One summer, long ago, my family and I visited Honeyman State Park in Florence, Oregon. I fondly remember tumbling down massive dunes into shallow ponds of sun-warmed water, only to slog back up countless mountains of sand. I recall a thrilling ATV ride up and down the impressive mounds. My sisters and I raised our arms overhead as if riding in a roller-coaster that was somehow nestled in a surreal world of tan earth. On that summer day we baked in the reflected sunshine off the towering hills. Times have changed in Florence. The ATVs are still there, as are the frolicking children. But now, the dunes are also being enjoyed by world-class sandboarders.
What is sandboarding? A better name for the sport might be duneboarding. Put simply, it’s sliding down a long, sandy hill on a board. It is practiced all over the globe, wherever there are dunes. Though similar in appearance to snowboarding, it is safer and cheaper than its colder cousin. It’s easy to learn, and surprisingly accessible to those of us living in Oregon.
Matt Walton is the station manager at KBVR, Oregon State University’s student-run radio station. He’s also a professional sandboarder. Walton grew up in Waldport, where the ocean is too cold for all but the heartiest of surfers and the ski slopes are three hours away. In 2006, he and his friends discovered the sport of sandboarding in the nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The Oregon Dunes stretch over 40 miles from North Bend to Florence, adjoining Honeyman State Park. They are the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America.
You can sandboard almost anywhere in the Oregon National Dunes. However, the epicenter of the sandboard culture is Sand Master Park (SMP), where you can rent or buy boards or take private lessons on 40 acres of private dunes. The world’s first sandboard park, SMP is located just south of Honeyman Park. Lon Beale opened the original board shop in 2000 and has built it into a mecca of sandboarding. SMP hosts the longest running sandboard competition in the world, the Sand Master Jam. Beale also runs Venomous Sandboards from Florence. The equipment and apparel company sells gear worldwide.
Beale could design and build boards anywhere, but he set up in Florence because he recognized the potential of the dunes as the hub of sandboarding. Specifically, he appreciated the sand. “I rate Florence’s sand in the top 10 in the world. Here in the U.S., I rate it in the top three. The rain washes the sand clean and is a big reason why it is so good.”
Walton also thinks the local dunes really lend themselves to the sport. “Florence is a great place to sandboard. One of the best in the world. It simply is. Even though the dunes themselves are not as big as say, the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, or a number of dune systems in southern California. What Florence and the rest of the Oregon coast has is terrain. You’ve got a lot of that beach grass, and in many instances the dunes are mingling with the forest. it’s like backcountry skiing or backcountry snowboarding. You’ve got jumps and trails already there.”
Many boarders also teach the sport. Walton has been an instructor at SMP in the past, and even traveled abroad to impart his expertise. Specifically, he delivered a shipment of Venomous Sandboards to Egypt in 2010. He spent a week there teaching a group of locals how to ride the equipment down massive desert dunes. The steep slopes lent themselves to high-speed riding, but the skill of “carving” was a foreign concept. His students went on to use their new skills to teach tourists.
Sandboarding is also very popular in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. The dunes there are close to the cities, just like on the Oregon coast, making a day of boarding an easy for the locals. They are the best in the world at doing airborne tricks and achieving frightening speed as they fly down giant dunes.But they can’t carve, either. “I could beat 100% of those guys in a slalom race 10 times out of 10,” Walton said. “But in terms of air. If we had a trick competition then they would stomp me. And I’m one of the better sandboarders in the U.S.”
Occasionally, premier boarders like Walton find notoriety in front of cameras. When a television network or a beer company needs a boarder for their show or commercial, they call Beale for names. Every summer, at least three opportunities arise for shoots involving newspapers, magazines, TV shows, or web series. Walton himself has been involved in about 25 separate shoots involving sandboarding as a consultant of on-screen talent.
Until now, sandboarding has remained a niche tourist activity in Oregon. Walton would like to see it become a more mainstream board sport, but thinks it will take a little help from the right people. An entrepreneur could expand sandboarding beyond the bottleneck of Florence and into the big cities. “Sandboard parks. You could build a park in a metro area. You could put it indoors, potentially. Sand is cheap,” he said.
Until then, the sport will have to grow slowly. But Corvallisites don’t need a man-made sandboard park to learn how to carve. Sand Master Park is just a short drive away. And, according to Walton, “Florence is like one big sandboard park.”
A 24-hour rental at SMP is $16 for board, wax, and admission to Sand Master Park dunes. Lesson prices vary based on group size, but aren’t necessary to start boarding. Everybody who rents a board gets free basic instruction. Go to www.sandmasterpark.com or call 541-997-6006 for more information or current weather conditions.