Upward mobility: Ryan Guay surfs the Glenwood wave during the 2011 Rocky Mountain Surf Festival. All photos by Fred Marmsater.
When Jason Carey and his team at River Restoration started construction on the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park in 2006, they had little idea the surf wave on the Colorado River would crystalize a new kind of paddlesport in the Rockies. Not traditional kayaking, but standup.
Standup paddling’s roots are often romantically traced back to Waikiki in the late 1960s, where beach boys would paddle tandem boards with canoe paddles to keep their cigarettes dry and call out sets while teaching tourists to surf. Big wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama then inspired the sport’s renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000’s on Maui and in Malibu, California.
Today, hundreds of paddlers come to Glenwood each spring to ride the eternal standing wave with board and paddle, carving back and forth on the river-wide feature similar to the way a traditional prone surfer would on an ocean wave.
Standup paddling has spread across the region, creating a new outlet for paddlers who were formerly kayakers or canoeists. The sport has also inspired new events and invigorated a micro-economy for board shapers and retailers.
But the broader phenomenon is that standing, as simple as it is, has been an evolutionary process in all segments of paddling. Canoeists have long used poles in the Adirondacks and southern Bayou regions while standing. Jimmy Snyder started running Class V whitewater standing in a custom inflatable kayak on the East Coast in the early 1990s. Pismo Beach, Calif. paddler Fletcher Burton, an expert paddler on a sit-on-top surfboard called a waveski, developed a technique two decades ago where he paddles into waves and then stands up, using his kayak paddle to keep speed as he pumps down the face of a wave. He’d never heard of the Waikiki Beach Boys. The reality is that humans naturally want to play in an upright position.
Making Colorado Waves
Colorado’s link in standup’s evolutionary chain comes thanks to Aspen’s Charlie MacArthur and a handful of other serious paddlers who brought the sport here. The first time MacArthur saw standup was along with the other young beach goers on Waikiki, watching those same Beach Boys standing upright in the lineup during surf lessons on Oahu in 1973. “I saw this old Hawaiian at Tongs (surf break),” says MacArthur, who lived with his thespian father, James MacArthur, during the summers when his dad was filming the television show Hawaii 5-0. “He paddled perfectly and was so smooth. I tried it on a small day, got worked, and never did it again for 30 years. The next time I tried it was in 2003 on my honeymoon in Fiji on a tandem board.”
MacArthur, a Colorado river legend who runs Aspen Kayak School, brought a longboard and a modified paddle back to his home in Aspen and used it to paddle on lakes and rivers. Then he met Todd Bradley, a paddle maker from Oahu who was making some of the first standup paddles and boards and everything changed. They started working on river-specific standup boards together. In 2009, MacArthur, along with another paddler who’d gotten into standup, Paul Teft, started the Whitewater Championships on the Glenwood Wave and suddenly, the sport had real inland visibility. It had a center.
MacArthur and Teft, along with Vail’s Ken Hoeve and Matt Salmon, all discovered standup paddling on the ocean. But they knew it would resonate in a state like Colorado. “We’ve got really great rivers for it,” says Hoeve. “The Colorado is perfect. It’s big, deep and has consistent flows. Also the demographic here is ideal: a lot of people are into fitness and outdoor recreation. Paddling was huge (in Colorado) anyway, from Steamboat to Vail to Denver, there are paddlers everywhere. It’s easy to see why Colorado was a springboard for stand-up to spread all over the West.”
Indeed, stand-up events are becoming standards at many events. The Teva Mountain Games has integrated SUP into its event program with a downriver race and a surf cross similar to whitewater slalom. Missoula, Montana; Boise, Idaho; and Leavenworth, Washington, have standup river races every summer on nearby rivers and Utah hosts an event each August sponsored by H2Overdrive.
