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City surfing North of 60

American surf shop legends follow the dotted lines to Yellowknife

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 14/02) - Fred Henne Park manager Vince Dixon had an unenviable job: explain surfing to an Inuit carver.


Ron and Lynne DiMenna are too camera-shy to pose for a picture, but they were happy to show off the soapstone surfing inuksuk, carved for them by a local Inuk. - Nathan VanderKlippe/NNSL photo

Luckily, he had a bit of help. He pointed the carver to an airbrushed surfer motif on the side of a mammoth, 45-foot motorhome that just happened to be in town.

The RV belonged to Ron and Lynne DiMenna, the owners of Ron Jon Surf Shop, an illustrious chain that got its start in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

The DiMennas have built the shop into a 210-employee piece of international renown, in part on the catchiness of their "one of a kind" slogan.

And now they have another one-of-a-kind piece -- a genuine Inuit carving of a surfer rolling through a carved wave.

"It's a one-of-a-kind rock surfer," said Ron.

So what brings a couple from Florida to Yellowknife?

"We follow the weather," said Ron.

But they may have followed the sunshine a little too far this time. When Ron went out pike fishing, he had to don a down jacket -- good to -40. Florida's warmth, he says, changes the blood.

They have rolled across just about every point of the continent in their Greyhound-sized motorhome. And, whether they're honest or simply good at catering to an audience, they say they love Canada.

Lynne tells a story of one return trip to the United States that didn't go so well. Right after rolling off a ferry into Bellingham, Wash., just south of Vancouver, a lady swerved in front of their motorhome and gave them the finger.

"We stopped, picked up some bagels and said, 'That's it, we're going back to Canada,'" said Lynne.

In fact, they're both Australian citizens as well as Americans. That gives them some common ground with Canadians, said Lynne.

"We like the Queen, too," she said.

They also like Yellowknife, and rave about the fish at Bullocks and the French cuisine at L'Heritage. It was their first time in town, and they spent a week at Fred Henne Park.

Yellowknife reminds them of Cocoa Beach, Fla., their home base. When they first moved there in the early 1960s, it was a frontier-style boom town, built on the backs of the space centre nearby.

"You see that spirit in the people here (in Yellowknife)," he said.

Their travelling philosophy is to stay away from the main thoroughfares as much as possible, keeping to "the dotted lines on the map." They've travelled to all of the Canadian provinces and territories save Nunavut. It's hard to drive a 45-foot motorhome into a territory without road access.

It's not all leisure, though. The motorhome has a fax machine, and Ron and Lynne get weekly sales updates from their stores.

Travel bug

The DiMennas have always had the travel bug. When they started their Cocoa Beach shop in 1963, they lived in the back of a pickup truck for the first four months -- waking up with the sun to surf in the morning, then heading in to work.

Ron started selling boards when he started surfing.

His father, a grocer and butcher, told him to pick up a couple of extra surfboards from California, where he went to buy from the new breed of mass-produced "pop-out" boards.

Ron brought them back to Manahawkin, N.J., and propped them up in front of the grocery store. Soon enough all three were gone. Next he sold five. And the ball rolled from there.

Over four decades, his surf shop has evolved into an attraction with an international reputation. His skill in advertising is a simple matter of street smarts, says Lynne -- watching what others are doing, then emulating it.

His story matches that of others in the U.S., like Wall Drug and South of the Border -- both destinations that have ingeniously used billboards, bumper stickers and word of mouth to become famous far beyond the products they sell.

It's also given him a liberty not everyone else can have: living in a motorhome since 1986, meeting a genuinely representative cross-section of this continent's population.

But somehow, it all still comes back to the surfing.

"Travelling is surfing," he said. "You're always looking for a new surf spot. Travelling is the same thing."