Waterbury — We had been out on Waterbury Reservoir for approximately four minutes before my brother decided it would be a good idea to test the limits of his balance on the stand up paddleboard. It was a warm evening in June and the surface of the water was motionless, disturbed only by the occasional landing bird and the spirals of current left by our paddles.
Not a single motorboat was in sight and the chaotic nine-to-five world had been left on shore.
And then Harrison decided he would move around a bit.
Slowly, holding the paddle in both hands and still keeping his weight centered, he shuffled his feet from side to side while paying close attention to the rocking of the board under him. Eventually, he rotated himself 90 degrees and was standing on the board like a skateboard. He tried a few strokes, found it boring, and then attempted to try a different and even more precarious position; creeping backwards on the board until the brow started to rise out of the water, poised to rocket out from under him at any second.
For a second, it looked like catastrophe was imminent, but he lurched forward, saved his balance, and continued to paddle forward out on the lake. He turned and looked back at me, wide-eyed and grinning. An hilarious soaking had been averted.
Stand Up Paddleboarding is far too laid-back and easygoing a sport for such a long name. At the most basic level, the activity of SUP (paddleboarding, or stand-up are some of its popular and shorter names) is a board maneuvered from a standing position with an extended paddle. It’s readily accessible on many of Vermont’s lakes and there are plenty of people ready and willing to help get you out on the water.
On a Tuesday evening, we met up with Umiak Outfitters, based out of Stowe and South Burlington. The store offers clinics, and classes (including yoga) on paddleboards. In addition to kayaking and paddling on the Lamoille and Winooski rivers, the outfitter also provides rentals at the Waterbury Reservoir, where for a fee and a signature on a waiver form, they’ll let you take the boards out on your own. On Tuesday evenings this July, Umiak holds a series of SUP races.
The boards themselves are similar to that of regular surfboards and have technical features that make them more well suited for beginner or advanced paddlers. Beginner boards are made of more durable plastic and are generally heavier than the more streamlined models, which are slick-looking crafts made of wood, carbon or fiberglass.
The boards feature two varieties of hulls: planar and displacement. Planar hulls are curved up at the bow and sit high on the water, while the displacement hull is much like that of a kayak and slices through the surface of the water. This gives them greater directional force, moving them more easily through the water.
Paddlers position themselves squarely in the middle of the boat with feet shoulder width apart. Strokes while SUP-ing are similar to that of canoeing.
Megan Smith is a guide with Umiak and has been outfitting people on the boats since they first became popular in Vermont. The service went from having a small fleet of three boards in 2011 to 15 in 2014. She also gave us an introduction to the boards, basic stance and paddling technique before turning us loose on the water.
It’s important to remember to relax, Smith says. Any tension will work against you, which can only lead to a very soggy situation.
“A lot of people will stand locked at the knees and then when it starts moving, they don’t adjust,” she says. “That’s when they fall in.”
But even as a more advanced paddler, Smith says she falls in plenty. When practicing on Waterbury Reservoir, she routinely adjusts herself on the board, finding the point where she’s about to tip over or fall off, but can still stay maneuverable and regain her position quickly. Smith says finding that “sweet spot” is how you get better.
“It’s about finding that comfort zone on the board,” she says. “Finding that point where you can still recover and you know how to catch yourself.”
And whatever you do, don’t look down. That’s when things get rocky. Just look straight up, paddle, and remember to smile.
If you’re paddling on a lake, a great time to go is in the morning or the evening. The water will be calmer and the traffic on the water will be minimal. Weekends are generally the busiest times for lakes, with more people using the launches and being out on the water in larger crafts.
The evenings also offer another advantage, she says.
“It’s still warm out but nobody’s here, so if you fall of you don’t feel like an idiot,” she jokes.
Paddleboarding has seen a big boost in popularity in recent years. According to The Outdoor Foundation’s 2013 Outdoor Participation Report, stand up paddling was listed as the most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants with 56 percent of all the first-time participants of outdoor activities in 2013, beating boardsailing/windsurfing, which had 43 percent of first-time participants in 2013.
SUP got its start in Hawaii several years ago and has eventually worked its way inland, moving from one large body of water to the next.
Jason Starr, owner of PaddleSurf Champlain, first encountered the growing sport when he was going to school in Colorado (WHEN??) and first noticed the sport while trying to establish what would become Starr Surf Skis, a variety of boards that allow a rider to “ski” bigger waves. It was while working to get his company started, Starr became attuned to trends in the broader surfing community. One of the manufacturers Starr was working with told him about the variety of paddleboards he also made.
“That’s when I really caught wind of it,” he said. “What really sparked me to start the business was looking at what was going on in Lake Tahoe.”
In 2006 and 2007, SUP was starting to take off on the lake connecting California and Nevada.
“I always felt that Lake Tahoe and Lake Champlain were kind of kindred lakes,” he says. “It was like whatever was going on a Lake Tahoe could definitely happen on Lake Champlain.”
Later, in 2009, in addition to starting his own company, Starr Surf Skis, he opened up his own SUP guiding service that he bases out of Oakledge Park on Burlington’s waterfront.
“Champlain is good because you get a variety of conditions,” he says. “You can have flat days, you can moderate wind and moderate waves and then you can have some really significant wind and waves which adds a challenge element to stand up paddling.”
Starr adds that adapting the variety of conditions on Champlain is also what can be the most challenging for beginners. Understand the direction that the waves will push the board, how to counteract that and how to anticipate that are the things that take some getting used to and require some experience.
Starr focuses most of his work on introducing people to the sport and developing habits that they can use for SUP as well as transitioning to surfing. While Champlain doesn’t have surf breaks, big weather events can create swells from two to four feet – and if that wind is heading directly onshore, that can create swells as high as five feet. While it’s not exactly the surfing that many know, that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun.
“It’s definitely different from ocean surfing, but it can happen,” Starr says. “And I think when you get experience with the sport, those are the days you start to look for.”
One of the great things about SUP is that you can cruise your local lake or river and keep both your feet dry (even with a well-behaved dog on the bow), or you can choose to push the boundaries. SUPs have been used to cross Lake Champlain and at points farther away from New England, SUPs have been spotted surfing breaks in Hawaii as well as cruising through class IV rapids in Colorado and other points west.
The choice is yours, but for us on the Waterbury Reservoir, the boards under our feet made for an easygoing and effortless trip out onto the reservoir and back again. It was a quiet evening, but that’s exactly what we were looking for – at least for now.