For most folks, surfing evokes images of sandy beaches, early mornings and long, peeling waves. But while forecasting technology has improved, those predictions are still pretty unreliable. In summer, East Coast swells are few and far between, and if one does materialize, chances are Atlantic beaches’ unruly winds will make even a good swell turn bad. For many mountain-area surfers, long drives to the beach that end in less-than-ideal conditions eventually become more trouble than they’re worth.
So instead of studying the latest online forecasts, Clark Bell opted to convert an older windsurfing board into a standup paddleboard and take to the rivers and lakes around Asheville. He’s not alone. In recent years, more and more people have taken to riding an oversized surfboard standing up, steering with a long, single-bladed paddle. Bell says the sport affords him the opportunity to get out on the water — be it ocean, lake or river — whenever he wants rather than waiting for good waves to come to him. On one such discouraging trip to the coast, instead of paddling out into nonexistent waves, Bell and his friend Laurel decided to rent standup paddleboards — and right away, he knew he was hooked.
For Ann Zenkel, standup paddling offers a fun way to get outside and enjoy nature while getting in a great workout. Her 11-foot-long, inflatable paddleboard can be rolled up, stuffed in a bag and stashed in her trunk when she’s not using it. When she gets to the water, she can pump up the board in about 15 minutes.
Zenkel says she bought it on a whim, even though she'd never tried the sport before. “It looked like lots of fun, and I just kept hearing more and more about it,” she explains. “So I decided to go for it.” At first she was nervous and feared she couldn’t do it, but she quickly got the concept. “Within 15 minutes I began to feel pretty comfortable.” Zenkel advises beginners to start out on flat water. “Out on the lake, it's easier to experiment with the board and get a feel for how it handles, because if you fall you don't have to worry about hitting a rock like you do on the river.”
Moving water, on the other hand, “adds another aspect when you have to maneuver around different rocks, having to pay attention to the current, and it allows you to travel farther distances with a lot less effort.” And depending on what section of river you’re on, “It can also be more peaceful than the lake, where there are a lot of motorboats driving by.”
For most standup paddlers, the slow-moving portions of the French Broad provide ample challenges, but a handful of hard-core enthusiasts are taking their boards down the French Broad River Gorge (aka section 9), a stretch of white water renowned for its rocky ledges and big waves.
For Derek Turno and his friends, the latest challenge has been running Big Pillow, a class III rapid known for its intimidating hole and long wave train (which features a series of 2- to 3-footers). “Lately we've been running Big Pillow by staying to the left and avoiding that main hole and wave train,” he explains. But he’s quick to add that this approach “still doesn't make it easy. When you first drop into the rapid you have to just bend your knees, put in a low brace and go for it. Occasionally you have to drop to your knees when you're going through white water, because you get a little scared and don't want to take a dive off the board. … It's still exciting, but it's always fun to try to do it standing up.”
And while this isn't for everyone, Turno believes a lot of people would enjoy it.
“Paddling white water on a standup paddleboard provides a whole new perspective on the river,” he notes. “It's nice to add a new challenge to an old favorite like the French Broad, because I've run it so many times that it’s kind of lost its luster. Running it on a standup paddleboard is like doing it for the first time all over again.”
— Freelance writer and adventure-sports videographer Eric Crews spends his time roaming the forests between Boone and Asheville.