Polynesian paddling: Take a new stand on an old sport

BEND -- A spinoff of the world's oldest board sport is the newest wave to hit the Oregon outdoor recreation scene.

It's called Stand Up Paddling (SUP), although the Polynesians who invented it thousands of years ago no doubt had a different term for it.

The sport is exactly what the name implies -- you stand on an oversized surf board and propel yourself with a long paddle.

Surfers -- led by big-wave icon Laird Hamilton -- began returning to their roots several years ago, using paddles to propel themselves to catch waves rather than lying on their board and "swimming."

It turns out stand-up paddling is a surf sport that doesn't require an ocean. Hence, the emergence of flatwater SUP on inland lakes and rivers.

The most visible venue for flatwater SUP in Oregon is in Bend. Here, in view of patrons of riverside eateries in the tony Old Mill District, a dozen stand-up paddlers can be seen plying the Deschutes River between the Bill Healy and Colorado Avenue bridges on a Friday afternoon.

"It was phenomenal! Super fun!" said Kip Roseman of Bend shortly after completing his maiden SUP voyage -- with his 3-year-old daughter, Pema, sitting on the board in front of him.

"She's already asking when we can go again," said Roseman, who grew up surfing. "It's a great core workout, but also really mellow."

Learning to stand up and paddle is simple, said Tom Dean, a Bend yoga instructor who also loves whitewater kayaking.

"If you can stand on one foot, you can do it," Dean said. "You're just balancing on your feet. ... If you want an easy paddle, it's easy. If you want a challenge, you can make it challenging. It's good for everybody."

Stand-up paddling and kayaking "are complete opposites," Dean said. "One is full of adrenalin and a rush of excitement and fear. Then the paddle boarding is calming and peaceful and meditative. Both are full of fun."

Stand-up paddlers make surprisingly good time going upriver, some moving faster than people walking on the riverside paths.

Paddling upriver -- or even across a lake -- can be quite a workout. Some call it "the best workout on water," which is part of the appeal. Stand-up paddling is used as a cross-training exercise by some professional athletes, including Lance Armstrong.

Bend's emergence as a stand-up paddling hot spot can be traced to a trio of former surfers, including Gerry Lopez, who moved his board-manufacturing business from Hawaii to Central Oregon a few years ago to pursue snowboarding. Dave Chun also moved his Kiola Paddles here. Both were among the first stand-up paddlers on the Deschutes.

Most active in promoting stand-up paddling locally, however, has been Randall Barna, an Orthotics maker with a long history in board sports.

Barna was among the pioneer Oregon surfers who braved the cold coastal waters without wetsuits in the 1960s.

He eventually took up the then-new sport of windsurfing and opened the first windsurfing school in Oregon in the 1980s.

He now operates an online SUP business (www.standuppaddleflatwater.com) and spearheads outings, including a weekly 4:30 p.m. Friday paddle that begins at the grassy area near Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak, where rental SUPs are available.

More people started getting their feet wet on SUP boards last summer, says Tom Hamilton, manager of Sunriver Resort Marina on the Deschutes River about 15 miles south of Bend.

Hamilton doubled his SUP rental "fleet" this year, to 40. Boards are available to rent by the hour, for a two-hour class or for a six-mile downriver paddle that includes a shuttle back to the marina.

"They're kind of taking off," Hamilton said. "We do a thing called 'Stand Up Sundays at Sunriver' that is a free one-hour class. That's been very successful."

Most people need 20 minutes or less to get the hang of stand-up paddling, he said.

What's the attraction?

"A lot of people want to try something new ... something with a little 'edginess' to it," Hamilton said.

"And it's kind of cool to be out there on the river standing up and looking around. It's an unusual perspective on the river."

The sport's popularity isn't hurt by the fact that Jennifer Aniston, Tom Hanks and Pierce Brosnan are among those who have been photographed being stand-up celebrities.

Meanwhile, lake marinas are also getting into the SUP act. Resorts at Elk Lake and Floras Lake are among those renting stand-up boards.

Other waters where one can see stand-up paddlers in action include Odell Lake (where a stand-up paddle division is included in the 29th annual Odell Lake Pioneer Cup canoe and kayak races, set for 11 a.m. July 25.)

The boards themselves are thicker, wider and longer than most standard surfboards.

SUPs range from 9 1/2 feet to more than 12 feet in length, and retail for $700 to $2,500. Adjustable-length paddles go for $90 to $500.

The expense is related to the amount of ultralightweight epoxy used, said Tom Werner, another Bend boarder.

"The sport just evolved because of the technology," Werner said. "They're able to make them wider and thicker and longer and still keep the weight down."

Some SUP boards come with a mast-mounting slot that allows them to be used for windsurfing as well.

One controversy involving SUPs is whether they are legally a vessel -- and thus subject to life jacket requirements -- or a surfboard, for which life preservers are not required.

An article in The Bulletin newspaper of Bend earlier this year quoted a U.S. Coast Guard memorandum that stated SUPs are considered a vessel when "used for transportation" but not when being used inside "the narrow limits of swimming, surfing or bathing area."

Sunriver Marina issues life vests with its rental boards, but most users simply sit them on the front or back of the board instead of wearing them.

Veteran paddlers point out that ocean lifeguards use longboards similar to SUPs for flotation performing rescues.