Riding the groundswell of stand-up paddleboarding in the Green Mountains
It’s the sort of evening when you look at Lake Champlain and wish you had a boat, or a friend with a boat. Just enough wind blows to sparkle the glassy surface inside the Burlington breakwater, while the setting sun glows sherbet-orange, closing out an 80-degree day.
At the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, we don’t have a boat, but we do have some new friends: a gathering tribe of stand-up paddleboarders who, like many, have discovered a whole new view of Vermont. Standing on wide, stable boards with our feet facing forward, paddling on either side to propel ourselves, we aren’t cramped in kayaks or tipping in canoes. We’re gliding across the water, able to see a different perspective while also getting in a darn good workout.
Though stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, hit the state’s waters several years ago, the flood-free summer of 2012 marks a watershed moment for the sport here, and for a coalescing community. This debut of the Wednesday Night SUP’er Club — a loose affiliation of enthusiasts — is just one sign of the rising tide.
This month, the WND&WVS shop, the only local store dedicated to SUP, opened in Burlington; a June 11 SUP demo at Essex’s Indian Brook Reservoir sold out. The first-ever SUP festival at Waterbury Reservoir is scheduled for June 24, while organizers of September’s Stand Up for the Lake! benefit at the LCCSC are hoping to make it a tourist attraction.
That’s not all: Some of Vermont’s SUP’ers are tackling white water on the Mad River. An Essex entrepreneur has developed a trainer that Hawaiians (who invented the sport) are using to practice their SUP skills indoors. And it’s hard to shake a paddle without hitting a Chittenden County outdoor store that sells stand-up paddleboards — and scrambles to keep them in stock.
“A few years ago, nobody even asked about SUP boards,” says Mike Strojny, general manager at South Burlington’s Canoe Imports. “Last year we couldn’t get them fast enough, and this year we’ve doubled our order — and we’re going to sell out.”
I was bitten by the SUP bug in 2009, when I first wrote about the sport for this paper and bought a board. Back then, I was a pretty lonely soul on the lake, and earned plenty of strange looks from passing motorists when they saw what looked like a surfboard on top of my car. In those days, boards for sale were as scarce in Vermont as palm trees.
Fast-forward to 2012, when landmark outdoor stores EMS and Outdoor Gear Exchange are selling SUPs. Canoe Imports and Stowe’s Umiak Outdoor Outfitters each stock 18 different models; Umiak’s Steve Brownlee expects his SUP business to triple this spring and stummer. High-tech models with displacement hulls make possible long flat-water expeditions (hello, Hudson River and Montréal!), while hybrid boards allow you to paddle Lake Champlain, surf Hampton Beach and windsurf the Dominican Republic. Buy ’em large enough, and you can fit the dog or the kid on the board.
When longtime surfer and SUP’er Russ Scully decided to design an entire Pine Street store around stand-up paddleboarding, he was inspired by those possibilities and a passion for water sports. At WND&WVS, new and used boards are lined up alongside paddles, wet suits and a tiki-bar checkout counter in an 800-square-foot corner of the building that houses New World Tortilla, South End Studio and SoYo. (Scully, who also owns surf-style restaurant the Spot, will move to a new, 1500-square-foot space in the old Meineke Car Care Center building in October.)
While the shop also sells windsurfing gear and kiting equipment, Scully says its heart is SUP. “The growth curve is really steep right now,” he says.
While Scully has imported Hawaiian ambiance to Vermont, Essex ergometer developer Rob Sleamaker, owner of Vasa, is importing a bit of Green Mountain stand-up culture to Oahu. There, surf-shop owner Robert Stehlik has been using the Vasa ergometer to train for SUP; this summer, Sleamaker will begin marketing his SUP-specific Vasa products.
Vermonters may just need some extra training for the latest frontier in SUP: river trips, where white water can add another frisson to the sport. “Rivers are just awesome,” says Colchester’s Jason Starr, who runs Paddlesurf Champlain out of Burlington’s Oakledge Park and has SUP’ed stretches of the Winooski, Lamoille and Mad rivers. “The speed — it’s like you’re on a flume ride, but you’re standing up.”
For far more placid experiences, however, one of the latest hot spots is Waterbury Reservoir, where Umiak has been offering free Thursday-night demos of high-performance boards this month, and hosts other SUP programs all summer. “In most cases, it’s glassy smooth, with mountains dropping all around you,” says Brownlee, who is helping to organize the Vermont Paddleboard Festival at the Waterbury Center State Park day-use area on June 24. An avid paddler, he got hooked on SUP because of the unique vantage point. “It feels new and fresh because I can see deep in the water; I can see fish, I can see the bottom of the lake, and I have become more attentive to the scenery in the woods,” Brownlee says.
It’s a shared sentiment: the feeling of gaining a new perspective, of freedom, of friendship. Though I’ve had many Zen-like experiences on solo SUP outings, it’s more fun paddling alongside someone.
During my first Wednesday night SUP’er club, several of us chat about everything from med school to parenting to CrossFit to real estate as we glide past Splash at the Boathouse, and Breakwater Café & Grill.
What makes it so easy to open up? “SUP puts you in that state of mind where you’re relaxed, and you share things that you might not otherwise if you were on land,” explains Scully. “It’s very rare that somebody comes off the lake and tells you they wish they had spent that time doing something else. There’s no easier access to get out on the water than SUP.”
But there’s one major barrier to that accessibility, as I found when I first tried the sport: cost. A new SUP board can fetch up to $2500 at Canoe Imports; the average price tag is around $1000. While that’s still far less than a boat — and while a well-made board can last for hundreds of outings — the sticker shock can turn some away. That’s why Starr is partnering with local craftspeople to create handmade Vermont boards, why Scully is selling used boards at WND&WVS, and why Paddlesurf, Canoe Imports, Umiak and LCCSC offer free demos, cheap rentals or both.
Want an even more unusual vantage point on Lake Champlain or Waterbury Reservoir? Both the LCCSC and Umiak are offering yoga SUP classes this summer, so you can practice your downward dog while paddling downwind.
“SUP fits really nicely with the skills you need for yoga, such as balance and core strength,” says the LCCSC executive director Kate Neubauer. She’s overseeing preparations for the fourth annual Stand Up for the Lake! paddleboard festival on September 8 and hopes to attract more than 100 paddlers from Burlington and beyond.
“It’s about having people understand that they can positively influence the health of Lake Champlain,” Neubauer says of the event. “We have a right and a responsibility to recreate and keep it healthy. You play on the lake, you fall in love with the lake, and you take care of the things you love.”