In my case there are no crowds gathered on the edge of the high alpine lake near Lizard Head Pass needing to be fed with a couple of fish and some bread; nor sermons to deliver in advance of a great miracle. Instead, I and a couple of others game to try out the old-but-newly-popular technique with ancient Polynesian roots are crouched over what look like lifeless strips of vinyl lying on the ground near the water, where we take turns using manual air pumps to inject life into the objects of our recreation.
We work our arms like pistons to inflate the watercraft that eventually take shape as the exceptionally long, wide and fat surfboards on which we’ll soon be perched in preparation for gliding across the glassy water. A sort of hybrid between kayaking and surfing that incorporates a long, single paddle for navigation, SUP gained a foothold in the modern era thanks to Hawaiian surf instructors of the 1960s. But today’s incarnation started gaining momentum about a decade ago, when legendary big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, who is largely credited with the sport’s contemporary popularity, turned to it as a way to get an ocean workout in the absence of surf.
According to SUP lore, Hamilton discovered that the practice not only complemented his surfing by using different muscles and helping to build core strength, but also presented an untapped business opportunity. Since then, growth of the sport has taken off around the world, moving away from the Pacific beach breaks where it got its start to include placid lakes and even roiling rivers.
Which is where local whitewater kayak and swiftwater rescue instructor, river guide and all around water sports guru Matt Wilson comes in. Wilson, through his Telluride Kayak School, offers half- and full-day lessons on Trout Lake for SUP beginners like me, while also renting the gear to experienced boaters who want to dial up their action on local river stretches by assuming the more challenging, standing position.
A well-known fixture in the local whitewater community, Wilson recently earned recognition among a select group of athletes chosen for their “ambition, attitude and audacity” as one of Outside magazine’s 2010 “New Kings of Adventure.” In his case, the title came with his successful first descent of the Amazon River’s 300-mile-long Huallaga tributary in Peru with five other paddlers.
So I know I’m in good hands when he instructs us to place the SUPs in the shallows of Trout Lake and then climb aboard to rest on our hands and knees. The paddle, which does double duty as both propeller and rudder, lies perpendicular across the front of board, where we hold onto it with both hands about shoulder’s distance apart.
Wilson then instructs us to quickly hop to our feet while remaining in a sturdy, steady crouch with our feet parallel and both hips facing forward. From there, a controlled press to upright brings us into the standing position from which we can begin to explore the calm waters upon which we float.
The perspective from standing is unique, as is the challenge of balancing on the board, but after just a few minutes of prudently drawing my paddle through the water alongside alternate legs, I soon find myself skimming the surface of the water toward the middle of the lake at a decent clip. It’s going well; so well, in fact, that I begin to wonder if yoga is as easily performed on SUPs as the photos of people floating downstream in warrior and downward dog positions make it look. I briefly contemplate trying a sun salutation of my own, but change my mind and instead take a mostly voluntary plunge into the water to cool down with the fish.
Having myself spent the better part of a year-and-a-half trying to spring from my stomach onto my feet while the surfboard I attempted to steer along a cresting wave invariably threw me off like a bucking bronco, thanks to a shape too advanced for my skills, the instantaneous path to upright control on the SUP is a welcome relief. In fact, that’s much of the sport’s enticement – it’s simple enough for total beginners to learn the basics on flat water and still have a good time, while offering more skilled boaters an opportunity for greater challenge than does a seated position, and turning even mellow Class I and Class II waters into more formidable rides.
“You really need to get proficient on the flat water before you just dive right into the river,” Wilson explains.
But once those basics are mastered, a few local spots like the Hanging Flume section of the Dolores River just below its confluence with the San Miguel River offer those new to the sport opportunity to taste the thrill that comes from navigating moving water while standing on it. There, the Telluride Kayak School offers a full-day trip on the mellow stretch offering views of a historic wooden flume pinned high along the canyon walls in the late 19th century to aid miners in their efforts to extract gold from deposits found along the river. A two-day trip on the Gunnison River is another option once the basic skills are mastered.
“It feels like you’re actually walking on the water,” Wilson says, explaining how he got got drawn to the sport.
“That’s what really captured me about it.”
For more information about stand up paddling lessons and trips with the Telluride Kayak School, visit www.kayaktelluride.com or call 970/316-2684.