Of Waves and Mountains: Montana's legendary surfer

fred van dyke
"Time just froze and I could see everything " the water droplets, the sunlight bouncing off the wave face, the ripples and chops " all of it. It lasted just a second, but it was total perfection."
-Fred Van Dyke


By Lara Vaienti

Fred Van Dyke has a look of beatitude on is face as he tells the story of his life and his love affair with surfing.

His eyes twinkle with the same contagious joy as the topic switches from waves to mountains, from living in Pupunea, Hawaii, to living in Bozeman, Montana. Van Dyke, now in his mid-seventies, is a man in love with life, with nature and sports, and he always has been. Van Dyke has also been, and still remains, one of the greatest big-wave surfers ever. Surfing, he explains, has been his real career, even though he was an English teacher for 32 years.
Together with other surfers of the Eisenhower-era from California and Hawaii, like Greg Noll, Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole and George Downing, Van Dyke is considered one of the living legends of the surfing world. By putting in more time than anybody else and by sticking to a fanatical training and diet program, he managed to convince himself he belonged out there when the surfing got huge, wrote Matt Warshaw in Surfer magazine. 
Van Dyke has been featured in many early surfing movies. 

His legacy is found on the pages of Life and Sports Illustrated. He can boast a career as a writer as well, crafting articles for Surfer, Surf Guide, and International Surfing and later as an author of books. In the preface of one of Van Dyke's books, 30 Years of Riding the World's Biggest Waves, author James Hall says the surfer has the intellectual traits of an ancient philosopher. And after talking to the gentlemanly Van Dyke for just half an hour, you'd agree. Van Dyke is, despite his talent and fame, a humble, patient and witty man. Back in the days when the journalists flew in from New York and Los Angeles to cover the North Shore big-wave beat in Hawaii, they soon discovered another of Van Dyke's talents: the knockout quote. Like other surfers speaking with reporters, he would talk about big-wave thrills and danger, but he would also go into the psychosis of surfing, and he would do it with a grimly articulate flair. Van Dyke would tell it all. He admitted how in reality it was an overwhelming discomfort in big waves that allowed him to become the voice of big-wave surfing. 
I was a fanatic. That's a horrible word, but it exactly describes what I was, says Van Dyke with an almost disappointed expression on his face. My whole life revolved around surfing. People like me weren't dependable; I'd drop out of anything because of surfing; I blew out two marriages because of surfing. It was a literal addiction.
The magazine Life Australia described the Surfer Syndrome [as]a case of arrested development. Despite his obsession with surfing and his success, Van Dyke maintains high regards toward nature, education and a non-materialistic attitude. Surfing was what transformed and enlightened his life. I did not get fixated on my surfing life. I knew when to stop. And I know how to enjoy beauty wherever it is, he says.          
Van Dyke shares his life with his wife, Joan, of whom he says I could never love someone as I love her. They split their time between Bozeman and Lanakai, Hawaii. He sold his dream beachfront house in Pupunea in 1997 to be able to get his next dream house on the outskirts of Bozeman, in the Hyalite foothills. I'm happy I was able to give up on my house in Hawaii one fine day. We stay at Joan's house when we go to Hawaii now. I loved that house very much and it almost broke my heart to sell it, but I'd do it again, says Van Dyke. 
Although it's hard to imagine such a water-oriented person in love with mountainous surroundings, Van Dyke is. When I come here [to Bozeman] I feel like I'm surfing 20 feet waves. Sometimes I'm happier in Bozeman than anywhere else in the world, he explains. Surfing owned him for a long time but he keeps his distance from it today. He still enjoys surfing once in a while. I go swimming more than anything. I can swim like a fish, he says, declaring himself fond of the pool at Montana State University in Bozeman. 
Swimming is what's safe for him now. Van Dyke recently had some balance problems that kept him from surfing and skiing last year. It broke my heart I couldn't ski last winter, he says. Hopefully I'll make it the next. It blew me away I couldn't stand on the skis. I just couldn't do it. All I could do at Bridger last year was to watch Joan skiing, he says, his eyes welling up.

Van Dyke's love for Montana is not a recent twist. A San Francisco native, he first came here 51 years ago. When I'm here, I feel the luckiest person on earth, he says. I didn't even think about it at first. I used to go to southern parts of Wyoming, in the wilderness, but my parents were here often, and one of those times I finally met with them. They told me about the fishing I've loved fishing since I was four years old, you know. Fishing helps Van Dyke take pressure off his life. It's like closing a door on the world, on the wrong people in my life who tried to control me, on all the problems. I know how to relax, it's not that. Fishing truly enhances my life and I've practiced it everywhere I've gone. I love traveling for great fishing. 
He is now content in the house that he and his wife have made together. Joan's fantastic taste made the house beautiful and the surroundings are so wonderful, you couldn't ask for more, he says. And when I relate to Montana I do it with Bozeman in mind. It's a very unusual place, a place where you almost need to return each time.
" Originally from Italy, Lara Vaienti is a writer who lives in Bozeman

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