Okay, so we didn’t cross the Kauai Channel, but last Friday Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, took me stand-up paddling for the first time. The sport –– which is basically standing up on a surfboard with a long canoe paddle and making tracks –– has become a huge phenomenon in ocean spots from NoCal to the North Shore.
Here in Western North Carolina, it provides one more way to get out on the lakes and rivers of the mountain region.
Mark and I left downtown Sylva at 11:30 a.m. and were unloading our boards on the Bear Lake boat ramp, a beautiful half-hour drive later. As we put our gear on, hundreds of Monarch butterflies gathered together in the gravel on the boat ramp, and a lone bass boat with three happy fishermen loaded in.
It was a perfect, sunny day that was going to get cloudy and storm before most people were out of work, and while he knew he was doing me a favor, Mark was looking kind of bummed to be toting along a barney (surf talk for awkward newbie) on what was shaping up to be an epic paddle.
Mark only began stand-up paddling last year, and his job keeps his finger on the pulse of the paddling universe, so don’t feel bad if you don’t know anything about it. He was just slightly worried I would climb on the board, stand up, freak out, and fall down.
But the benign waters of Bear Lake and an 11-foot polyfoam board are a stable platform, and stand-up paddling is a remarkably intuitive sport. We were up and away and I felt fine, a little awkward, but fine. It’s just like standing up in a big old Coleman canoe and paddling, or at least that’s my only analogous experience.
Mark got exposed to the sport last year, when he attended the Outdoor Retailer conference in Salt Lake City. The nation’s biggest whitewater trade expo was head over heels for stand-up paddling.
“The surf show kind of looks at stand-up paddlers as freaks of nature, and they found a welcome home at the OR show,” Singleton said.
Friend and whitewater freestyle guru Jimmy Blakeney, opened up a stand-up paddling school on the Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts, and Mark went with him on a trip.
“I hopped on a board and started paddling right there below Zoar Gap, and I had a blast. It was great,” Singleton said.
Since then, Mark’s been paddling away, and standing up a lot of the time.
“Stand up paddling doesn’t replace kayaking for me. The thing about SUP is it provides some depth to the types of paddling experience we have in WNC,” Mark said.
What SUP provides is, essentially, whatever you bring to it. Laird Hamilton paddles into 30-foot waves. Three women paddled from Kauai to Oahu. Mark and I cruised across Bear Lake on a Friday.
Mark loves the sport because it’s a core-strengthening exercise that’s cured his lower back pain.
“It’s a simple choice. A bottle of Motrin in one hand and SUP in the other. I think I’ll go stand-up paddling,” he said.
But also because it’s fast, low-maintenance and fun.
“It’s a way I can get a paddling workout in during a workday where I wouldn’t be able to get a day off to paddle on the river,” Mark said.
We were only gone about three hours total, having paddled nearly five miles, seen butterflies, a fawn and a waterfall from our spots atop our boards. I loved it, too, and that was just a taste of SUP on the slack water.
Mark also stand-up paddles on the moving part of the Tuckaseegee out front of his home in Cullowhee, navigating Class II rapids equipped with a helmet and a sense of adventure.
“Balance is a skill just like anything else,” Singleton said. “You don’t all of the sudden hop on something and feel your balance right away. It takes time.”
You can get as good and as crazy as you want to with SUP, but you can also get on a board for the first time — like I did — and experience life on the water standing up.