HOW A BIG WAVE SURFER COMES OF AGE.
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.”
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.
Below: At 56, Kirk is still lean, fit and focused on charging solid waves.
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.