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Paddle Like a Polynesian

Amidst varying opinions as to the origin of standup paddling, or SUP, no one disagrees that this versatile water sport is riding a huge wave of popularity. According to the Outdoor Foundation's 2013 Outdoor Participation Report, SUP was listed as the nation's most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants, even topping boardsailing and windsurfing.

Rather than paddling from a prone or kneeling position used by surfers, participants stand upright on boards similar to surfboards and use an elongated paddle to propel themselves through lakes, rivers, canals and along seacoasts. Enthusiasts of all ages cite the ease of learning, versatility, fitness benefits and the enjoyment of nature as reasons for its wide appeal.

A recent arrival to Rogue Valley waterways

Though SUP surged in popularity the 1960s, it has only recently become a common sight in Southern Oregon. Former Floridians and paddleboarding enthusiasts, Steven Dahn and his wife Lauren, first visited the Rogue Valley in 2011. "We saw all the lakes and rivers and asked around town about renting a paddleboard," Dahn says. "At that time, people said, 'What's a paddleboard?' and we thought, perfect! This is a perfect place to start our business."

They soon launched Stand Up Ashland and have been providing paddleboard guided tours ever since. "We give the basic instruction," explains Dahn, "like mounting the board, maneuvering and feet placement. We go over how you handle a wake and the wind and what kind of equipment you need. We know the best places to go where there is not a lot of boat traffic or other things to worry about and that makes it easier for folks to relax, be safe and gain confidence. From there, we think there's a lot to be said for allowing people to learn on their own."

So how hard is it to stand up on a floating "board" that is 30-some inches wide and up to 12 feet long? According to Dahn, it's not as difficult as you might think. "Balance does come into play some, but it's amazing how the body will adapt. If you can stand and you can walk for 20 minutes straight, you can paddleboard." Dahn says the consequences of falling are nothing like with skateboarding or snowboarding where you're landing on a relatively hard surface. Falling into the water is much more forgiving.

Brian McQueen with Kokopelli River Center in Ashland says that's all part of the fun. "Yes, you can plan on falling off. How often depends on the water you're on and how good your balance is. It's a physical sport and the heavier the water, the more of a workout you're going to get. When the water's calm, it's so easy to move around, but once the water or the wind are more active, it can be a little more challenging."

The natural benefits of fitness on the water

Dahn, who is also a personal trainer, is enthusiastic about SUP's fitness aspect. "For people who are burned out on being in the gym, it can be a great alternative way to get your workout."

Dahn says that even with variable conditions, paddleboarding is an activity that most anyone can enjoy. "There is so much bias out there when it comes to sports aptitude and athletic ability, but with paddleboarding it doesn't matter how old or young you are or what your physical limitations might be. It doesn't matter what your background is or what profession you have. We all get wet when we fall in the water and we all paddle exactly the same. It's just good fun!"

Some might call it fun with benefits. "There's nothing like working out in nature," says Jackie Auchard with Liquid Blue in Ashland. "My husband and I have been paddling for years and got into racing. We love the sport and felt like we wanted to offer something that didn't seem to be happening around here, so that's how we started offering SUP fitness classes at Emigrant Lake."

Auchard provides people of all ages and levels of fitness a unique "on the water" workout experience. "The classes are perfect for anyone looking for a more stimulating way to exercise while enjoying the beauty of nature."

Auchard says anyone can take the classes with no previous experience, but she does recommend at least one introductory session to become familiar with the board. "People don't need to be in great shape to take one of our core fitness classes. We work with people on any level. We start off with a warm-up on shore, just a few minutes of light cardio and paddle exercises to get the blood flowing and then we move onto the boards and move around the lake. The balancing part really adds to the workout. We incorporate core and functional exercises that you use while paddling. Everybody gets to work at their own level, so no one needs to "keep up" with anyone else."

If you can imagine taking the workout challenge to a whole new level, the latest trend is yoga classes on paddleboards. Participants say maintaining balance during movement changes really enhances the core workout while enjoying the tranquil beauty of nature.

Paddle forth

When asked about the best place to enjoy standup paddling, McQueen replies with a chuckle, "Any type of water you're comfortable swimming in. For this area, probably 90 to 95 percent of the market is going to be in really calm situations like many lakes, but there are people who are doing standup paddling on rivers and through rapids. In that case, people really need to be protected when they start dealing with Class III and IV water where you might be falling off the board a lot. You have to start thinking about rocks and other hard landings. For that, in addition to a PFD (personal flotation device), you need body protection such as a helmet, elbow guards, knee pads, maybe even some shin pads."

As a closing thought, Dahn says, "I think it's important to mention that paddleboarding is a very 'green' sport. It doesn't take any fuel to propel these boards through the water. There are no lasting effects to the environment. The only thing that lasts are the pictures I take while everyone is having fun. We leave no footprint behind."

Jackie Auchard demonstrates paddle boarding at Emigrant Lake Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch