WW SUP series part one by Ian Smith
A reflection of gold and red hues radiate off the glassy surface of Slippery Rock Creek in western Pennsylvania. We drift slowly downstream amidst canyon walls ablaze with autumn foliage, feeling like subjects in a Monet. The stream meanders through massive boulders and we can hear the roar of the next rapid approaching. The awe of the landscape soon gives way to the exhilaration of running rapids on a standup paddleboard. Rob and I widen our stances and lower into a surf-style crouch, readying for a narrow slot where the river disappears between the rocks, barely wide enough for our boards to squeeze through. We embrace the increasing speed and power of the current beneath our feet. From our vantage, the river falls away beyond a horizon line where the drop, similar to a small waterfall, bgins. The anticipation gnaws at our nerves as we pass the point of no return, committed to downstream.
We launch over the chute with an aggressive paddle stroke, maintaining our balance as a blanket of focus envelopes us. For the moment, our world is brighter. Barely submerged rocks and frothy pillows of recirculating whitewater approach with incredible clarity. Our bodies react unconsciously to manoeuvre around hazards and through a labyrinth of boulders and conflicting currents. This is no place for hesitation. It is a game of chess; always needing to be several moves ahead to stay on our feet and in harmony with the river’s flow. We make it through smoothly and peel into an eddy, a place to catch our breath and gaze back up at the cascade through which we just paddled. The mix of scenery and adventure is intoxicating, and the reason whitewater SUP is the most captivating sport most have never heard of.
The criteria is simple; riding standup paddleboards, also known as SUPs, through rapids, surfing them on standing waves, launching over waterfalls, or any other form of conceivable fun a board can offer on creeks, rivers and even tiny streams. Still in its infancy, a variety of styles and forms of the pursuit have taken root in isolated groups around the world. We are not alone in our passion, though the secluded gorges and canyons that have become our second homes often suggest otherwise. The solitude of rarely run creeks and rivers are another alluring prospect of surfing here. While some whitewater destinations can be incredibly crowded with hoards of kayaks and commercial raft trips, far more are left for intrepid explorers to enjoy for themselves.
Down-river paddleboarding consists of putting on a river at a certain point called a put-in, and traveling downstream to another spot, the take-out. A down-river trip will consist of rapids, drops, surf waves, or even waterfalls as you make your way downstream, negotiating the river’s challenges. Elements of adventure and problem solving are omnipresent in down-river SUP trips, even on familiar runs. The whitewater environment is a dynamic and constantly changing venue, always offering a unique experience. Varying water levels, for example, can alter the difficulty, turning a gentle stream into a raging torrent. It is not uncommon to scout, or analyze a rapid’s character from the bank. In most cases you are able to portage or walk around a rapid or waterfall that looks too difficult or dangerous and continue downstream. The power of flowing water can be incredibly deceiving so it is important to start on easy rapids and progress slowly as you acquire swift water skills and experience.
A second genre of whitewater SUP is surfing. Under the right circumstances, the flow of water constricting and flowing over rocks causes the formation of standing waves. On these features, the water recirculates and propels you forward as the rest of the river flows beneath you. Standing waves offer inland paddlers a place to experience the thrill of catching and riding waves similar to those in the ocean. While a typical ocean wave might only last a few seconds, standing waves give you the chance to surf for extended periods of time. I have heard stories of surfers spending over an hour on a river wave.
In the same way down-river SUP is affected by water levels, the character of a standing wave can change dramatically with varying amounts of flow. Waves can be so small that they are barely visible, or become colossal masses of water that build and crash in violent surges. The larger the wave, the faster you will be moving across its face making it more difficult to stay in control. Higher speeds and larger wave faces, however, do offer the chance for more dynamic turns and surfing. Regardless of the wave’s size, you must be very careful to understand what lies beneath the wave and downstream before attempting to surf. The dangers of whitewater environments are often subtle or even invisible so approach new spots with caution.
Although it may seem like a highly specialized and inaccessible sport, the opportunities for whitewater paddleboarding are far greater than most people realize. A little research and some exploring can often lead to vast playgrounds of rivers, creeks, and streams that are perfect for SUP. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are often established practices in these locations and a network of information is already in place from which you can draw from. Guidebooks and online references can be incredibly useful in finding the best destinations in your area, and will also provide the optimum flow levels, grade of difficulty, and helpful information about hazards, access, and even driving directions. American Whitewater (www.americanwhitewater.org) offers an incredibly robust database of whitewater locations for the United States or http://rainchasers.com for the UK, Europe and beyond.
Even in places where the terrain is relatively flat, there are often sections of creeks or rivers that offer swift water fun. In some areas, “play parks,” are engineered to offer a surf wave for paddlers to enjoy and hone their skills where, before, there was just a calm stream passing by. They are built by modifying a natural waterway so that rapids or surf waves form in a designated location. Play parks are generally very safe and provide a perfect venue for beginners and young paddlers. Even advanced surfers can utilize park waves to work on new tricks and skills, as they are often some of the best and easiest to access.
Even if you can’t find suitable conditions near you, travel and exploration is part of what makes whitewater SUP so enjoyable. Finding a new wave or down-river stretch is one of the greatest rewards of the sport. Don’t be afraid to strap your boards to the roof and set off into the unknown. There is a good chance no one has paddleboarded where you’re headed before and there are waves just waiting to be found.
The influx of new locations and passionate participants has rapidly transitioned the pursuit from a novelty stunt to a credible sport and viable means of paddling whitewater. Technical rapids, steep drops, and waterfalls are now being landed, or, ‘stomped’, with regularity. An arsenal of tricks are being invented and mastered on standing waves such as the Ollie, 360-spin, and Pop-shove-it. The barriers of what is possible are being shattered with frequency as the progression of the sport moves faster than it ever will again. In its early, malleable years, everyone has the unique opportunity to take part in its formation. Whether you set off on your board down an unknown section of river, or feel the pulse of a standing wave deep in the heart of a canyon, you are carving the path of whitewater paddleboarding.
In the next article, Ian describes the gear used in whitewater SUP and what you will need to get started.