RUS­SELL BIERKE

HOW A BIG WAVE SURFER COMES OF AGE.

Tracks - - Contents - BY BRETT BURCHER

When it comes to the ge­netic im­prints of a fa­ther and son, in most in­stances, the ap­ple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For Kirk Bierke, in­stead of ap­ples, his tree har­vests co­conuts, big ones. When his first born, Rus­sell, fell from the tree, some­where be­tween free-fall and im­pact, an ir­reg­u­lar por­tion of tweaked chro­mo­somes were ac­ti­vated. If you closely con­sider Russ’s bold fear­less­ness and seem­ingly bru­tal in­tent to cause self-harm in waves of con­se­quence, it’s hard to de­ci­pher whether there are more dam­aged chro­mo­somes than full func­tion­ing ones. Aside from sci­en­tific the­o­ries, it’s also plau­si­ble to as­sume that he may have been sub­ject to some form of men­tal or phys­i­cal abuse dur­ing his child­hood. When I first wit­nessed his per­ceived reck­less­ness in heavy waves, I imag­ined hours spent in a dark dun­geon or an aban­doned fac­tory fit­ted with chains, starved to within a grain of his life. As truth would have it, his fa­ther Kirk does own a fac­tory, but in­stead of hous­ing tor­ture ap­pa­ra­tus, it’s filled with foam dust, big wave guns, years of ex­pe­ri­ence and a sup­port­ive na­ture that helps ex­plain the un­mis­tak­able pro­gram­ming of Aus­tralia’s big wave fu­ture, Russ Bierke.

Be­fore the man­i­fes­ta­tion of Rus­sell was even a twin­kle in his fa­ther’s eye, Kirk was al­ready busy em­brac­ing the perks of the ‘Bierke’ gene pool. Born in Iowa, in the mid west United States, Kirk grew up in Wis­con­sin till the age of 9, be­fore his fam­ily moved to L.A. He learnt to surf at nearby Tor­rance Beach and cut his teeth on the di­verse reefs sur­round­ing the area. It was his early ex­pe­ri­ences surf­ing reef breaks that de­vel­oped his ini­tial in­ter­est in shap­ing. At the time, wear­ing legropes was for­bid­den by the elder gen­er­a­tion. With the shore­line con­sist­ing of ex­posed rocks, los­ing your board gen­er­ally meant game over. Un­able to af­ford buy­ing new boards reg­u­larly, he at­tempted to shape his own. He loved it so much that he con­tin­ued to shape and by the time he moved to Santa Bar­bara af­ter school, he had a Kombi full of home­grown de­signs. Set­tling in to Santa Bar­bara, he be­gan work­ing in a glass­ing fac­tory do­ing filler coats and sanding. Soon af­ter, he rented a bay in the same fac­tory and be­gan shap­ing boards un­der the name of KB surf sticks, sav­ing up his hard earned money for the odd surf trip. Dur­ing one such trip to Gland in 85, he wit­nessed Aus­tralian pro, Steve “Blacky” Wil­son, putting on a back­hand tube-rid­ing ex­hi­bi­tion. Liv­ing in Santa Bar­bara at the time and be­ing a goofy footer, Kirk had never seen any­thing like it. Santa Bar­bara was lit­tered with hol­low right points, but pig dog­ging was still some­what nonex­is­tent at the time. Re­turn­ing home, he de­cided to put Blacky’s ap­proach into prac­tice. Crawl­ing on his hands and knees over jagged rocks af­ter a failed at­tempt, he mo­men­tar­ily wished he had never laid eyes on Blacky. 6 weeks in a cast and with lig­a­ments reat­tached, he was po­litely told not to at­tempt that again in case of a re­peat re­sult. Tak­ing the ad­vice on board, he de­cided he would learn to only go frontside from then on. For the next two years, he didn’t surf back­hand, not a sin­gle wave. When the waves went flat in Cali, he jour­neyed south to Puerto Es­con­dido and did the same thing there, only in much big­ger and heav­ier con­di­tions. “It al­lowed me to tackle some of those big­ger rights in a much dif­fer­ent way than you ever would on your back­hand” he says. His very first sea­son in Hawaii in 86/87, Kirk surfed every­where switch foot, in­clud­ing Waimea and Back­door. The weed was pretty strong back then, which may have helped his cause, but Kirk’s an­tics had cer­tain char­ac­ters con­vinced they were los­ing their mar­bles. “Back then you had the dif­fer­ent crews, and peo­ple loved to surf at their favourite places,” he says. “With spots work­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously, one crew of goofys would go to the lefts and the nat­u­ral foot­ers would go to the rights. I would surf with the reg­u­lar foot­ers and go frontside, then the next day surf the lefts go­ing frontside… Den­nis Pang walked up to me one day and goes ‘Do you go switch foot” and I was like ‘Yeah’ and he turned straight to Mark Foo and said ‘See, I told you.’” For two straight years Kirk had the lo­cals think­ing he was two dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Kirk’s even­tual move to Hawaii stemmed from his pas­sion for surf­ing and shap­ing. “Shap­ing big boards was al­ways an at­trac­tion for me, but in Cali, you can

