My New Adventure Sport

In my early 50’s I found the perfect sport for me because it entailed standing up all the time, balancing and reading the flow of a river. Stand Up Paddling (SUP) fit my personality and skill set quite well and was introduced to me by a friend about 10 years ago. I have been steadily practicing and challenging myself on harder and harder water since then.

I had to take a bit of a break from it when my head was injured, but as I got back into paddling I realized that SUPing was actually great for my recovery for a lot of reasons. Balancing is good for your brain, and scanning the river, looking far and then close and back and forth helped to re-enforce my eye therapy.  And, what better therapy is there than being outside?

Stand Up Paddling is just that. You stand on a boat, much like a surfboard, on water and paddle your way around with a long paddle. You can also kneel and paddle, paddle slowly and sit to hang out, do yoga, paddle really hard for a workout, take it on lakes, oceans, rivers and challenge yourself to any level you wish to take it to. And, it’s like walking on water!

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Gunnison River with friends

A ski friend of mine from Aspen was the first person I had heard of who was doing this sport. Soon after that there were stories of people SUPing on the ocean and lakes but my friend was doing it down a river. I drove over to Aspen to take one of the SUP classes he was teaching and spent the first day on a lake learning to feel comfortable standing and balancing on this board and fooling around with paddle strokes for maneuvering. That afternoon we went on the Colorado River and I was hooked. Wasn’t very good at maneuvering yet but could sure float down a river. I just loved moving down a river with the current and having to balance to stay upright. I did well on my first day and became overly confident. The next day I entered a down river race on a different (and borrowed board) and fell in the river about 25 times. Confidence put in check!!

Started shopping for my own board the next week and found a used fiberglass board and paddle, and started paddling on our local reservoir. From there my evolution moved to some easy rivers and even a few ocean excursions. When my family surprised me with a downriver, inflatable board for Christmas about 5 years ago it became easier for me to get in over my head on more than a few occasions.

I had been a river guide in my 20’s and early 30’s. That entailed captaining a boat with 5 paddlers down rivers with rapids. And, the bulk of our family vacations over the last 25 years had been on multi-day river trips all over the West. My husband loves to row a raft and my kids starting learning the skill of rowing a boat at a young age. It soon became apparent that I was going to spend a lot of time sitting on a boat on these trips and that just wasn’t going to work for me as a person used to moving all the time. I started to paddle my own craft, a small inflatable kayak, which was fun. But when I discovered SUPing…..

If you were to look at a river with a discerning eye you would see that in general the water flows downstream. But if you look at the flowing water in more detail you would see that it follows different paths as it comes near the shore, or over rocks causing the water to slow or speed up or swirl or even go back upstream. You will start to see that sometimes there is only one path to take at the beginning of the rapid in order to have a ‘clean’ run without running into rocks or other objects in the river. In the west, there are ‘pool and drop’ rivers meaning there can be a relatively calm stretch of river (pool) and then a rapid which is where the water generally speeds up and is more turbulent, has waves and obstacles (drop). Rapids are usually formed where rocks and debris have flowed into the river via a side creek or rockslide causing an uneven surface at the bottom of the river. More often than not the rocks are sticking up out of the water so you can see quite easily where not to go. And you have to look ahead to plan (in a couple of seconds) where to go in order to set yourself up for the next path around an obstacle. If you are a skier, it is a lot like planning where to go in a mogul field. The turn or move you make on mogul 1 will affect where you are and what you have to do on mogul 3. Sometimes a rock is just under the water by a few inches and you have to look for evidence on the surface of the water to tell if there is a rock right there waiting to grab your boat. Often on the other side of some of these rocks are ‘holes’ with the water re-circulating back.

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Hance Rapid

In a river there is the current, which is the water moving in a definite direction through surrounding water that is slower. There are ‘eddies’ which is water moving counter to the current and often causing a small whirlpool. This water can actually move upstream and usually occurs on the sides of the river, or behind big rocks or at the end of a rapid.

So learning to recognize the path through the rapids and rocks, the path of the current in slower water or around curves, and the eddies is call “reading” the water. Then, of course, there is a whole technique on how to execute the moving of your boat once you have “read” the water. It is a very complex brain exercise in and of itself. Then add in excitement and fear, cold water and technique for moving where you want to go….. it is a lifelong pursuit.

Then, if you are on a Stand Up Paddle board add in balance. Your feet are not attached so you are relying on your core strength and the flexing of your knees, and ankles and hips, your paddle in the water and the friction of the rubber under your feet to stay centered enough over your board through turbulent water so that you don’t fall in and so you can maneuver your way through the paths described above.


Main Salmon River, Idaho

It’s a fantastic challenge!!

So I took it on. And started to paddle more and more rivers, falling in left and right as I learned. Coming up to a rapid, Plan A was always to stand up as much as possible with Plan B being to kneel in a mindful way (on purpose) when I looked and decided that would be the safest way to go through. There is technique to kneeling properly through a rapid too.

