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Surfers throw flowers into the ocean to celebrate the life of John Cunnison, who went missing this January in the Del Norte County redwoods. Friends and family said Cunnison should be remembered for always wanting to help others, whether acquaintances or family. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Surfer remembered for love of family and nature at paddleout

ENCINITAS — Friends and family recalled that John Cunnison was the kind of guy who would give anyone the shirt off his back. Or, more accurately, he’d offer anyone the surfboard in his car. 

“Even if he just met you, he would say, ‘Hey, let’s go surf; I have an extra board in my car,’” said Mike Cunnison, John’s fraternal twin brother. “If you didn’t surf, he’d teach you.”

On Oct. 5, around 50 people gathered at Moonlight Beach for a paddleout in his honor. John, 62, went missing in the Del Norte County redwoods on Jan. 22, and was never found.

For many in the community, John is best remembered for resurrecting the Swami’s Surfing Association in 1983. Founded in 1964, membership dwindled in the early 1980s due to surfers in the association moving away or losing interest.

“With his own money, he started the club up again,” Mike said. “There likely would not be a Swami’s Surfing Association right now if it wasn’t for my brother.”

Mike and John, who attended Paul Ecke Central, began surfing in fifth grade, after their dad bought them a surfboard crafted by well-known shaper Skip Frye. They were immediately hooked.

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John Cunnison and daughter Lalena nearly 30 years ago. Courtesy photo

“We’d surf Moonlight and Beacon’s most of the year, and Swami’s in the winter,” Mike said.

Later, John’s love of waves put him at the center of the surf industry. In the late 1960s, he worked for Surf Research when it became the first company to develop wax specifically for surfing.

Previously, surfers rubbed Paraffin wax on their boards to stop slipping and sliding. But no more with the advent of the stickier surf wax, which John helped manufacture. His experience in the industry didn’t end there — he helped shape boards for Hansen’s throughout the 1970s.

He was also one of the first surfers to paddle into waves at Tavarua, Fiji, home to famed spots like Cloudbreak and Restaurants. Legendary surfer Gerry Lopez was among those traveling with him.

“They all had a little hut they camped out in at night,” Mike said. “In they day, they would take a boat out and find breaks.”

Lalena Cunnison, John’s daughter, said she’ll always remember the surf trips the family took.

“Going to Hawaii or Cabo — we went a lot of places,” she said. “I think the best memories for me was going to a break called The Ranch in Santa Barbara.”

When visiting Oregon in the early 1980s, John would meet his wife, Marleen Cunnison. They had Lalena and son Donovan, and Marleen had two children from a previous marriage. Lalena noted they became “a happy modern family.”

Josh Englund, John’s stepson, recalled how John would often take all the kids surfing at 4 a.m., checking breaks before the sun came up. For Englund, that introduction to surfing inspired him to relocate to Encinitas later in life.

And John’s friendly nature extended to nearly everyone he met, Lalena said.

“He was nicest guy,” Lalena said. “We would go to the grocery store and he would make friends in a minute.”

While gregarious, he preferred a slower pace of life. Encinitas became too crowded for his taste, so he eyed moving up north in 1999. He settled on living in Jacksonville, Ore., for a few different reasons.

For one, the city had the small town feel he was looking for. And more importantly, his mom lived there.

“My mom had Alzheimer’s,” Mike said. “He promised he wouldn’t put her in a home and that he would take care of her. And he was a man of his word.”

When not working as optician, or side jobs, he preferred being in nature.

“Oregon fit him like a glove,” Mike said. “He would sail, paint and camp all the time.”

“He absolutely loved nature,” Lalena said. “He was mushroom picking and gold mining a lot in 2012.”

Earlier this year, John and a friend went mushroom picking in the Del Norte County redwoods. His friend remained in the car while John walked down a hill in search of hedgehog and yellowfoot chanterelles mushrooms. They only intended to stay for an hour or so. But John didn’t return to the car later that day. Concerned, his friend reported him as missing, and an official search was called.

A storm front moved in that night, causing three inches of rain to pour down on the area, known for labyrinth-like trees and bushes. The temperature also dropped below freezing in the evening. And the clouds were so low that a search helicopter couldn’t fly over the area.

Lalena, who flew up there shortly after John went missing, noted, “the cards were stacked against him.”

Del Norte Search and Rescue suspended the search after four days. A subsequent search this September, which Lalena was also a part of, wasn’t able to locate him.

“Forty volunteers came from all over to look for him,” Lalena said. “They said they wanted me to have closure. For that, I was so grateful.”

Lalena noted she was also grateful to see so many of John’s friends, many of whom hadn’t seen him in a decade, at the paddleout.

“The way that he passed away was so sad, but it was so beautiful all his friends could appreciate what a great guy he was, and let him rest in peace,” Lalena said.