To catch a wave, timing is everything. Paddle too early or too late and you’ll miss it. You can get lucky occasionally but not consistently. Geophysicist and geologist Garth Kirkham knows this literally and metaphorically. He’s a passionate outrigger canoeist in a sport invented by the Polynesians, perfected in Hawaii and popular in Vancouver’s inner harbour. A seasoned waterman can steer an outrigger onto huge ocean waves; a beginner would wallow and flip. Kirkham has paddled in the biggest outrigger race in the world, the Molokai Hoe, a 62-kilometre crossing between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu. Six times.

Meanwhile, in his professional life, he’s surfed his way through a 35-year career, seamlessly linking one emerging trend to another in an endless ride. A tireless volunteer and mentor, at 57 years old, he just won the CJ Westerman Memorial Award, the highest honour for a geoscientist.

“Maybe I subliminally planned it all, but at the time it felt like everything just fell into place,” Kirkham says.

Kirkham grew up in Edmonton. After high school, with no idea what he wanted to do, he dabbled at the University of Alberta, first in commerce and then in engineering. “I hated it,” he remembers. And it showed. “The dean asked me to take a holiday.”

Pondering his future, he considered his past. He liked the thinking in commerce, but it didn’t have enough math; engineering had the math, but not enough original thought; and he liked geology. When he told a counsellor, she told him he was a geophysicist, and Kirkham started the next semester.

The fit was perfect. The geology faculty was tight. With a beer fridge in the lab, they’d hang out all night identifying minerals and playing ping pong.

After graduation, he worked in the Calgary oil patch. It was the early days of computers – Pac-Man, Space Invaders and multimillion-dollar, 10-megabyte mainframe computers. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is Star Wars science,’” he says. “It was the perfect job for me, combining the geology, the physics, the engineering, and I was at the forefront of the tech curve.” In other words, he was ready for the wave.

When the oil industry took a dive, Kirkham found himself in Vancouver – a friend had invited him on a sailing trip. Kirkham never returned to Calgary. “I fell in love with the city,” he says. “The connection to the water and mountains. The lifestyle. I can’t imagine living anywhere else now.”

At the time, the mining industry was five years behind the oil industry in three-dimensional, computer modelling. Kirkham had skills and experience that few others in Vancouver had. He landed a new job in a week with Lynx Geosystems, an early adopter of 3D modelling in mineral exploration. He worked with clients mapping deposits just as the early personal computers came out.

“A lot of the methodologies and algorithms created then are still used today,” he says. “Just the horsepower has increased.”

Early in 1997, Kirkham started looking for a new wave to ride. It seemed like a good time to head out on his own. Mining stocks were flying; investors wanted to get in early on the next Bre-X. The Calgary-based miner had discovered a massive gold deposit in Indonesia. Its share price launched from pennies to more than $200. Then the illusion came crashing down – a Bre-X geologist had salted the ore samples. The stock crashed, bringing the rest of the mining industry with it and exposing other bad habits, like insiders performing resource estimates and then cashing in when the stock rose.

“All of a sudden, we were looked at in the same league as ambulance chasing lawyers,” recalls Kirkham. “We had no credibility.”

And there was Kirkham, the principal at Kirkham Geosystems Ltd., with one client and a new baby on his knee. “The prospects were really brutal,” he says. But again, he had positioned himself to catch the next ride. In the Bre-X aftermath, the stock exchanges and security commissions introduced National Instrument 43-101. To protect investors, it mandated that professionals with no vested interest would sign off on all reserve and resource estimates.

“Ever since I could remember, rules were really important to me,” says Kirkham. “In elementary school, if I saw someone cheating in a game I would either cry or start swinging.”

He embraced NI 43-101. “Garth has been at the forefront of both the implementation and coming up with best practices guidelines for these regulations,” says Lindsay Bottomer, a geologist formerly with Entrée Gold Inc. “He helped the industry come up with more credibility than it had previously.”

Kirkham got involved with the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC), working on implementing NI 43-101. APEGBC, in particular, takes wrongdoers to task with fines and disciplinary actions.

The goal was to protect the public, but it also helped the mining industry. “It really cleaned up the industry and improved public trust,” says Kirkham. “I think it stopped things from happening. It’s a pretty extreme deterrent.”

But he also admits rules and regulations stifle the industry. “A lot of major deposits started with a guy with a big mouth who said ‘Invest and I’ll show you it’s huge,’” says Kirkham. “Under NI 43-101, you sometimes have to spend more money drilling it than digging it.”

But a chance encounter squashed any doubts Kirkham ever held about NI 43-101 advantages. When he told a university acquaintance what he was doing, he dismissed its importance, saying, “It’s not like anyone’s died.” To which she replied: “Actually, my husband did die.” He’d invested a lot of money in an overhyped play, lost it all and committed suicide.

“I take the regulations seriously and I think most of my colleagues do too,” Kirkham says. “Most professionals want to do the right thing.”

It’s that kind of attitude that keeps Kirkham busy in the present downturn. A full roster of clients hire him to do resource estimates. Plus, he’s the president of CIM, is the Geoscientists Canada director for APEGBC , and has held several positions with the Geological Association of Canada. He also travels to universities across the country lecturing on NI 43-101.

Taken together, it was no surprise when he won the 2015 C J Westerman Memorial Award from APEGBC . “It was a big highlight,” Kirkham says. “My speech was even funny. It’s the biggest award I could win. But how do I follow this up?”

With an even bigger wave, of course. No doubt he’s already positioning himself for the next ride.