I started to acquire more safety gear in order to accomplish more difficult rivers. I got knee and shin guards to protect my legs after getting a few gashes. Upgraded my helmet. The thing that increased my confidence the most was a drysuit. This is a completely waterproof one piece suit that goes over the feet and has tight gaskets at the wrists and neck. If it’s properly zipped up, no water will get inside even if you fall in the river. I made this purchase after doing a couple of rivers that were so cold that it made me very tentative in some places because I was afraid of falling into the cold water. Putting a drysuit on is a comedy to watch.

My great friend and neighbor became my “SUP Sistah” and we have paddled all kinds of rivers together including the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. We both got drysuits at the same time and at first pretty much had to help each other get in and out of them. The gaskets (tight rubber around the wrists and neck) are so tight that to get the suit on and off requires strength, patience and the ability to not panic in a small, dark, enclosed space. You can pull your head through and end up inside the suit with your hands still stuck in the sleeves. We meant to take a video of us the first few times but everyone was laughing so hard we forgot to do it. There are big zippers that enclose the gap you climb through to get in. I learned the hard way that these zippers have to be locked closed in order to keep the water out. And it is not easy to pee with a drysuit on. I had to get one of those Go-Girl pee aids in order to go without taking the suit off and going through that whole heart rate raising experience again. As the trip went on we both got better at the process and the gaskets got a bit broken in so it became easier. And it was still completely worth it.


Full battle gear

So, I started working up in difficulty and over the last 4 years have paddled the Yampa River and Gates of Ladore in Colorado, the Main Salmon River in Idaho, the Chama River in New Mexico and the Rogue River in Oregon. Also the San Miguel and Uncompaghre River near where I live at high and low water. And, last year, I paddled the Grand Canyon. Twice.

Both trips were with groups of friends who were experienced at river running. This is called a ‘Private trip’. You can also hire a company and go on a ‘Commercial trip’. On a private trip you do all the planning and choosing of campsites and cooking of meals, etc yourselves. On a commercial trip, the guides take care of all that for you.


Being in the bottom of the  Grand Canyon on a river or hiking trip can be a spiritual experience. For many reasons. Most private raft trips are 18 or so days long where you travel 220 miles down the river from the put-in to the take-out. You travel through the rock layers of the canyon walls that represent 100’s of millions of years of time. There are waterfalls and caves and wildlife and petroglyphs to see. And there are humongous rapids. For many boatmun this trip is the pinnacle of river running. This trip was the biggest challenge of my life.

For those of you who know the Grand Canyon, my friend and I paddled 190 miles of the 220. That means we rolled up our boats just above Hance Rapid and put them back in the water below the Gems. The rapid rating system in the Grand Canyon is on a 1-10 scale of difficulty. We did one or two that were rated a 6 but mostly a level 5 was our limit and in the stretch of river I just mentioned the rapids were rated 8-10. We certainly didn’t go through Lava, or Crystal or Horn or Hance or House Rock or Dubendorff or Upset. We were on a trip with a number of rafts so we would tie our SUPs on the back of a raft, hop on and ride through these big rapids after we looked at them and decided, “uh-uh”. Those rapids were exciting enough to go through on just a raft.

IMG_0295Going through Lava Rapid with SUP attached to the back of the raft. 

The thing with this river is that even the ‘mellow’ water was a challenge on one of these boards. The water was swirly and strong and at first I got knocked off more at the end of a rapid then during. Even the ‘small’ rapids down here were a challenge as they were bigger than anything we had experienced before on all those other rivers. For example, our local river when we paddled it at high water was rated at 1100 cfs (cubic feet per second, of water that passes a certain point). The Colorado River when we were there was running at 12,000 – 18,000 cfs. Big. And fast. I have read that Lava Rapid runs through at 40 mph.

We both challenged ourselves to stand up as long as possible but both got very good at recognizing when it was time to get on our knees in order to stay upright. Some of the waves were bigger than my board was long and I could get fully flipped over with the front going back over my head. One time the wind was so strong I got blown off and couldn’t get back on. When I finally did get on, I paddled laying down so that my body was not such a sail for the wind to blow. We got better and better, and mostly stayed on our boards.

There are not many photos of us SUPing through whitewater because the other boatmen on the trip were so focused on their own runs through the rapids and didn’t have the time to take out cameras. The splashes can be so big that everything gets drenched and no one wanted to take the risk of getting their cameras wet anyway.

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SUP Sistahs

That was in the Fall, right before I turn 60. Then in the Spring I went back to do it again. This time my husband and daughter started the trip without me, carrying my board and gear on the first part of the river in their rafts. I hiked in from the South Rim to meet them at the halfway point and paddled about 100 miles to the end.


