Think of it as extreme tubing, whitewater boogie-boarding or kick-boarding for the X-Games generation. It combines many of the skills used in kayaking, canoeing and whitewater rafting, but it’s easier to learn, more versatile, more maneuverable and poses fewer of the risks inherent in getting rolled, capsized, swamped or bridged on the rocks. In fact, the whole point of the sport is getting full contact with big water. It’s called riverboarding, and it’s one of the newest and wildest ways for whitewater enthusiasts and beginners alike to discover new thrills on familiar rivers.
The basics of riverboarding are simple: A single boarder rides head-first and belly-down on a molded polypropylene board about four feet long and two feet wide. Holding onto a set of handles bolted into each side, the rider can either float with the current—running just about any stretch of whitewater a kayaker or rafter will paddle short of open falls—or else kick into an eddy and surf a standing wave or playhole for hours at a time.
“I personally consider it safer than rafting or kayaking,” says Mike Martell of the Pacific River Supply Company of El Sobrante, Calif., one of only a handful of riverboard distributors in the United States. “If you’re rafting and you flip or fall out of the boat, you’re at the mercy of the river with just a lifejacket. Riverboarding, you’ve got swim fins, you’ve got a wet suit, you’ve got floatation from your life jacket, plus you’ve got this huge safety device that you’re holding onto, so you’re ready for the gnarliest situation out there.”
Riverboarding originated about 10 years ago, most likely among surfers and rafters looking for new thrills on inland waters. Today, virtually all the riverboards in use in the United States are manufactured by Carlson River Boards of Point Richmond, Calif. Company founder Bob Carlson says that the design of his riverboard was inspired by the ocean boogie boards he and his brother used to play with in their spare time while running rafting trips on the South Fork of the American River.
Built thicker and more durable than a boogie board, riverboards are still soft enough to keep your orthodontic work intact if you happen to collide face-first with an oncoming boulder. But it was their high buoyancy rating that drew the attention of river rescue teams in California about eight years ago, which started using them as a tool to rapidly access swimmers or boaters in distress. In fact, of the 500 or so riverboards Carlson sells each year, the vast majority are bought by fire departments and swiftwater rescue teams throughout North America.
As a sport, riverboarding is barely out of its infancy. Chances are pretty good that an inquiry about riverboards at your local rafting outfitter or whitewater supply shop will be met with blank stares, and there are still far too few riverboarders for the sport to have developed a competitive nature. Fortunately, of the three rafting companies in the United States who offer recreational riverboard rentals and guided instruction, one—Montana River Guides—is located right here in Missoula.
“It’s great exercise. I like it better than kayaking, for those of us who are afraid to be stuck in their boat,” says Bernice Johnston, who, with her husband, Mike, owns Montana River Guides and riverboards twice a week during the summer. “I had a bad experience [kayaking] and I really won’t do it anymore. But then I tried riverboarding and I thought, I’m already in the water, so I don’t have to worry about falling in.”
Johnston says that their company generally begins offering riverboard rentals and instruction by mid-July, when the flow through Alberton Gorge is not too high or chaotic and the air temperature is warmer. She says that although riverboarding requires a certain level of physical fitness and basic swimming ability, the average person can pick it up in no time. Going out with an experienced guide is recommended mostly to help newcomers learn some of the basic skills such as locking into a wave, as well as where the most enjoyable features on the river are located. Martell says that even a complete novice with no river experience can run rough rivers with little training and come off the water “with a totally religious experience.”
The ideal conditions for riverboarding are deep water, good rapids and standing waves. Since you’re traveling head-first, you want to avoid going over too many falls, but conditions that might intimidate a kayaker, such as boulders spaced every six feet, are not really a problem for riverboards.
“What are obstacles for rafts and for kayaks are not for riverboards,” says Carlson. “The death spots for rafts are play spots for riverboards. The fun rating goes up and the danger rating goes down.”
Obviously, like any whitewater sport, riverboarding is not without its inherent risks. Johnston says that her company provides all riverboarders with a wet suit, lifejacket, fins and booties, and helmets are mandatory. Depending upon the obstacles in a given river, some boarders may opt to wear knee and shin pads as well. Also, since riverboarding requires your body to be in the water virtually the whole time, one danger to watch out for is hypothermia—especially in western Montana, where the rivers doesn’t warm up until mid-summer—and, of course, exhaustion and dehydration.
One other attraction of riverboarding is that it’s less punishing on your bank account. Compared to, say, kayaking, which requires an initial investment of at least $1,000-$1,500 just to get fully outfitted with new equipment, riverboards sell for about $270 through Northwest River Supply of Moscow, Idaho. Throw in a quarter-inch wet suit or eighth-inch “Farmer John,” lifejacket, booties, fins and helmet and you can be ready to hit the rapids for under $500. (Contact wearers might also consider picking up a pair of goggles.) Moreover, since riverboards are small and lightweight, they can be thrown on the roof of a car, in the back of a station wagon or the bed of a pickup truck, and can even be carried on a rafting trip for playing during a lunch break.
For the more adventuresome river runner, Carlson says he recently took about a dozen riverboarders on a three-day unsupported expedition on the Middle Fork of the Feather River in northern California. The boarders traveled very light, carrying sleeping bags, food and stoves in dry bags tied to their boards. More locally, Johnston says that anyone interested in riverboarding the Clark Fork River with Montana River Guides can spend half a day with a guide for about $85.
“It’s just another way of having fun on the river,” says Johnston. “We all try rafting and kayaking, and some of us want something more.”