of the season.
Unlike the "locals only" spirit that pervades many surf communities, Montreal surfers are known for their welcoming attitude.
"We're all helping each other. I don't really see it as a competitive thing," said Martin.
"We can make this sport bigger if we all work together."
- Read more in this series: The popular church in the heart of Montreal's Gay Village
Montreal Together is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.
Undergraduate students and graduate-diploma students in a graduate-level multimedia course found and produced original stories about different Montreal communities.
Working in small teams, they spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics and maps.