Deception — the primary impediment for the Montana kiter. When the National Weather Service issues a severe wind warning, the indigenous Montana kiter can only cast his rod for the elusive trophy session. Like the endangered bull trout, white sturgeon or even the pallid sturgeon, the Montana kiter is the rarest species of inland wind chasers. Wild, strong and defiant, the Montana kiter is a hearty soul on perpetual watch for anything resembling whitecaps.
Often tormented by the Midwest’s flukey winds, these relentless huntsmen often log countless hours of windshield time only to be shut down by shut off winds. But when sheer providence delivers, and when frontal systems and pressure gradients align, these are the heroic moments when Montana’s inland lakes shine and legendary tales are recorded.
Over the years, Missoula photographer, Seth Warren, had heard enough stories about Montana’s fleeting kite surfing sessions to peak his curiosity. Last November, he packed up his impressive accumulation of Nikon gear and crammed himself into an overloaded truck alongside his longtime friend Cale Benson, with Cale’s three kids packed restlessly in the back. Barreling down Montana’s picturesque barren highways, Cale tells Seth tall tales of unforgettable sessions, while in back, their reluctant travel companions spastically entertain themselves by honk-waving passing pickup trucks and counting heads as they roar past massive cattle ranches with the snowcapped mountains of Glacier National Park on the horizon.
To Seth, this side of Montana is a completely different backdrop. “It’s on the east side of the Rockies where Montana turns flat and levels itself into the big plains of North Dakota.” This side is home to some of the best rivers, creeks and lakes that make Montana an angler’s dream. Take Tiber Reservoir, for instance, one of Montana’s most versatile lakes. Far removed and hidden amongst the prairielands of northern Montana, Tiber has all the dressings of a fisherman’s dream; one cast and you’ve probably hooked a decent sized walleye, pike, perch, native trout or a steroidal carp weighing as much as an old television set. But when the fishermen retreat, leaving the lake free to the heartier breeds — guys like Cale, who drive big rigs with kite and camp equipment and hunker down for a night of extreme conditions in the hopes of greeting rolling waves at dawn.
Few and far between are the kitesurfing locals who have been tapping Tiber for years. A spot like this isn’t so easy. Experimenting with different launches, adapting to different errant wind directions and persevering through endless misfortune, Tiber is a place that demands experience. But, given this reality, a genuine Tiber local can tackle anything. Every Montana kiter knows the Wild West drill; sifting through shitty session after shitty session to score just one decent day, the kind of day that coastal dwelling kitesurfers can count on five days a week. Kiting in Montana is like playing a game against a formidable foe, like a conniving fish skilled in the dark arts of nibbling bait free from an unsuspecting hook. In this game there’s always just enough play to keep one’s attention; the epic sessions that burn deep within memory banks and keep these relentless kiters coming back for more.
Tiber local, Bob Randolph, is like a fish that’s grown up in these waters and knows Tiber’s intricacies well. Bob will happily rattle off his field notes on each launch. “If the wind is a little onshore or a little offshore, it just doesn’t work . . . it doesn’t fetch enough . . . which equals no swell.” What Bob knows better than anyone is this little secret — “the trick to scoring waves at Tiber Lake is hitting it when it’s firing perfectly, straight out of the west.” Bob is no stranger to the chase. The day prior, he was across the border over 200 miles away, hunting down wind in southern Alberta. That was yesterday, but today’s forecast is due west winds with gusts of 60 mph. Bob seems to hold no animosity for Montana’s boom or bust forecasts, however, having heard this morning’s marine forecast, Bob turned his truck around, like a steelhead returning to spawn, and crossed the U.S.
border to meet Cale, Seth, and a ragtag school of Montana kiters who had just pulled in under dark skies and gleaming stars at Tiber’s westward point. Settling in with a row of plush RVs, Seth hit the hay, dreaming
of strong winds and building waves.
That next morning as the sun rose over the prairieland, the coffee percolated into waiting cups and a ferocious early morning wind was already whipping Tiber’s fresh water into a frothy sheet covering the entire lake from shore to shore. This is what they call a “true nuker” and it was blowing right down the pipe.
The early bird crew gathered in Dan Fischer’s RV. Seth and Cale poured a second cup of coffee as they watched the wind and swell build. The boys laughed,
“We had been talking about getting a day just like this at this spot for years but when it finally came, none of us were too sure if we wanted to get out there,” said Bob.
Speaking from experience, he warned the less experienced, “The stakes here at Tiber are high.” Bob is referring to the breakdown scenario, “If something goes wrong or you lose the board it’s a very long swim and a 10-mile hike at best. If you end up on the other side of the lake, you better have a friend willing to drive as much as 100 miles around Tiber to pick you up.” Here there’s no safety net, well actually there was; someone brought a tin boat for
rescues but it was decommissioned after being blown off of its trailer by the tempestuous gusts of the early morning.
The stalwart souls who have learned here and kite these lakes know that Tiber requires full commitment, incredible endurance and strong safety skills for a successful session. Today, these guys were ready for it. Having
kited this spot for years, everyone concurred that this was the session they had been waiting for . . . and good things come to those who wait. The swell peeled off the point in front of them, not just any swell, but legitimate surf. These were the conditions they knew were conceivably possible but were now a reality. It’s not every day that you get waves like this on a lake in Montana.
His face gleaming with a sterling smirk, 70-year-old Gary Wolfe rolls onto the point in his 1996 beige Saab 9000, his ramshackle kitemobile only a little older than his quiver. Hailing from Great Falls, Montana, Tiber is his home spot, and gale force is his sort of wind. An old school windsurfer turned kiter and legend amongst the Montana kiteboard scene, rumor has it Gary’s got a collection of 5m kites — that’s just what he rides. He’s got a reputation for launching alone in the coldest, gnarliest conditions and is no stranger to snow and ice sloshing beneath his board as he’s yanked around by Montana’s turbulent winds.
Bob sets out into the cold first with his surfboard and 4.5 meter RPM. With three fully grown men holding him down, he puts his kite up into the frigid, punchy air. He later dubbed this session, “the most fun freshwater kiting I’ve ever had.” It wasn’t long until Seth, Cale, Gary, Dave and Mike were all out there with him trading tacks amongst overhead ramping swell unloaded on an almost mystical point break. Bob spent four hours of his session making loops in front of the campers: picking off clean ramps, dropping down the line towards the point and then hacking the tops off the peeling sideshore waves.
Much like Montana’s infamous fishing reputation, kitesurfing Tiber Lake can be hit or miss. Kiters like Bob and Cale can land the biggest catch of the year, or spend hours staring down at smooth water without so much as a nibble. Montana’s wind is often the fickle sort, appearing in a minute, puffing up a cyclone of chaos, and just as quickly, puttering a few last drafts before dropping dead. Like the trophy fish, this very wind is capable of luring the Montana kiter far from home. With a new hook in the mouth for Montana’s vigorous wind and inconceivably pristine waves, Seth’s gotten caught up in the perpetual game of catch and release. There’s no second-guessing. You have to bite down hard and be willing to chase every ounce of wind that appears on the radar. Hook, line and sinker.