The rise of Stand Up Paddle Boarding

I opened an email to find a link to a sale on inflatable paddleboards.

“Perhaps I should try it first before I invest in buying a board,” I wrote back to my friend.

Kelsey Dayton

She was so certain I would love it, there was no need, she said. She after all had bought hers after going only once or twice.

I hadn’t really thought much about Stand Up Paddle boarding, or SUP, until last summer when I visited Jackson and it seemed every other car had a board on top.

The sport has seen a surge in popularity in the last two years, said Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson.

Pruzan tried stand up paddle boarding when visiting a friend in Maui who was resurrecting the sport in Hawaii.

You gotta get good at this now, because it’s going to be huge, his friend said.

Pruzan wasn’t so sure about the prophecy of the sport, but an enthusiast for all water sports he embraced it. The next year Rendezvous River Sports sold its first- and only for 2007- paddleboard.

The next year the store sold five boards, then 15. In 2011 Rendezvous River Sports sold 36 boards. So far they’ve sold 75 in 2012. Last year they had 15 boards to rent. This year the rental fleet grew to 25 boards, and those are out every weekend and sometimes during the week. There are days when the shop even rents more paddleboards than kayaks.

“The growth curve went from steady to straight up,” Pruzan said.

There are now paddleboard specific yoga classes and clubs. It is considered the fastest growing water sport in the world and one of the fastest growing sports in general.

There’s something less intimidating about paddle boarding than sitting in a kayak for some people, and seemingly more adventurous than simply canoeing.

Even on easy water paddle boarding gives a full body workout, more so than canoeing, because the body is forced to maintain balance, Pruzan said.

The sport has mass appeal because anyone can do it. Lakes like String Lake, one of the most popular paddle boarding spots, in Grand Teton National Park are smooth and shallow with few obstacles other than other people. Those looking for more of a challenge can take their boards on the Snake River.

For my first attempt my friend and I headed to Slide Lake outside Jackson. A wind whipped the water.  We noticed no one, other than a lonely canoe, was out on the lake despite the summer Saturday afternoon.

Grace Hammond paddle boards on Slide Lake near Jackson. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Several campers along the shore asked us about the paddleboards, where we got them, and our experience and laughed when they learned we were novices attempting the sport in such a wind. They stopped to watch us push off. Despite its popularity, paddle boarding is still novel enough that we entertained questions and spectators throughout the two days we played with our rented boards.

We didn’t let the wind, or the fact we had an audience, thwart us as we pushed off shore. Wobbling slightly I stood up, but all the stability and ease I had been promised didn’t exist as the wind pushed water over the board and it bobbed over the swells that seemed so tiny on shore and now seemed like ocean-size waves. We spent most of the day paddling from our knees, or even sitting cross legged where we commanded better leverage pushing against the water and the wind.

I wasn’t so sure this was as great a sport as I’d been promised.

But later that night, as the stars began to dot the darkening sky, we made our way back to the shore from our nearby campsite. The air was still and the water like glass. In shorts and long sleeve shirts we pushed off into the quiet, gliding so easily across the water we had to call out to each other, or occasionally flicker our head lamps to make sure we were still nearby. The small shivers I’d felt when we started disappeared as my body warmed up with each push of the paddle.  In the middle of the lake, we sat on our boards and watched the sky until we felt the chill again. Then we carefully stood – it took me two attempts- despite our life jackets, I dreaded the thought of a nighttime swim in the cold water that was already numbing our feet. As we paddled back to shore, careful for the dead trees we’d scouted during the day, an almost full moon began to rise over the mountains. By the time we reached shore it was high in the sky.

Our nighttime paddle was one of the most relaxing and also memorable adventures I’ve had in years.

It is the possibility for adventure or leisure that has made the sport so popular, Pruzan said.

People are taking paddleboards everywhere from Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park to Green River Lakes in the Wind River Mountains.

There is a small contingent of people stand up paddle boarding in whitewater on the Snake River, he said.

Still, Pruzan was surprised at how big the sport has become.

This summer Rendezvous River Sports started offering lessons, mostly for people wanting to learn the sport on the moving water of the Snake River. Some of the people taking lessons this summer had never spent time on the river. Others were surfers, wanting to learn how moving on a river is different than in the ocean.

The newest development is people fishing off paddleboards, Pruzan said. The board offers a unique vantage point where you look directly down on the water.

“It just opens up a whole new array of opportunities,” Pruzan said.

Grace Hammond was so convinced I’d love paddle boarding she tried to convince me (unsuccessfully) to buy a board before I even tried. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Pruzan knows the surge in popularity of paddleboards will eventually plateau, but he thinks they’ll be around for a long time because of their simplicity. That doesn’t mean other paddle sports are going anywhere. Kayaks and canoes remain better for long distance water treks and for overnight sojourns that require camping gear. And each sport has its own challenges – paddling a stand up board in the wind, as I learned on my first outing, is hard.

Paddle boarding, at least at first glance, is a pricey sport to get into. Paddleboards come in a variety of models and sizes to accommodate for different uses from touring to more like surfing, Pruzan said.

Boards at Rendezvous River Sports range from about $800 to $1600, Pruzan said. Rentals at most places cost about $50 for a day.

But the boards are specially shaped and durable. With reasonable care they last at least 15 years – longer than many people keep skis, Pruzan said. The inflatable boards are specially designed like a raft with a complex system that creates stability and durability once inflated, he said.

My friend and I had rented our boards for 24 hours and planned to maximize that time. We woke early and loaded our boards onto the car and headed for String Lake. We pushed our way across the shallow green water, which in some place was so low it barely reached our ankles as we hopped off our boards and pulled them through the sand. We had planned to portage them over to Leigh Lake, but instead found ourselves alone at one end of the lake, stretched out on our backs on our boards in the sun, hands skimming the warm water, staring up at Mount Moran. Now this, I thought, is my kind of sport.

My friend must have agreed. She has since bought two boards of her own. I have yet to invest in my own board, but I have come up with a list of paddling adventures for us to do together- after all, she does own two boards.

Tips for your first paddle from Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports:

  • Relax.
  • Start on all fours, your knees hip-width apart.
  • Stand up straight.
  • Don’t look at your feet, but instead where you are going.
  • Be prepared to get wet. “Everybody falls of their board from time to time.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Spending summer in Lake Tahoe and seeing more SUPs this year than canoes/kayaks. Olds to youngs are all out on the lake with them.