The rise of stand-up paddleboarding in mountain towns
Get your SUP on
The stand-up paddleboarding season isn’t over yet, and outfitters across Summit County will have boards available until local waterways begin to freeze over.
Dillon Marina — Call the marina’s outfitter, Stand-Up Paddle Colorado, for details on late-season rental fees, availability and guided tours. The company also offers intro sessions and rentals at Rancho del Rio near Gypsum. 970-453-7873
Frisco Bay Marina — $35 for two hours, $40 for three hours, $7 every additional hour (includes board, paddle, PFD and leash). SUP rentals for kids and adults are available seven days a week through Oct. 4, depending on weather. See the marina’s website to reserve a board, or call the marina office. 970-668-4334
Alpine Sports — The local outfitter rents SUP boards and offers 15-minute intro sessions every Sunday at Maggie Pond during the Breckenridge Farmer’s Market. Sept. 6 is the final session, so don’t miss it. 970-453-8100
Ten Mile Creek Kayaks — Summit’s only specialty kayak shop also carries the only specialty boards in the area, including models from Munson, Aqua Glide and C4 waterman. Owner Matti Wade stocks inflatable (river friendly) and rigid (lake friendly) models from all three. Pricing for high-end models tops out at $3,000. 970-668-9294
Tonia Williamson had almost no interest in stand-up paddleboarding until she met a group of SUPers.
For years, the athletic New Jersey native was drawn to watersports like rowing, which enjoys a strong, fervent following on the East Coast. She joined a rowing club while living and working in Philadelphia, where she was introduced to the calm waters of the Schuylkill River on historic Boat House Row.
After leaving Philadelphia, Williamson still had an itch to stick with rowing. She fell in love on the banks of the Schuylkill, so when she moved to Summit County about 6 years ago, she immediately hooked up with the Frisco rowing club before it became the official Frisco Rowing Center.
The Summit rowing scene is tight-knit, and every summer the members host a rowing regatta, the Lake Dillon Challenge. Williamson couldn’t wait to race — she’s always been drawn to competition — and signed up to row in the regatta.
But then, something odd caught her eye. She arrived at Lake Dillon early the morning of the race and couldn’t help but notice a small, high-energy group of paddleboarders.
“These people looked like renegades,” Williamson remembers. “They showed up out of nowhere and looked so happy, so excited to be out there. They just looked like they were having so much fun.”
Williamson was immediately hooked, not so much by the sport, but by the culture — that renegade spirit of a new and untried sport. When it came time for the next regatta, she opted to compete on a SUP board instead of a rowing shell. Lake Dillon was a much different beast than the still, glassy waters of Boat House Row, but that simply added to the SUP charm. It felt new and different and, well, just a bit rebellious.
“Every time I think about getting on the water these days, I just want to go paddle,” Williamson says. “I’d have to say I just enjoy the vibe of stand-up paddleboarding. You can show up at a race anywhere and meet people who are just loving what they do.”
Williamson is not alone. Over the past five or six years, SUP has exploded in popularity across North America and the globe. The sport began on waters in Hawaii more than five decades ago, back when it was the preferred way for beach-bum surfers to travel long distances between the islands. They’d paddle for upwards of six or seven hours, cruising through gentle waves at a peaceful, almost meditative pace — much different than churning through chop in a motorboat.
That easy-going mentality drew Williamson to SUP, and it’s a major reason the sport has won so many converts in mountain towns. They’re the alpine equivalent of beach towns, where locals and visitors alike are drawn to outdoor activities with niche followings.
In the Rocky Mountains, SUP has taken nearly a dozen forms: SUP racing, SUP yoga, SUP whitewater paddling, SUP tours on high-alpine lakes. The GoPro Mountain Games in Vail introduced a slew of down-river SUP races in 2013, while the 2-year-old Frisco Triathlon is one of the few mountain tris to give competitors an option between kayaking and paddleboarding. On the Front Range and across the country — primarily beach communities, of course — SUP fanatics have launched SUP-only events, like the SUP race portion of the AC Tri in Atlantic City.
This August, Williamson competed in the SUP race at the AC Tri. It was a wholly new experience: After several years of competing in Colorado events she raced in front of friends and family. She even introduced them all to SUP for the first time ever earlier this summer.
“One they experienced it, they were so excited to see me race in Atlantic City,” Williamson says. “That was very cool for me.”
It’s no wonder Williamson’s family fell for SUP so quickly. According to Matti Wade, owner of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks in Frisco, “if you can walk, you can stand-up paddleboard.”
All the sport requires is a board — anywhere from $300 to $3,000-plus, depending on the quality — a paddle, a PFD and a little bit of balance. Unlike whitewater kayaking, it doesn’t require life-saving techniques like rolling. If you fall off a SUP board, just be ready for a chilly swim. It can even be easier than rowing.
“I like the whole idea of moving around on my board,” Williamson says. “I’ve tried kayaking — I did it once — but after doing it, I just wasn’t interested in being stuck in one place. I wanted to move, and you don’t get that when your legs are stuck in a kayak.”
The sport is also low-impact, and that alone is incredibly appealing for athletes like Williamson. She has a knee condition that makes high-impact sports like running and even skiing difficult. But, on a SUP board, the demands are manageable enough that she can race or paddle for upwards of six miles without intense pain.
“You can get out and race and have a great time, be competeteive, but you can handle it if you’ve had past injuries,” Williamson said. “It’s also a great core workout.”
Yoga on the water
The balance, finesse and meditative qualities of SUP have made it a natural fit for another low-impact activity: yoga. Shortly after SUP started to catch on with rowers and adrenaline junkies, yogis saw it as the perfect platform to reinvigorate a session — and break bad habits.
“It was awesome, it was fun, it was taking yoga to a whole new level,” says Nichole Shepherd, a SUP yoga instructor with Blue Lotus Yoga Studio in Breckenridge. “Even the easier poses you do on a mat are intensified on a board, and it becomes a new kind of challenge.”
Shepherd first tried SUP yoga last summer and, like Williamson, she was immediately hooked to life on the board. It brought new awareness to her practice.
“You find a sense of peacefulness, a sense of tranquility on the water,” Shepherd says. “But, I also really like the challenge of it. I enjoy being in a studio and trying new poses, but when you take that and put it on a board, it brings a new element. The water under you is constantly moving — you’re never in the same place.”
This summer, Shepherd taught regular SUP yoga classes on Maggie Pond in Breckenridge. Not only is the setting incredible — it sits directly below the bare ski runs of Peak 9 — the sessions are perfect for beginner and advanced yogis.
It’s similar to the effect SUP has on longtime kayakers like Ken Hoeve, an expert paddler from Eagle County who was one of the first people to take a SUP board on whitewater. Early last summer, he had the first SUP descent of Dowd Junction, a section of Class III rapids between Minturn and EagleVail.
For Shepherd, SUP yoga shows the versatility of paddleboarding because, unlike an adrenaline-fueled sport like whitewater SUP, it doesn’t have to be extremely challenging. She focuses on basic poses like downward dog, warrior I and II, and any sitting poses. The trick is to keep your feet or hands planted and slowly move through the poses. It’s what practitioners should always do in the studio, but on a board, constant motion weeds out cheaters.
“If at any time you don’t feel comfortable, you can come back to sitting on the board, feeling grounded with the board,” Shepherd says. “I think it’s different when you take a class — you learn something new about yourself every time. There’s so much you can do on a board to push yourself out of the comfort zone.”
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