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!
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.
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.
Going 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.
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.