I used to feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of river sports when I paddled by a drift boat full of avid anglers or a flotilla of hard-charging kayakers. They’d look up and acknowledge me with an indifferent glance, returning in an instant to their task at hand – tying on a new fly, popping a cartwheel or showing off their roll.
And, truth be told, I didn’t blame them. We didn’t look cool. In fact we looked like total dorks. Our noodley first generation boards barely floated above the water’s surface. We ran riffles and mellow rapids awkwardly and bereft of style – bent forward, knees locked and paddle madly slicing through the air. We fell a lot and some of our tribe failed to heed the most basic of river safety tips and headed downriver without water shoes, helmets or even life jackets. Add all that to the cheesy-sounding acronym – SUP – that the sport is saddled with and it’s easy to see how earning respect in those early days was difficult.
But we didn’t really care what bro-brah kayakers or some geared-up water swatter thought about us. We were having way too much fun.
Stand up paddleboarding made our local rivers, nearly all Class I and II, feel fresh and new. Suddenly, the Class I riffles we’d yawned through in a canoe or kayak became exciting and challenging. The boulder gardens we blasted over during run off and abandoned during low water turned into perfect stretches for honing paddle strokes and practicing eddy turns and ferries. And the big Class III water an hour out of town, the run that all the outfitters take their clients down? We eventually started running that too, once our skills and the board shapes improved enough for it to be safe. Sure we swim occasionally, but there’s no need to learn to roll or bail a boat after a swim. You just climb back on the board, stand up and keep paddling.
Because the boards are relatively light (my boards weigh about 25 pounds each, compared to my canoe which weighs 80 and most rotomolded kayaks which weigh upwards of 35 or 40 pounds), you can carry them to put ins that you’d avoid with any other boat. No ramp, no problem. This simple fact affords me so much more water than my fishing and rafting friends ever get the chance to float.
I live in Montana and I paddle from March to November. I don’t own a drysuit (yet), so I make do with some neoprene and a dry top I bought at a yard sale. When the water level is right, I hit a natural wave a few miles out of town and do my best to surf. If I’m feeling mellow, I put in a few blocks from my house and eddy hop upstream for 45 minutes or an hour and then float back. In peak summer months, we spend weeknights and weekend days floating down gorgeous stretches of river, slipping off the board to cool off in the refreshing water.
I’ve strapped multiple days-worth of food and gear to my board on several self-supported expeditions, from Utah to South Carolina. (Did I mention the boards fit into standard checked baggage on a plane? Good luck doing that with a kayak). I’ve even lashed my deflated board and some camping gear to a bike trailer, ridden from my house into the mountains and then put the bike, gear and trailer on the inflated board and paddled back home.
But it’s not all rapids and multi-day epics. My wife and I (and the dog) love paddling lakes and flat rivers too. We’re higher up than we would be in most boats, so our sight lines extend farther. We’re not just sitting there, baking in a canoe or stuffed into a kayak worried about a wet exit. We’re active, engaging our cores and arms and legs. If the waves get rocking or our legs get tired, we just kneel down or take a seat. We do the same when the wind blows or during long days, when we need a break but don’t want to pull over to shore. Turns out you don’t have to stand up all the time to enjoy stand up paddleboarding.
If you’ve never seen Caddyshack, that classic bit of 1980’s film, you have to check it out. Sure Rodney Dangerfield’s character may be a bit goofy and unpolished, but he spends most of the movie gleefully disrupting the stuffy, boring and snooty vibe at the country club he’s become a member of. And there’s no doubt he’s having more fun than anyone else.