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Just a Day at the Office:

Local kayak designer balances work & play


Dick Wold with kayakIF HE DIDN'T DESIGN AND BUILD THEM HIMSELF, kayaker extraordinaire Dick Wold, 41, might not be able to afford his own boats.

Outside the "yuppiedom" market he sells a family of surf boats and wave skis to, the McKinleyville man lives a meager yet fulfilling lifestyle making a living out of a fun sport.

When he's not working in his shop, taking orders from such far-flung places as Costa Rica and Maine or teaching others kayaking techniques, Wold's out riding the river rapids, surfing the ocean "soups" or wave "tumbling." The latter is a maneuver he's patented with a nose-to-end cartwheel. For novices, the move can easily turn into a total wipeout.

In between, Wold gears up for the occasional surf kayaking contest. Next month, he returns to a familiar competition the 14th annual Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival. And locally he hosts his own informal competition.

A roomful of stashed trophies aside, visitors to his humble abode may not know the low-profile expert with modest surroundings ranks as the seven-time wave ski and five-time kayak surfing champ.

Case in point, a lose-your-oil-pan, pothole-plagued driveway leads up to the one-acre lot he rents from a friend who escaped to Baja seven years ago with an undetermined return date.

Wold, with an unassuming smile, admitted he likes the low overhead.

His office helper, Skip a friendly goat with a missing foot from an unfortunate dog mauling greets visitors with the zeal of a receptionist. The disability hasn't hindered Skip's climbing ability, Wold said, pointing to a fence the goat uses as a perch.

Dick Wold with Skip the goatIn pure Humboldt County style, Wold made a straw bed for Skip in an old, broken-down Volkswagen van with a surfboat on top. A motorcycle with moss growing on the seat stands between the van and his shop, where a rustic sign reading "Wold Ski Custom" teeters overhead.

Once entering the workplace of the man considered the "guru" of surf kayaking, it's evident Wold uses the shop to build these high-performance boats. Adorned with cans, tools and scraps, it's the kind of shop one wouldn't want to lose, say, car keys in.

But don't let modest appearances fool you. This is where big ideas become reality.

"This is a hobby that got turned into more than I thought it was going to be," he said.

Wold took up the sport at an early age on the Boise River in Boise, Idaho, where he grew up. As a boy, he and his buddies strung a rope across the river to surf a challenging rapid on a piece of plywood. This was crude but fun, he recalled.

"That was the start of it all ... we had so much fun," he said.

But California called the fish out of water, and 16 years ago he moved to Forks of Salmon along the Salmon River northeast of Hoopa. There he worked for the Otter Bar Kayak School.

These schools have since sprung up all over the United States, due to the emerging popularity of the sport.

But it's Humboldt County Wold calls the kayaking "heaven," because of its year-round access to rivers to run, lagoons to float and oceans to surf all within an hour's drive.

"The most powerful waves I've surfed are at the North Jetty," he said in terms of impact, not height. He's surfed in Hawaii, Costa Rica, the East Coast and most of the California coastline, sometimes catching 20-footers.

His local friends introduced him to kayaking on the rivers and ocean. He put a seatbelt on one friend's crude foam wave ski a cross between a kayak and a surfboard then he was in business. He performing "rodeo" moves others had never seen before, like 360-degree spins, backsurfing, "off-the-lip" barrel rolls and tube rides.

In the early days, Wold said he "pushed the limit" of kayaking on the rivers. In contrast, he found the ocean had a built-in governor for safety. If the waves weren't safe to do, he and the kayak would get pushed back to shore.

With either waterway, Wold was ahead of his time. An art major with a penchant for sculpture and earth science, he started designing his own boats in 1986.

"I didn't like what was out there (to buy)," he said, smoothing out the outside gelcoat of his latest work-in-progress in the shop. The exterior finish protects the boat from the fierce rays of the sun and the grinding teeth of the beach.

Wold's custom boats, shaped to fit weight, size, experience and performance, soon caught on. The kayak maker, Perception, of Easley, S.C., bought the design to his "Five-O" wave ski. The model designed for novices sits on display at Adventure's Edge in Arcata.

Wave skis are sit-on-tops made out of foam core, while surf kayaks are sit-inside versions made out of fiberglass. The fiberglass finish and curved boat bottoms are identical for both kayaks.

"People kept bugging me about making them a boat," he said, realizing he was falling into a new business. The sport's expensive equipment also demanded he make his own boats, as he'd rather play to his passion and live within his means than become a slave to materialism, he said.

Display of kayaksAs an example, Wold's trademark "Surf Machine," an 8-foot model for river and ocean use, sells for about $850. Still, kayakers and wannabes up and down the two North American coastlines are buying them, and Wold can barely keep up with the demand. He fills about two orders a month.

Business out of Humboldt is a different story.

"I sell nothing (much) here," he said. There is a slight market with Humboldt State University students, but their parents must "want to splurge," he said.

In what Wold calls his "real" job, Wold has taught for 13 years. The accredited kayaking course at HSU is held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays on either the Trinity or Van Duzen rivers.

Even with Wold's seemingly death-defying maneuvers, the instructor's first lesson revolves around public safety. The kayaking guru said he "reels in" the students during this speech, emphasizing that with all his close calls, he was injured only once when he started the sport 20 years ago.

Reconstructive surgery on his shoulder taught him to not overdo his ability or underestimate the power of the ocean or the rivers a common mistake of novices, he suggested.

Wold's safety message is no matter how good you are, nature still wins.

He teaches his students that kayaking involves sport and science especially when it comes to reading the river currents. People are killed every year on rivers, and these rivers change their structure after every winter.

"Something that looks flat doesn't mean it's not dangerous," he said.

The message was heard loud and clear by one of Wold's students, Darren Beland.

Kayaker on waterThe 25-year-old student grew up in the Sacramento area, where the snowmelt chills the waters of the ever-popular American River. Like the south fork of this river, Beland has witnessed locals here become candidates for hypothermia.

"The thing that usually gets people (in trouble) is (when) they're wearing shorts, and they get tossed out of the boat," he said. "There's always going to be a hidden rock you're not going to see."

Beland, who's taking a second semester with his girlfriend, learned how to read the river from Wold.

"He'll play to your ability," Beland said. "He taught me to respect the river but enjoy it the same time."

Wold's other fear comes from the encroaching city.

"What scares me most is that within five hours I can be within 10 million people," he said.

Then again, he tends to push for crowded surroundings when considering his other fear kayaking the ocean here. The Redwood Coast has its share of shark attacks, enough so that Wold likes to stack the odds and tries to not go out alone.

Nonetheless, the hidden dangers haven't kept kayaking enthusiasts out of the water. Paddling sports are the rave in the outdoor industry, Kokatat spokesman Craig Kottle said.

Kottle has noticed snowboarders have made the crossover to surf kayaking. In particular, Wold's filled a niche with the Generation X crowd, he said.

Who's next? Women have emerged as a market force, Kottle confirmed.

That's good news to Wold.

"I push for (women in the sport) with all my might," he said, adding a push for their participation in competitions as well.

"Sometimes, if you're a woman and show up, you'll get a medal," Wold said.

Photo credits:
Top and second photos of Dick Wold by Brandi Easter
Third photo of kayak array, courtesy of Dick Wold
Photo of kayaker by Julie Mueller-Brown

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