JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — When Terry Whitaker first launched a stand-up paddle board in the Snake River canyon in 2005, onlookers were taken aback. Why was this man on his feet on a large surfboard, holding one paddle?
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” said Whitaker, 64, who has lived in the valley more than 20 years.
Once considered bizarre, stand-up paddle boarding has gone mainstream.
Commonly referred to as SUP, it has exploded in popularity all over the world in recent years. People in Jackson Hole, with its many lakes and rivers, have also become enamored of this addictive sport.
“It’s gotten so popular,” Whitaker said. “There’s only a few of us who surf in the canyon. But if you go up on String Lake any nice day, there’s hundreds of them.”
SUP boards are long surf boards, typically 10-13 feet in length, which people stand on and then use one paddle to maneuver across the water. The sport’s roots in the valley begin with Whitaker and Rendezvous River Sports owner Aaron Pruzan. Both were introduced to the sport on separate trips to Hawaii several years ago.
In 2007, Rendezvous began renting and selling SUP boards. At the time, it had two boards for rent.
In 2009, the store increased its fleet to six.
Now, there are 15 boards available for rent — at between $40 and $50 per day — and dozens more for sale for $450 to $1,800.
The store typically rents out all of its boards on weekends. “It’s the fastest-growing water sport in the world,” Pruzan said.
Leisure Sports is the only other valley retailer known to rent SUP boards. In its first SUP season, Leisure Sports began the summer with two boards in stock to rent. Due to demand, the store has doubled its fleet to four, employee Robert Nelson said.
“They’re pretty popular,” Nelson said.
Fun for everyone on any given weekend, men and women of all ages can be seen on SUP boards on String Lake. Some even lie down on the boards on the water and soak up the sun’s rays. Others sit down, straddle their boards and float.
On a recent Saturday, the Colgin family, of Wilson, took their two SUP boards to the flat waters of String Lake. Bill Colgin, and his wife, Allison, said the sport is perfect for their 12-year-old son, Will, and their 10-year-old twin daughters, Audrey and Caitlin.
“It’s been a blast,” Bill Colgin said. “It’s a great family sport. The kids immediately feel comfortable on the board, and String Lake is perfect.”
Colgin, who surfs, said he heard about the sport through surfing circles. After renting an SUP board from Rendezvous River Sports last summer, he and his wife bought two, including an inflatable one they can travel with.
Colgin has witnessed the explosion of the sport’s popularity firsthand. When he took to String Lake last summer, he said he was the only SUP boarder there.
“Now,” he said, “stand-up paddle boards outnumber other watercraft on String Lake.”
The big appeal, boarders say, is the sensation of standing upright on top of the water.
On calm waters, the sport is elementary. Users slowly get on their feet, then alternate with slow paddles to their left and right. In many ways, it is a Zen-like experience.
“People have described it as walking on water,” Pruzan said. “It’s a very cool feeling standing and paddling.”
While it might appear hard to balance on the board, it typically isn’t.
“For people who ski, it’s a natural balance, for sure,” Pruzan said.
The sport also gives users a nice, full-body workout.
“One thing that’s really nice about it as a sport is it’s a great workout,” Colgin said. “Even something flat like String Lake is a great workout from a balance perspective. It’s a great workout and not particularly taxing on the body.”
Whatever your interests, the SUP board has a broad appeal.
“It’s a super-fun way to get on the water for people who might not want to sit in a kayak,” Pruzan said.
Most SUP boarders prefer calm, leisurely paddles on flat water. Adrenaline junkies, however, have taken these boards onto the Snake River, where they surf rapids such as King’s Wave and Lunch Counter.
Pruzan is one of them. He has spent many summer days in recent years challenging himself in the Snake River canyon.
“The river is super-challenging and fun,” Pruzan said. “You’re surfing. You’re arching turns and cutbacks. The Snake is actually better for stand-up when it’s lower.”
That hasn’t stopped him from hitting the Snake River canyon and Hoback River during this summer’s high waters.
“It’s the balancing act,” he said. “It’s like kayaking. Be aware of your edges. It combines elements of whitewater kayaking and canoeing.”
Whitaker, who prefers the West Table to Sheep Gulch stretch of the Snake River, said the sport is engaging both physically and mentally.
“It’s just a great way to spend the afternoon, especially if you want to be outside,” he said.
“It is physically hard and gets you in really good shape,” he said. “It’s interesting and engaging intellectually, trying to figure out ways to surf waves and holes in canyon.”
SUP boarding started in Hawaii, where surfers in the 1960s would stand on longboards and use a paddle to cruise out past the breakers.
The sport has been modernized in the last decade and has become so popular the U.S. Coast Guard began classifying the boards as vessels.
The sport has also spawned publications that cater to SUP enthusiasts, including SUP magazine and Stand Up Paddle Surfing magazine.
“Clearly, it’s going right now,” Colgin said.
“We’re on the leading edge of it, it’s going to become more and more popular.”
For more information: Jackson Hole News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com