Shouldering a 10-foot stand-up paddleboard to the bank of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, I suddenly felt imbued with the coolness of surfing. As a landlocked mountain junkie, this was an unfamiliar experience. A teenager on the sidewalk asked where I was going and I felt a sudden urge to call him "brah." The glances of passing girls lingered a bit longer than usual. Then I realized, man, these paddleboards get pretty heavy after a couple of blocks.
People on the river path turned and ogled, but I, in true surfer style, pretended to be too cool to notice. In reality, I couldn't move my head—I had no idea how to carry that damn board, and angling it across my shoulder and head while holding it with one arm might have looked cool, but I was well on my way to rupturing every muscle in my neck.
At the riverbank, I laid the board down in the water and—after straightening my neck with great delicacy—I grabbed the paddle and proceeded to act like I knew what I was doing. I had high hopes this would go better than the time I attempted surfing in the ocean and repeatedly cartwheeled through the waves like a drunken rag doll in a spin cycle. It's possible I was the most un-cool surfer of all time.
I had some local pros to thank for getting me to try again. The guys at Strongwater, the kayak and paddleboard shop in Missoula, kept talking about how much fun it was and how anyone, no matter how spectacularly unskilled at surfing they might be, could do it. Once they started renting paddleboards from their storefront near the river, I figured I had to give it a try.
A website I'd read somewhere said to start paddleboarding on your knees, so I tried that as I clambered onto the board and cautiously paddled into the Clark Fork's current. The ride felt surprisingly stable, and in a few minutes I stood up and was paddling against the moving water like, well, someone who actually knew what he was doing.
"Oooh, there's one of those boards!" people on the path called out. Children made their parents stop and watch. This was so much better than the whole drunken rag doll thing.
A little way up the shore a pair of college girls in tiny shorts appeared with paddleboards. As I drew closer I heard one mention it was her first time out. Smiling to the gods of fate, I paddled over to dispense pearls of wisdom.
"It's easier if you start on your knees," I said, authoritatively. Turns out they'd rented their boards from Strongwater, too. Within 10 minutes, and with some expert coaching, of course, they were both on their feet and paddling up and down the river.
After chatting for a while with my new friends, I turned back downriver, the sun warming my skin as I floated on my feet along the water's smooth, cool flow. Ospreys and kingfishers winged across a robin-egg sky. Standing over the water offered excellent views into the river itself, which on this part of the Clark Fork unfortunately meant glimpses of submerged shopping carts and beer cans. But it also meant views of fish, and it occurred to me that fishing from a paddleboard would be a snap (and it turns out they now make boards with integrated rod holders and tackle boxes for this very purpose). Lash points on the board's tip meant you could easily tie down lightweight camping equipment in a dry bag, and I began daydreaming about expeditions in the canyons of Utah or on the coast of British Columbia. Later, I would learn that people had already completed multi-day paddleboard trips down the Yellowstone River. I'd only been on one for a few minutes, but it was already obvious that stand-up paddleboarding—SUP for short—had a ton of potential.
Every so often a new sport comes along that delivers a seismic shift to the recreation landscape and forever changes how we experience the outdoors. Two examples from recent decades are mountain bikes and snowboards. Now add stand-up paddleboarding to the list.
Accounts of SUP's origins vary, with conceptually similar boards used in Bolivia, China and ancient Polynesia, but everyone agrees its modern incarnation emerged in Hawaii. Surf instructors in Waikiki began paddling their longboards in the 1950s, but the sport as we know it today kicked off in 2000, when a few mavericks in Hawaii, led by surfing dons Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, began playing with paddles during periods of poor waves. They were instantly hooked.
You could see the water and incoming sets better, it was a great workout, and it was fun even when the surf sucked. The more they did it, the more other people gave it a try, and a new sport was born.
The original handful of companies mass-producing paddleboards have been joined by dozens of others, and the craze is spreading like a tsunami around the globe. Jennifer Aniston is doing it! Rihanna is doing it! Today there are no fewer than four different SUP magazines, and paddleboard races are held in Manhattan, Tahiti, and Venice (both California and Italy). Heck, you can't throw a silicone implant off the coast of Southern California without hitting someone or other on a stand-up paddleboard.