August 12, 2011

Walking on water: discovering standup paddleboarding

Shouldering a 10-foot standup paddleboard to the bank of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, I suddenly felt imbued with the coolness of surfing. As a landlocked mountain junkie, this was an unfamiliar experience. A teenager asked where I was going and I felt a sudden urge to call him “brah.” The glances of passing girls lingered a bit longer than usual. Then I realized, man, these paddleboards get pretty heavy after a couple blocks.

As people on the river path oggled, I, in true surfer style, pretended to be too cool to notice. In reality, I couldn’t move my head — I had no idea how to carry that damn board, and angling it across my shoulder and head while holding it with one arm might have looked cool, but I was well on my way to rupturing every muscle in my neck.

At the riverbank, I laid the board down in the water — and after slowly straightening my neck with great delicacy — proceeded to act like I knew what I was doing. I had high hopes this would go better than the time I attempted surfing in the ocean and repeatedly cartwheeled through the surf like a drunken rag doll in a spin cycle. It’s possible I was the most uncool surfer of all time.

A website I’d read somewhere said to start paddleboarding on your knees, so I tried that as I clambered onto the board and cautiously paddled into the Clark Fork’s current. It was surprisingly stable, and in a few minutes I stood up and was paddling against the moving water like, well, someone who actually knew what they were doing.

“Oooh, there’s one of those boards!” people walking on the river path called out. Children made their parents stop and watch. This was so much better than the whole drunken rag doll thing.
A little ways up the shore a pair of college girls in tiny shorts appeared with paddleboards. As I drew closer I heard one mention it was their first time out. Smiling to the gods of fate, I paddled over to dispense pearls of wisdom.

“It’s easier if you start on your knees,” I said, authoritatively. Within ten minutes — and with some expert coaching, of course — they were both on their feet and paddling up and down the river.

After chatting for a while with my new friends, I turned back downriver, the sun warming my skin as I floated on my feet along the water’s smooth, cool flow. Ospreys and kingfishers winging across a robin-egg sky. Standing over the water offered excellent views into the river itself, which on the Clark Fork in downtown Missoula unfortunately meant glimpses of submerged shopping carts and beer cans. But it also meant views of fish, and it occurred to me that fishing from a paddleboard would be a snap (and it turns out they now make boards with integrated rod holders and tackleboxes for this very purpose).

Lash points on the board’s tip meant you could easily tie down lightweight camping equipment in a dry bag, and I began daydreaming about expeditions in the canyon’s of Utah or the coast of British Columbia. Later, I would learn that people had already completed multi-day paddleboard trips down the Yellowstone River. I’d only been on one for a few minutes, but it was already obvious that standup paddleboarding had a lot of potential.

Every so often a new sport comes along that delivers a seismic shift to the recreation landscape and forever changes how we experience the outdoors. Two examples from recent decades are mountain bikes and snowboards. Now add standup paddleboarding to the list.

**After the jump, you can read the rest of my article from Montana Headwall magazine about the local whitewater SUP scene around Missoula and see images of the local hardcores surfing waves in class III rivers.


Accounts of its origins vary, with the use of conceptually similar craft in Bolivia, China, and ancient Polynesia, but everyone agrees modern standup paddleboarding, or SUP for short, emerged in Hawaii. Though surf instructors in Waikiki began using paddles with their longboards in the 1950s, the sport as we know it today kicked off in the year 2000 when a few surfers in Hawaii, led by surfing dons Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, began playing with paddles during periods of poor waves. They were instantly hooked. You could see the water and incoming sets better, it was a great workout, and it was fun even when the surf sucked. The more they did it, the more other people gave it a try, and a new sport was born.

The original handful of companies mass-producing paddleboards have been joined by dozens of others, and the craze is spreading liking a tsunami around the globe. Surfers are doing it! Jennifer Aniston is doing it! There are no less than four different SUP magazines and paddleboard races in Manhattan, Tahiti, and, naturally, Venice. Heck, you can’t throw a silicone implant off the coast of Southern California without hitting someone or other on a standup paddleboard.

Of course, I wasn’t the first person in Western Montana trying it out. For the last two years rivermen Kevin “KB” Brown and Luke Rieker, the owners of Strongwater, a kayak and paddleboard shop a block from the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, have been on the front of the paddleboarding wave. In 2009, they became the first shop in Montana to sell paddleboards. (They also rent them, and both the college girls and I rented our boards there.)

