Rising Creek Digression V – a weekly bucolic blog
All photos by Sam
Surf’s up where the beetle-kill pines are down – here in Colorado, and here on the Farmette, a mile above sea-level.
I took the chance to catch up with Ryan Witbeck this Sunday evening, who maintains the funky woodshop in the Farmette’s famous Shackette. Everything from a mandolin to a milking-stand has been under-construction here, but most importantly, Ryan spends his days building surfboards from beetle-kill pine wood. A master wood-worker, with stories that could inspire old folks songs from his Atlantic and Caribbean boat-building and chartering days, he has settled in Lyons with his lovely family.
He sits at the confluence of two vastly different flows in his woodshop – that of one of the oldest craft traditions with that of the newest recreational and athletic hype. He is beginning to cut his deft woodworking hand into the world of standup paddle boarding, perhaps the largest emerging niche in the surfing world. Zack Whitt, another brilliant Farmette woodworker, has joined him for the season. Truly master tradesmen are rare these days, but are essential to the health and resilience of a community.
“The borders have fallen for surfing”, Ryan muses. It has moved off the beach – through the palm trees and coastal real estate found worldwide, and into the land-locked hinterland. And with it the character of the sport has expanded, from ubber-fit, exceedingly tanned, Pacific coast studs (who are still pushing the sport to a new limit, mind you) to a broader crowd that can stand on massive planks and paddle their way around Colorado’s network of reservoirs or run its rivers. Heading out into typical swells in the ocean is intense, while dipping into the Boulder Reservoir on a calm summer day is not. So the sport changes. Folks can head out and do laps, or practice yoga on their boards. As Ryan says, “if you can swim and you’re not afraid of the water, you’re going to love this sport”.
Stand up paddle boards are already hot. If you think you are trend-setting at this point, the wave is passing you by. According to Ryan, the three largest manufacturers have already sold their entire stock for the year.
But let’s focus in on this confluence of hot trends and real craft. Recreation is costly – the gear to do it, the racks to transport it, maybe a four-wheel drive to access areas, the outerwear, and on. Surfing appears to be a pure sport – just you, your board-shorts and the plank that you stand on. But surfboards are oil. Building from Styrofoam, epoxy, and fiberglass allows for relatively cheap boards to be available for the masses, but surfers would most-likely prefer for their water-based recreation to be free of disasters such as BP’s Gulf spill. Surfing an oil slick would be a dirty sport indeed. Additionally, the practice of building surfboards, per the trend, has been outsourced almost entirely to Asian factories.
According to Ryan, it is not about quantity but quality. This is the idea of living, working, and building slowly. Like Yvonne Chouinard at Patagonia, he does not pretend to be saving the world, but is adding his piece to a better world through more deliberate decision making that meets multiple bottom lines in addition to the financial. Ryan’s boards use some epoxy, and a thin layer of fiberglass, two pieces of technology that add loads to the strength and durability of the boards. But the extent of petroleum toxicity in building ordinary surfboards makes his “seem like olive oil”. He’d like to do better, and is also looking to work more with pine-based adhesives.
Petroleum-based boards have no story, or even worse, an ugly story once you get to telling it. Not only are they toxic, but they also feel expendable. But take a beautiful wood-board that was built by two people you know, from beetle-kill pine harvested just over the divide in Granby, built on a small local wood-shop in Lyons that is also an organic farm, and you will most likely have a more full experience once you stand on it and be more invested in its extended life. Ryan wants to build boards that don’t just last a few seasons, but an entire lifetime, and then the lifetime of the child that it’s passed on to – if maintained and repaired, they should last up to 150 years! And if they no longer want to use it on the water, well, they hang it on their wall, because they are beautiful, and they tell the following story:
One time, not long ago in Colorado, there was a war between the Beetles and the Humans. The Beetles were the most frightening and powerful bugs in the history of the Rocky Mountains. Birds rejoiced when they arrived, humans cringed and scowled. It was a mirror into the secret fears of an otherwise tree-hugging, trail running, ecologically-minded, mountain-living culture. They loathed the Beetles; they waged a war on them with the strongest chemicals known to man. But no matter how many million Beetles the humans killed, the Beetles kept coming, killing trees by the millions, tirelessly fulfilling their ecological role. There were too many trees; the humans had broken too many ecological rules; they put out too many fires. And the Humans eventually lost to the Beetles. But one man among the humans, who was actually a friend and neighbor to us all, saw what was happening. He had learned from the water that these currents cannot be dammed, or they spill over and flood. He made the challenge his opportunity and put the Beetles’ destruction to good use, providing fun, fitness, and art to the masses.
For more information stop by the Shackette, or for more of the back-story check out the site www.losttrades.com, Ryan and his brother’s adventure-based learning institute meant to innovate and pass on woodworking tradition in creative ways.