make boards for good days, and then stare at them for 3 months be­cause there is no con­sis­tency to the surf,” re­flects Kirk. A revo­lu­tion­ary surf trip to Puerto in 84 fur­ther de­vel­oped his love for big waves. It opened his eyes to the chal­lenges as­so­ci­ated with surf­ing waves of that size, and also to ques­tions board de­sign. “It just wasn’t adding up, I liked big waves, I shaped big boards but I was liv­ing in Santa Bar­bara”. Af­ter 5 or 6 years of ex­per­i­ment­ing with de­signs that he never got the chance to try, he be­gan notic­ing trav­el­ling shapers re­turn to Cali with new and im­proved skills. “I watched guys go to Hawaii, and come back with shap­ing skills so far ad­vanced in a short amount of time and I thought that’s where I have to go”. He packed up and ar­rived in Hawaii with the in­ten­tion of spend­ing 2 years there. He stayed 16. Kirk fell in love with the place, and also found love in re­turn, meet­ing his fu­ture Aus­tralian wife Leanne at Tur­tle Bay disco. In 1997, Rus­sell was born. He was first in­tro­duced to the ocean on the North Shore, learn­ing to surf in the key­hole on the way out to Rocky Point rights. While Kirk was work­ing, Leanne would take him down to the beach and push him onto the in­side rip­ples. They re­mained in Hawaii un­til 2002, depart­ing just 2 weeks shy of Russ’s fifth birth­day. Re­lo­cat­ing to Aus­tralia, Russ’s younger sis­ter Claire was born in Mur­willum­bah in 2003. The fam­ily be­gan surf­ing as a unit, and it wasn’t long be­fore Russ was jostling his par­ents for waves out the back.

An ac­cu­mu­la­tion of events first warned Kirk that per­haps Rus­sell wasn’t quite pro­grammed like most other sprout­ing young­sters. One event in par­tic­u­lar took place at Barton Lynch’s an­nual grom com­pe­ti­tion dur­ing a wild and wooly swell. “He had the brain­power to time the sets so he could make it out the back, sit and wait for a suit­able wave and then put him­self in the right place to catch it,” says Kirk. “He was 10 years old and the surf was at least 8 foot, maybe 10. I couldn’t be­lieve he did that.” If the writ­ing wasn’t on the wall then, things re­ally hit home dur­ing a trip to Hawaii a few years later. “We were surf­ing sun­set one day and it was solid 8-10 foot with only a hand­ful of us out. Rus­sell pad­dled out and just started catch­ing all these waves. In be­tween sets, Owl Chap­man pad­dled over and goes ‘Kirk, what’s up with your kid? How old is he?’ I said he was 13, and he was like ‘WOW! He’s spe­cial.’ Min­utes later, Gerry Lopez pad­dles out on his SUP. I don’t know Gerry at all, never met him, and he looked at me and said ‘Was that your son that was just out here?’ He sits down next to me and re­peats what Owl had just asked and when I told him his age, he went, ‘THIR­TEEN! I can’t think of any 13 year olds that surf this size sun­set and take off out here on the peak. Jeff Hack­man used to surf out here with his dad when he was thir­teen but that’s about it. Are you stoked or are you scared shit­less for him?’”“Stoked, I think?” replied Kirk. As things es­ca­lated into his teens, con­ver­sa­tions like those from Hawaii be­came the norm for Kirk. By the age of 15, Russ’s per­for­mances on the heavy days around home were al­ready be­ing writ­ten into lo­cal folk­lore. Rid­ing a gun that barely ex­ceeded 6 foot, he rode what at the time was the wave of his life at an outer bombie. A 10-foot heav­ing left that avalanched be­hind him as he came off the bot­tom grab­bing his out­side rail, the framed photo still hangs on the wall at the fam­ily home. Burnt in my brain is a ses­sion we shared at an­other outer bombie with just us and one other friend out. It was a win­ter’s af­ter­noon and to put it nicely, the waves were ter­ri­fy­ing. A 17-sec­ond pe­riod swell was draw­ing the reef back as an­gry 12-foot mon­sters det­o­nated un­der a light on­shore mist. If you ne­go­ti­ated the drop, the rights were man­age­able and al­lowed for a quick exit into the chan­nel. The lefts con­sisted of chan­deleir­ing lips and warped sec­tions bend­ing back at you with no real rem­nants of a chan­nel. Russ pro­ceeded to knife sev­eral drops on his 9 foot plus equip­ment and back­door the lefts com­fort­ably for no ob­jec­tive other than his own sat­is­fac­tion. It was one of those mo­ments where you

get to ap­pre­ci­ate first hand the com­mit­ment, men­tal strength and skill it takes to even be in a po­si­tion to ac­com­plish that level of surf­ing. Fast for­ward to the present and in Kirk’s opin­ion the thing that sets Russ apart from most is his cal­cu­la­tive mind. “He has ra­tio­nale be­hind his surf­ing. You can’t make a math­e­ma­ti­cian, they just are, and that’s his case with read­ing the ocean.” 2016 was the year Russ’s cal­cu­la­tive mind started blowing every­one else’s. He not only had ra­tio­nale be­hind his surf­ing, he also had mo­men­tum, and ev­ery wave he pad­dled for sud­denly turned to gold. It was a break­through year for the 19 year old from Ul­ladulla, a year which saw him land mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional surf mag­a­zine cov­ers, re­lease a jaw drop­ping on­line edit and win the Red Bull Cape Fear event. “My surf­ing felt good this past year. The pre­vi­ous few years I’ve had rep­e­ti­tious in­juries that have kept me out of the wa­ter for pe­ri­ods of time” says Russ. “Last year I was in­jury free, every­thing just flowed re­ally well, I lucked into a few swells and the Cape Fear call up be­came a huge op­por­tu­nity.”

Photo: Ryan Craig.

Russ, show­ing off his shock of blonde hair and the talon-grip feet he has built a ca­reer on.

Top: Kirk Bierke at Puerto Es­con­dido, demon­strat­ing that thread­ing bar­rels is in the fam­ily DNA.

Photo: Ord

Be­low: At 56, Kirk is still lean, fit and fo­cused on charg­ing solid waves.

Pho­tos: Ri­de­nourt.

Above: Be­ing a highly skilled, bar­rel rider means you get ac­cess to places of pure bliss. In­set: Just be­cause you ride gi­ants doesn’t mean you can’t cud­dle koalas.

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