South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon

These trips were spectacular experiences as was the process of gaining enough skill to even attempt them. This sport is profound for me in that it takes many skills I have learned in my life and perfectly melded them into something new and different. Because of my experience on rivers, my ability to balance, my knowledge of Biomechanics and posture (from years of ski training), my fitness and knowing how to approach challenge emotionally I was able to do this. I was also reminded once again about this lesson in life that something may seem unattainable but with patience and small steps and challenging yourself a bit you can get to where you want to go. Even as we age.

Van Life

I see that traveling around in a van and blogging about the experience is very popular these days. It’s a great life for a little while. I’ve had some experience with van adventure but before social media so have a few photos from the family archives to share.

My daughter is an original van kid. She woke up in a van to go to pre-school, and on the first day of kindergarten and first grade. We cooked her breakfast on the camp stove, made her lunch, put the pop-up down and drove her to school. Dare I admit that my son, my second kid, was conceived in this same van. My daughter now owns this van and I’m sure she thinks of it as the home she grew up in….

The Vanagon I’m speaking of was our first  (1985 vintage) and was purchased in 1992 just after the birth of our first child. We thought it would be an awesome family vehicle for camping and traveling. And it was.

We were living in a small mountain town outside of Boulder, CO at the time when my husband took a job with the Nature Conservancy in SW Colorado (on the other side of the state). The job was half year and half time and was a foot in the door with an awesome organization. (for info on the Nature Conservancy:  We couldn’t really afford to rent a house on that kind of pay when we already owned a home in Nederland. We went back and forth for a few years seasonally (as we both had jobs where our house was), and pieced together some creative living situations during the summer, the most steady being the van.

We thought we would live this life for one year and then go back to settle in to raise our family. As those things go we kept going back and forth for a few years unable to give up either situation. Finally, my husband’s job became more full-time near Telluride and I found a great job and we started to gain some great friends. And, in our opinion, there is no more beautiful place than SW Colorado. We’d had another kid by then and started looking for a place to call home. We looked and looked and finally found a small piece of property and started to make plans to build a house.

Pat had been a carpenter when he was in his 20’s and had the skills to build a house, and be the contractor when necessary. He had built our first house outside of Boulder and knew we wanted to build a second in SW Colorado. We quickly realized that it would be difficult for us to pay rent and finance a new house at the same time. So we lived in the van. The garage was built first so that became our kitchen/living room and the van, our bedroom. We set up our camping cook stove next to a couch and TV in the unfinished garage. It’s how we built equity.

Our kids were 2 and 6 at the time and they loved the living situation. I remember during this time my husband and I went out on a date and found some unsuspecting high school student to be our babysitter. After that evening, she was always busy when we called her to baby sit again. We figured that it may have been a little stressful for her to put our kids to bed in the van and then sit in the unfinished garage, wrapped in a sleeping bag for warmth, in order to watch TV until we came home. At least there was a TV!!

IMG_3604.jpgThe van, and the garage.

When the kids were a little older, we would load up this van with all our rafting gear and head off to various rivers for multi-day river trips. The van was so stuffed with equipment that when we arrived at a campsite we’d have to take everything out in order to cook dinner and fit us in for sleeping. We’d have to take the oars off the roof in order to pop up the top to access the upstairs bed where the kids slept. It was quite a process and we have such great family memories of these trips.

IMG_0434Idaho River Trip

We’ve put plenty of new engines in these vans over the years. One time I was driving down Boulder Canyon outside of Boulder, CO when the engine made a loud grinding noise and just stopped working. Fortunately it was all downhill for the last 5 miles or so, and the transmission still worked so I put the van in neutral (stick shift) and coasted to a parking lot at the Justice Center. I was perhaps 6 months pregnant at the time and this was before cell phones so I had to go inside to find a phone to call my husband and get a tow.

We got a second van (a 1987 vanagon) in about 2012 and it’s had it’s share of issues.

The red van engine blew up once when our son was driving it to school on a very cold morning. We figured that it hadn’t been warmed up long enough before starting up.

This new engine went down the tubes out in the middle of nowhere outside of Gunnison, CO by Blue Mesa Reservoir on our way to a wedding in Boulder County. This engine malfunction was due to a quick oil change place not putting the plug to the oil pan back on correctly after changing the oil. We were driving merrily along and all of a sudden the oil light went on and about 2 seconds later the engine stopped working.

So, lessons learned? Warm up your VW engine on cold days, and bring the vehicle to a reputable oil changing place or do it yourself.

IMG_0676Broken van being towed

We still own both vans, though are considering upgrading to a more modern Eurovan. There really is nothing quite like driving around with your bedroom and kitchen, pulling over most anywhere and nesting. Going on a trip in the van these days makes me feel young and adventurous again with just the basics of life on the road with me.  (Maybe because it drives pretty slow up mountain passes and the AC doesn’t work, just like the old days.) It’s fun to be driving down the road and other van drivers will give you a wave or a peace sign as you pass each other. It’s very cool camaraderie with people you don’t even know……strangers sharing a similar experience.