North Coast provides a challenge to surfers

The North Coast is dramatic, the Pacific Ocean crashes over towering rock stacks and against steep cliffs, the surf walls up and pushes into coves.

Noisy, dangerous, breath-taking and harsh, it also shapes the sport of surfing, which during the past two decades has taken a firm hold north of the Golden Gate.

The winter of 2010 has been particularly rough, with January storms stirring up swells that have made some memorable days for experienced surfers, but the nature of the North Coast remains daunting.

"The water is cold and it is rough and it is not Southern California and there are sharks," said Mike Frey of Rohnert Park, a long-time surfer.

"Those are what keep people out of the water," said Frey, chairman of the Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting area beaches and the waves that crash over them.

Nick Marlow, owner of Northern Light Surf Shop in Bodega, said the coast here breeds a surfer who is independent and strongly individualistic, but at the same time part of a tight-knit network that often mark their weeks by the tides and the size of the swells they bring.

"Our coastline up here is definitely more exposed than a lot of surf communities, like Santa Cruz, which everyone compares us to," Marlow said. "There are a lot of surfers up here, but because the spots are spread out, it is not as concentrated. Surfers tend to be not as aggressive."

There is no way to get a real count of the number of surfers in Sonoma County, the surfing spots are too spread out. Some say there is a core of 100, others guess 1,000.

On the West Coast, surfing was a $2.4 billion business in 2008, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, a slight dip from 2004, even though anecdotally most feel the surf boom of the 1990s is continuing.

Marlow, who has owned Northern Light for 16 years, has a different measure: "It used to be you recognized everyone who comes through the door, but now you see a lot more unfamiliar faces. There are a lot of surfers up here."

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