Dune Rider

King of the Hill

A board-sports fanatic adds yet another plank to his quiver in order to tackle an unlikely element: sand.

With Brian Barker May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Elle Michalka

OK, I CONFESS: I’m addicted to board sports. But I will not admit that I have a problem. Sure, in my nine-year snowboarding career, I’ve suffered tooth-cracking wipeouts and permanent frostbite damage to my nose. (And that was just during one day at Vail.) In order to ride my first wave on Oahu’s fabled North Shore last year, I had to dispense with a lifelong fear of sharks. And each week, in my own strait-laced Southwest Portland neighborhood, I endure the palpable disapproval of my neighbors as they gawk at me—a bearded 33-year-old in raggedy Levi’s—while I carve S-turns down the asphalt hills on a longboard. What better way to slide through life than sideways, breeze blowing back your hair, endorphins buzzing through your system? None, I say.

Little wonder, then, that I find myself, along with my wife, Elizabeth (who, miraculously, enables my boarding obsession), trekking toward the peak of one of the many granular hillsides within the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area—a 50-mile stretch of coast between Heceta Head and Coos Bay that’s home to thousands of wind-sculpted dunes. But this trip is not about sightseeing. Oh, no. Elizabeth and I are marching straight up an enormous mound of sand so that I can conquer yet another surface with a plank.

We’re about to launch full bore into the emerging adventure sport of sandboarding (yes, sandboarding is a bona fide sport). But first we’ll be gleaning some tips from the sport’s five-time national champion, Josh Tenge, who also owns the Guinness Book of World Records title for longest backflip—a whopper that covered a distance of 44 feet, 10 inches.

Tenge presently works as an instructor at Sand Master Park, a pint-size and very sandy version of a ski resort that’s located just north of Florence. Opened in 2000 by 51-year-old entrepreneur Lon Beale, Sand Master bills itself as “The World’s First Sand Park,” and the latest incarnation of a sport that traces its popularity back to the 1960s surf craze. In fact, Sand Master’s 40 acres of privately maintained dunes are outfitted with enough terrain-park features to make any Mt Hood Meadows snowboarder jealous. Rail slides, ramps, box slides—if you can do it on snow, you can do it on sand. (The only other such resort is located near Hirschau, Germany.)

Today you also can ride dunes in some 40 countries, from Peru to Japan, as well as in places like Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, Silver Lake Dunes near Lake Michigan, and Monahans Sandhills State Park in Texas. But none of these parks has a fully stocked pro shop selling eight different brands of sandboards and T-shirts with the words “It’s not snow,” as Sand Master does.

The only thing missing: chairlifts. It’s nearly impossible to plunk one down because, Tenge says, “The dunes are always changing.” Constant offshore breezes move so much sand, they could easily bury a lift, or even blow away dunes altogether.

Even sans lifts, Sand Master’s location has turned it into a sandboarding mecca that’s drawn visits from the likes of the Los Angeles Times, CNN’s Money magazine, and the Discovery Channel. Such notoriety has helped net some 18,000 visits last year alone, compared to just 400 when the park first opened.

“I love Oregon sand,” Tenge says, while surveying the vast landscape of Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park. This is where he often takes beginners and more “mature” riders, like me and my wife. “The possibilities are endless out here,” he says.

As we climb higher on the sand, we’re treated to a glimpse of the untold number of dunes lining the central Oregon coastline. Given that they can reach heights of 500 feet, and can have inclines as steep as a double-black-diamond run at a ski resort, I’m beginning to understand Tenge’s affinity for this sandy neck of the woods. While I might graduate to the steeps someday, right now I’m happy to be standing on the top of sandboarding’s equivalent of a bunny hill: a wheat-colored dune rising oh-so-gently above Honeyman’s popular Cleawox Lake, a deep-blue freshwater pool surrounded by giant fir trees and blooming rhododendrons.

The boards we’ll ride today look like snowboards, but there are some not-so-obvious differences. For starters, out here wax isn’t something you use once a month; it’s something you apply after every run. “The wax is what makes it all possible,” Tenge says as we rub our boards’ Formica baseplates with hunks of green wax about the size of a hockey puck to create a smooth, slick surface. Our sandboards also sport a subtle U shape, a design element that helps riders keep the board’s nose pointing up. If the nose digs down into the sand, we’d go tumbling forward, do a face plant, and end up with a mouthful of sand—which, I assure you, tastes way worse than a mouthful of snow.

One other key difference: no boots. Tenge, who also designed many of the sandboards in use at Sand Master, has outfitted the ultralight wooden sleds with cushy, and extremely snug, padded foot-straps. All I have to do is slide my bare feet (we are at the beach, after all) into place and point the board downhill. And so I do, flying down the dune and kicking up a spray of sand like an old pro. Elizabeth follows, shouting “Yes!” as she successfully glides in beside me at the base of the hill. “I don’t have to worry about stopping!” she says. That’s because the wax wears off of the board quickly, slowing the rider’s descent.

After a few runs, I’m feeling confident—cocky, even. So on my last run I seek out a steep section of dune where Tenge has built a mound of sand in order to practice his aerial acrobatics. I don’t intend to vie for his world-record backflip entry today, but I do want to try a wee jump. As I streak toward my target, however, I realize the dune is steeper—a lot steeper—than I’d anticipated. Now I’m flying out of control, straight for the launchpad. I close my eyes, hit the jump, and utter an unprintable word. But to my surprise, I manage to stick the landing.

“Did you see that?” I yell proudly to Elizabeth, who manages a worried smile. It’s not the look of someone concerned that her 30-something husband has just about busted yet another part of his body; it’s a wary, nervous expression that says, Oh boy, here we go again

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