Shaping the Sport
This explosion has also created a cottage industry that has suddenly become very localized: board building. Salida, Colorado’s Mike Harvey and Zach Hughes saw a niche in the standup world that wasn’t being addressed––river specific standup surf boards. Having been a surfer from California and a craftsman, Hughes applied his knowledge to boards, creating SUPs with thicker rails to create more stability in swirly river currents, but small enough to fit in the tiny pockets that form at local playparks when the water gets low in the summer. “For us it’s been amazing,” says Harvey, who also designs whitewater parks with Gary Lacey. “For so many years, we weren’t trying to make a standup paddleboard company. We were making river toys to play with (like river surfboards). You walk into Colorado Kayak Supply now and it looks like a surf shop.”
Badfish boards have created such a buzz that last year, Boardworks a Southern California board building company licensed the Badfish designs. And like Harvey, board builders have started popping up across the inland frontier in places you’d never expect like Michigan and Idaho, building products specific to the type of paddling done in the region. “It’s so exciting to see where this sport will go,” says Kings Paddlesports’ Dave Daum, who is based in Southern California but shapes custom boards for people all over the country. “The paddlers out there are definitely helping to create the product we build.”
Harvey also says the sport has changed the way he designs whitewater parks. “Five or six years ago, we were totally worried if you could loop a freestyle kayak big enough in the features we made,” he says. “Now standup is forcing us to make waves that have more of a broad appeal. Waves you can surf a board on are less sticky and retentive and not just better for board surfers but tubers as well.”
The possibilities for standup still seem limitless. Anytime paddlers pull into a parking lot with boards on the car at some river or lake, chances are people in the area have no idea what’s up with the 10-feet of epoxy on the roof. Ocean boards for surf continue to get smaller as surfers experiment with the least amount of material possible, shaving the thickness and length down further and further for better rail- to-rail control.
Race boards are also getting faster and lighter–-and more specialized. Consider all the different types of races out there: downwind (paddling with open-ocean wind swell), surf races like the Battle of the Paddle in California where paddlers weave in and out of the break water, flatwater races in bays, harbors, on lakes or reservoirs and of course, downriver races.
Then there’s the Olympic movement. At least two national paddling entities, US Canoe and Kayak and the International Surfing Association, have staged Olympic demonstrations. If the sport were to become part of the Summer Games, its popularity would grow tenfold.
So if you haven’t tried standup paddling yet, now’s the time to get in on the game. •
Idaho-native Joe Carberry has spent most of his life paddling. And most of his adult life covering paddlesports in the media. He currently edits
Get on Top
where to learn/rent:
Colorado Kayak Supply (Boulder 720-239-2179, Buena Vista 719-395-8653)
Aspen Kayak School (970-925-4433)
where to paddle:
The Colorado River features a number of runs for beginner paddlers.
The Glenwood town stretch is ideal for all levels. Grizzly Creek to Two Rivers Park is six miles and a great place to start. Take it on through from Two Rivers to South Canyon for more Class II.
Hard guys like Ken Hoeve regularly run the more difficult Shoshone section (Class IV) from the Shoshone Power Plant to Grizzly Creek. Experts only.
Want to step up with scenery? The 11-mile Pumphouse Run, near Kremmling, Colorado is a Class II-III section ideal with raft accompaniment. Put-in at the Gore Canyon takeout and get out at Rancho Del Rio
Steamboat Springs features a fantastic Class II-III town run that ends at the Library on the south end of town.
or travel farther afield…
What about overnight standup paddling? Pack your gear on your board and disappear for a night into the Black Canyon of the Colorado. It’s only 12.5 miles but the Grand Canyon-like scenery and Class I flatwater from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach make for ideal standup paddling. Another option is to paddle upriver from Willow Beach.
If you’re ready to try surfing, San Onofre State Beach on the Orange County and San Diego County lines is a great place to start. The south end of the beach known as Dogpatch and is a designated paddle zone. Be sure and follow the signage and keep your standup board out of the main lineup at Old Man’s.