By Michael Virtanen
On a mostly sunny Monday with the blue-black water on the quiet bay rippling lightly and glistening, my wife got the hang of a new sport in roughly the time it took to push off from the dock, brace her paddle shaft across the eleven-foot board for balance, and stand up.
Outfitted with a flotation vest, a long lightweight paddle, and about ten minutes of instruction from Harry Caldwell, she headed into Lake George with long, slow, easy strokes.
“It’s serene,” Saundra said. “It’s peaceful.”
She stayed on the protected bay at Bolton Landing, while I followed nineteen-year-old Caldwell, who works for the Lake George Kayak Company, across the bay to the open lake. Heading into the wind and choppier surface of the lake proved to be a little more strenuous. It was nice to think it was the sleeker design of Caldwell’s board that kept me in his wake. The truth is he wasn’t trying that hard, and when I paddled faster to stay next to him or when motorboat wakes rolled through, he remained smooth and steady and refrained from smiling at my own tippy moments and near falls.
We circled the buoy a half-mile out and returned with the breeze at our backs, reaching the boathouse easily. Stand-up paddling was more challenging than I expected. As a novice surfer, I’ve ridden a long board in the steady, slow rollers off Sayulita, Mexico. I found it much easier to get up on the stand-up board, though harder to move my feet and stay balanced on the slower-moving platform.
Stand-up paddling, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, first got serious attention when world-class Hawaiian surfers Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton took it up in the mid-1990s. Paddling erect on open water between islands soon became a popular adventure outing. Some West Coast surfers took up paddles and others headed to calm bays. Inland kayaking and surfing enthusiasts took the sport to lakes and rivers, including whitewater for some of the same thrilling motion as ocean surf.
Paddleboards began appearing in the Adirondacks about five years ago, but local outfitters did not see great interest in the sport until last year.
A few days after my initiation last summer, Jaime Iadicicco tried out an inflatable stand-up board on the Sacandaga River’s class I and II rapids below Great Sacandaga Lake. In doing so, she became one of the first whitewater paddleboarders in the Adirondacks. Very likely, she was the first who didn’t get wet. A rafting guide and kayaker, she wore a helmet and adopted a wide, athletic stance for balance.
“It was a bit hard to stay on it, actually. I did fall onto it a couple of times when a big wave hit me,” she said. “In the first rapid, I just like fell forward onto my knees. In the second rapid I fell over backwards and hopped back up.”
In a flatwater stretch during the hour-long outing she lay down on the board, did a headstand, and tried a handstand. Some other enthusiasts have started doing basic yoga atop boards on calm water.
“I didn’t touch a rock. In the rapids and stuff the board was very rigid. There were no scratches. My paddle didn’t even touch a rock once,” Iadicicco said. “You can see further ahead of you. It’s like you’re looking down on the waves. It was awesome. It was so much fun I think I’m really going to have to buy one of those so I can keep doing it.”
When she returned to the river a few days later, Iadicicco attached a small removable fin to the board’s underside for more turning control. She fell once, but again stayed on the board.
The prices for paddleboards are another challenge. The NRS Big Earl that Iadicicco used retailed for $995. A carbon paddle weighing less than two pounds can cost more than $200.
As the sport has evolved over the last decade, so have the boards. Most are made of fiberglass around a foam core, similar to surfboards. Longer and sleeker designs for racing move through water with less resistance. Rubber inflatables are easier to pack and transport and won’t chip on rocks.
Ike Wolgin, the owner of the Lake George Kayak Company, has sold and rented paddleboards for four years, but he said the sport didn’t take off in the East until last year. He rented boards at Bolton Landing virtually every day last summer and he sold more than in past years as well.
“It was a good year for paddleboarding,” he said.
According to the Outdoor Foundation, there were more than a million paddleboarders in the United States in 2010, the first year the organization collected data for the sport. That compared with 10.5 million canoeists, nearly 10 million kayakers, and 4.5 million rafters.
In Glenwood Springs, Colo., an annual spring festival at a whitewater park now features inland surfing and paddleboarding contests. Some western whitewater enthusiasts, acknowledging the difficulty of standing in rougher rapids, have attached footstraps to their boards like those used by windsurfers.
Mike Duggan opened Adirondack Paddleboards last summer in Lake Placid with four rental boards and others for sale and expects to at least double the rental stock this year, including a couple of inflatables. “A lot of people who rented got their first paddleboard experience on Mirror Lake,” he said.
“On flatwater, anybody can do it,” Duggan said. He has put three-year-olds on the boards and says manufacturers are now making six-foot models for children.
Duggan, who is a whitewater guide, said he first took a paddleboard on Adirondack rapids two years ago and has gone on the Sacandaga and the Black River. He has also used stand-up boards to surf five-foot waves on Lake Ontario and planned this spring to bring an inflatable on a month-long trip down the Colorado River.
“I run up to class III. After that it gets a little sketchy,” he said.
One challenge of Adirondack rivers is their shallowness, with rocks and eddies. Novices can expect frequent falls in rapids. Helmets are recommended (and life vests are required on all waters in New York State). Like whitewater canoeing and kayaking, it’s not for everyone, though enthusiasts are testing the limits.
Several other canoe and kayak companies from Old Forge to Saranac Lake now carry paddleboards as a small part of inventories still dominated by canoes and kayaks, but the sport is expected to continue growing.
“Kayaking just exploded in the nineties,” Duggan said. He thinks stand-up paddling could go the same way.
Adirondack SUP Festival on June 23
Hosted by Adirondack Lakes and Trails at the Lake Colby beach in Saranac Lake. There will be races, free demos, and clinics.
For more information, visit www.adirondacksupfestival.com