It’s five o’clock and the sun has barely begun to dip below its peak, glinting across the tips of aqua waves and promising a perfect evening on the water. With enough of a breeze to bring out the whitecaps, Jennifer Wilhite of Teton Surf revs the engine of her Malibu Wakesetter to 4,000 RPMs and carves around the feisty waves with ease.
“We’ll head up the channel and get outta this wind,” she yells over the roar of the engine, pulling her baseball cap down a little further and cranking the stereo to whoops and hollers from the bow. Pretty soon she’s got us nestled in against the west edge of Palisades Reservoir where the waves have all but disappeared, leaving only a glassy canvas and our imaginations for the evening ahead.
Though we technically came here to learn how to surf behind a powerboat, first things first: everybody’s flip flops come off and a steady dance party breaks out as Wilhite cranks the beat even more. A hand reaches into the cooler and starts passing out ice cold beer (with the exception of Wilhite of course), and with wake skates and wake boards and surfboards rigged up over the top of the boat, it’s clear summer is in full swing in Jackson Hole. Well, we’re actually in Alpine, a little less than an hour south of Jackson, but driving here through Snake River Canyon where wildflowers line the road and jagged rock walls shoot up in every direction isn’t exactly anything to complain about.
With eleven of us and all of our gear, the boat – aptly named “Green Goblin” by Wilhite’s daughter for it’s sparkly green exterior – still feels spacious. Wilhite’s smile is huge, and she’s clearly in her sweet spot helping to bring out such raw joy in others. She’s an excellent captain, driving the boat like it’s second nature all the while answering questions about how she ended up giving surf lessons in the middle of Wyoming.
“I’m a water baby,” she laughs. “I grew up on a lake water-skiing in Idaho.” This may be true, but she looks like she walked off the beach in L.A. a few minutes ago, tanned and toned in a bikini as if she’s been out here enjoying summer while the rest of us were dragging snow blowers around until May. It’s clear she crushes it at water sports, and after spending a few minutes talking to her it feels like you’ve known her forever. Put simply: she’s a pretty rad lady.
A single, wispy cloud drifts easily across the otherwise bluebird sky, when Bethany Hruska, one of the surf instructors, throws on a life jacket and plunges into the water with a big grin. We crowd around the back of the boat while she shows us how to use the tension on the rope to help get into the correct starting position. The board sticks perpendicular out of the water, her feet pressed against it, and she waits calmly as if sitting in a chair.
“Hit it!” She yells, and Wilhite punches the throttle, popping Hruska out of the water on top of the massive wake. Hruska begins to inch her way forward on the rope until she’s at the crest, only a couple feet away from the swim platform on the back of the boat, close enough to talk to us without shouting. Then she tosses the rope to us and begins to surf freely, the endless wave rolling out behind her. Her stance is relaxed, but she carves aggressively like a surfer in the open ocean, bringing her weight back and forth with the board to stay balanced. The mountains rise behind her, the sun dancing in the boat’s spray.
“The front foot’s the gas, and the back foot’s the brake,” she says, demonstrating how to slow down and speed up to stay on the wave. After throwing a 360 but catching an edge at the last second, she climbs back onto the swim platform, and Wilhite looks around for the first brave soul of our group.
“Wait — is it warm or cold?” somebody asks.
“It’s 66 degrees! That’s warm!” Wilhite says. And she’s right — Palisades tends to run about 10 degrees warmer than Jackson Lake. When asked why she isn’t running the operation up there, Wilhite says it’s taken two years to get the permit from the US Forest Service for Palisades.
“The Park isn’t going to give one,” she says, but she doesn’t seem fazed. From Jackson, it’s the same distance to Alpine as it is up to Colter Bay, and with less traffic and one of the most scenic drives around, the whole experience screams of summertime fun. And while you might score an afternoon on Jackson Lake with a friend of a friend who has an old ski boat, there’s two internal ballasts on the Green Goblin that fill up with water at the press of the button, making its wake the biggest around. And for this sport in particular, bigger is definitely better.
Figuring there’s no time like the present, I jump in the water, preparing myself for an icy dip. But it’s surprisingly refreshing. I pop back to the surface and glance around at the dramatic landscape feeling like the luckiest person alive. Clear blue water stretches out for miles until it meets the steep, distant hills throwing long shadows across each other’s peaks. Laughter from the boat sprinkles across the summer air, and the Green Goblin floats like a comfy armchair in the middle of the otherwise empty reservoir.
I grip the handle of the rope and lean back, placing my feet onto the surfboard according to Hruska’s instruction. Wilhite eases the boat into forward gear, just enough so the board pushes against the water, making it easier to hold my position. Before I know it, I’m on top of the water, the board turning me forward and sending me out over the left side of the wake. I almost bite it, but catch my balance at the last second when I hear Wilhite yell, “You’re comin’ in too hot — put some back foot into it!” I press down into my right heel, and the board slows down and stays under me.
Getting my courage up, I start to pull myself a little closer to the boat, edging to the big part of the wake. The shoreline glazes along next to me, and I settle into my first surfing experience at 6,200 feet above sea level. My friends cheer me on, Wilhite turns the music up and another dance party ensues. I can’t help it – I have to throw a fist pump. It’s just that much fun.