Shouldering a 10-foot stand-up 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 on the sidewalk 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 of blocks.
People on the river path turned and ogled, but 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 straightening my neck with great delicacy—I grabbed the paddle and 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 waves like a drunken rag doll in a spin cycle. It's possible I was the most un-cool surfer of all time.
I had some local pros to thank for getting me to try again. The guys at Strongwater, the kayak and paddleboard shop in Missoula, kept talking about how much fun it was and how anyone, no matter how spectacularly unskilled at surfing they might be, could do it. Once they started renting paddleboards from their storefront near the river, I figured I had to give it a try.
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. The ride felt surprisingly stable, and in a few minutes I stood up and was paddling against the moving water like, well, someone who actually knew what he was doing.
"Oooh, there's one of those boards!" people on the path called out. Children made their parents stop and watch. This was so much better than the whole drunken rag doll thing.
A little way up the shore a pair of college girls in tiny shorts appeared with paddleboards. As I drew closer I heard one mention it was her 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. Turns out they'd rented their boards from Strongwater, too. Within 10 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 winged across a robin-egg sky. Standing over the water offered excellent views into the river itself, which on this part of the Clark Fork 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 tackle boxes 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 canyons of Utah or on 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 stand-up paddleboarding—SUP for short—had a ton 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 stand-up paddleboarding to the list.
Accounts of SUP's origins vary, with conceptually similar boards used in Bolivia, China and ancient Polynesia, but everyone agrees its modern incarnation emerged in Hawaii. Surf instructors in Waikiki began paddling their longboards in the 1950s, but the sport as we know it today kicked off in 2000, when a few mavericks 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 like a tsunami around the globe. Jennifer Aniston is doing it! Rihanna is doing it! Today there are no fewer than four different SUP magazines, and paddleboard races are held in Manhattan, Tahiti, and Venice (both California and Italy). Heck, you can't throw a silicone implant off the coast of Southern California without hitting someone or other on a stand-up 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, have been at the forefront of the SUP revolution. In 2009, they became the first shop in Montana to sell paddleboards.
Brown, now possibly the best whitewater SUP'er in the state, admits he wasn't convinced about the sport when he first learned of it. "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 water-sports world became too loud to ignore, he and Rieker took a couple of boards out to Frenchtown Pond for a trial session. It only took a few minutes before Brown 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 the time, stand-up paddleboards were becoming established as a great way to catch ocean waves or cruise around lakes and flat water, but the idea of taking them on rivers was new, with only a few pioneers exploring the possibilities.
Count Brown and Rieker among them. The 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 Blackfoot successfully (with a few unplanned swims, mind you), but they were also able to surf the popular play 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 rivers standing up. 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 Thibodeau—it turns Class II rapids into Class IV."
Closer to home, the duo hit Brennan's Wave in downtown Missoula; they surfed it almost every day and routinely attracted crowds of spectators. "It was mind-blowing to people what you could do," Brown says. "Everyone was saying, 'Whoa! 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 do-able—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 explains paddleboarding this way: "It's not as confined and claustrophobic as kayaking. 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, there remained one obvious test—the Alberton Gorge. The region's most notorious stretch of whitewater, an extended run of boiling Class III and Class IV rapids, the Gorge didn't seem like a good candidate for stand-up. That's what Rieker thought, anyway. He wanted no part of it. 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.
Brown saw things differently. When the water level hit 7,000 cubic-feet-per-second that spring of 2009, they went 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, waiting for Brown to meet the first major test in the Gorge. "There is no way."
But there was. 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 of swims. Here was yet another revelation—you could stand-up 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. "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 the year since, frequently paddling during the winter in dry suits whenever the water is up.
"There's only a handful of people in the world doing what we're doing," Brown says about their passion for stand-up river running. "But it'll get big—it'll be bigger than kayaking."
He may be a true believer, but he also may be right, especially if you include flat water and mellow river paddling in the mix. There might 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.
Join the SUP’er club
Where to go
One of the beautiful things about SUP’ing is that it can be whatever you want it to be. A peaceful cruise across flat water? You can do that. A Class III adrenaline surge? You can do that, too. The Bitterroot River from Buckhouse Bridge is a perfect put-in for first-timers. After my first try, I became addicted to running the Clark Fork from East Missoula to downtown. It’s a great beginner’s paddle, with one notable rapid and just enough choppy water to keep you on your toes. Flathead Lake is a dream for flat water, and you’d be hard-pressed to find prettier places to paddle than the lakes in the Swan Valley or Glacier National Park. Then, of course, there’s the Flathead and the Blackfoot Rivers, when you’re ready to ramp up the challenge.
Get a board
Strongwater (www.strongwaterkayak.com) on Higgins Avenue in Missoula rents boards and is a short walk from the Clark Fork River. Pink Cowboy Fitness and Recreation Outfitters (pinkcowboy.net) offers rentals at a variety of locations, including Northern Lights Trading Co. in Bozeman and Seeley Lake Recreational Rentals in, you guessed it, Seeley Lake.
If you’d rather buy a board, Strongwater features a variety of models, including a versatile, entry-level Surftech foam board for $700 (with paddle). Bob Ward & Sons (www.bobwards.com) in Missoula and Sportsman & Ski Haus (www.sportsmanskihaus.com) in Kalispell and Whitefish also sell boards, and Sportsman will let you try before you buy.
Stand-up paddleboarding on flat water is about as low-risk as water sports get, but even on the calmest water, a PFD (personal flotation device) is recommended. And once you get on moving water it’s a whole new world. If you plan to hit any sort of rapid, even a Class I, you need to be prepared.
“If you’re going on the river, you need the same type of gear you’d have for a kayak,” says Strongwater co-owner Kevin “KB” Brown. At a minimum that means a PFD, helmet and appropriate footwear.
Knowledge goes a long way, too. “What makes the rivers so doable for us is our kayaking background and knowing how to read the river,” Brown says. His advice before you launch? “Take a swift-water rescue course and get familiar with the river.”
Defying the traditional pleasure curve of outdoor sports—which aren’t always a hoot for beginners—SUP’ing is incredibly easy to learn and boatloads of fun right away. As Brown puts it, “You don’t need a lesson, you just need to get out there and give it a try.”
Okay, so there aren’t any SUP events in Montana yet, but that’s certain to change soon—possibly this summer. Brown, the organizer who brought the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships to Brennan’s Wave in the summer of 2010, is looking into running a Milltown-to-Missoula SUP race that would play off the heritage of the old lumberjack log riders who piloted flotillas of timber down the Blackfoot in centuries past. He and Strongwater co-owner Luke Rieker are also entertaining the prospect of a race down the Alberton Gorge that Rieker says “could be one of the premier whitewater races in the country.”