Brown, now possibly the best whitewater SUPer in the state, admits that when he first learned of the sport in 2007 he wasn’t convinced. “As a kayaker, I had trouble envisioning standing on a surfboard and riding down a river,” he says.

Then in the spring of 2009, as the buzz in the watersports world over paddleboarding became to loud to ignore, he and Luke took a couple boards out to Frenchtown Pond for a trial session. It only took a couple minutes before KB says he realized, “This is the ticket!”

Rieker, who was equally smitten, says they both had the same thought — “Let’s get these on the river!”

At that time standup paddleboards were becoming established as a great way to catch waves on the ocean and to cruise around lakes and flatwater, but the idea of taking them on rivers was new, with a only a few pioneers in Colorado and elsewhere exploring the possibilities. It only took one time out for Brown and Rieker to see the potential.

The very next day after their Frenchtown epiphany they headed for the Blackfoot River and paddled the stretch of class II water from Whitaker Bridge to Johnsrud. As Rieker puts it, “The floodgates were opened that day.”

They not only ran the river successfully (with a few unplanned swims, mind you), but they were able to surf the wave at The Ledge. “On our kayaks it took us three years to surf that wave,” says Rieker, “but there we were doing it on only our second day paddleboarding.”

After this revelation, they returned to the Blackfoot again and again, addicted to the rush of navigating the river on boards. Both Brown and Rieker are sponsored kayakers who had long grown tired of the relatively mild rapids on the Blackfoot, but doing it on paddleboards changed everything. As Rieker says, “My heart was racing coming into Thibideau — it turns class II rapids into class IV.”

When Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula came in shortly thereafter, there was no question where the boys wanted to be. The water stayed up for weeks, and they routinely attracted crowds of spectators. “It was mind-blowing to people what you could do,” Brown says. “Everyone was saying, ‘Whoah! Surfing on the river!”

Next up was Pipeline, the monster wave on the Lochsa. Brennan’s Wave was one thing, but Pipeline was a big, wild wave on a fast-moving river. Brown says he was able to paddle right into it and surf it on his first try. “It was so doable — that’s what sold us on it,” says Brown. “After we hit Pipeline, we hardly wanted to kayak anymore.”

Which for Brown is saying something. The formerly diehard kayaker, and the organizer of the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships at Brennan’s Wave in the summer of 2010, Brown explains what he loves about paddleboarding: “It’s not as confined and claustrophobic. You can see down in the water better and it’s a great workout. It’s just a really free and cool way to get around the water.”

Or, as Rieker explains, “It just feels like how you should be going down the river.”

After Pipeline, with their confidence on moving water and waves growing, there remained one obvious test — the Alberton Gorge. the region’s most notorious stretch of whitewater, an extended run of boiling class III and IV rapids, it didn’t seem like a good candidate for standup paddleboarding.
That’s what Rieker thought anyway. He wanted no part of it on a paddleboard. Surfing waves was one thing, but he wasn’t convinced that running rowdy whitewater on a paddleboard would work. “I just didn’t think it was possible,” he says. “I didn’t think you could run that river.”

Like all mountain sport visionaries, Brown saw things differently. After his many runs on the Blackfoot, he believed the Gorge was runnable. When the water level hit 7,000 cubic feet per second that spring of 2009 they went to out to give it a try, Rieker in his kayak, Brown on his SUP.

“I will eat an entire pine cone if KB makes it through this rapid,” Rieker said to a kayaker next to him in an eddy below the Triple Bridges Rapid, where they waited for Brown to come and meet the first major test of his run down the Gorge. “There is no way.”

Turns out, there was a way. Brown charged straight into the rapid and made it without falling. In fact, he made the entire churning gauntlet of the Gorge with only a couple swims. Here was yet another revelation — you could standup paddleboard class III rivers.

The very next day they were back running the Gorge again, except this time Rieker was on a paddleboard, too, and the deal, as they say, was sealed.

“From that day on our lives have never been the same,” says Brown about his first Gorge run. “We started running rivers on our boards all the time.”

When Brown says “all the time,” he means it. They’ve been out every month of year since, frequently paddling during the winter in drysuits whenever the water is up.

“There’s only a handful of people in the world doing what we’re doing,” KB says about their passion for running and surfing rowdy rivers on paddleboards. “But it’ll get big — it’ll be bigger than kayaking.”

Brown may be a true believer, but he may also be right, especially if you include flatwater and mellow river paddling in the mix. There may never be a flood of people paddleboarding Alberton Gorge, but as I experienced on my first paddle on the Clark Fork, placid water is a blast, too, whether you know what you’re doing or not.


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