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Stand up paddleboarding takes off in Oregon

SALEM — In ever-greater numbers, Oregonians are learning to walk on water.

Or at least stand up on it.

Whether it's the ocean or estuaries, alpine lakes or whitewater streams, the number of people floating Oregon waterways on stand-up paddleboards has skyrocketed the past two years.

Dismissed at one point as a short-lived fad, SUP, as it's commonly known, is among the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the nation. More people tried SUP for the first time in 2012 than any other outdoor activity, and the popularity has continued to grow, according to the annual Outdoor Participation Report from the Outdoor Foundation.

The two-legged trend has become an undeniable force in Oregon, showing up everywhere from Scappoose Bay to Waldo Lake to the Deschutes, Willamette and Rogue rivers.

"We started noticing it about four years ago," said Ashley Massey, public information officer at the Oregon Marine Board. "But recently it has been like 'bam,' and all of a sudden we're literally seeing them everywhere.

"The problem is that people are getting on the water without education or understanding the danger."

Despite being a new trend in the outdoor industry, SUP is among the oldest types of water-bound transportation.

The history of people paddling a canoe, board or other style of watercraft while standing up goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years and is most closely associated with Polynesian culture.

The modern incarnation of SUP arrived in the mainland United States via Hawaii in about 2004, focused at first on surfers in California using the addition of a paddle to catch waves. The trend quickly spread up the West Coast.

"It reminds me of when snowboarding first came out — at first it was this new thing, then all of a sudden half the people on the mountain have them," said Patrick Higgins, a kayak school instructor at Next Adventure in Portland. Higgins said his favorite activity on a SUP is surfing ocean waves.

"There's a lot of advantage paddling out (into the ocean)," he said. "You're higher up and can catch waves you normally wouldn't be able to. The sharks can't get you as easily — that's something I really like — and you're a bit warmer."

It wasn't long before the sport spread inland. SUP makes a novel way to explore estuaries, lakes and flat rivers such as the Columbia and Willamette while providing a core workout.

"It really caught on with the younger fitness crowd, and that's where it picked up a lot of traction," said Michael Bowersox, who teaches a SUP yoga class at Next Adventure. "But more recently, it has also become popular with people ages 45 to 65 who can't tolerate sitting for long periods of time. You can still be in touch with the water but your body is under a lot less stress on a SUP."

Another driver of the popularity has been the improvement, and affordability, of the boards. Fiberglass boards have been joined by a fleet of boards made with cheaper materials. Perhaps the biggest innovation was the introduction of inflatable SUPs, which pack down small and light and can be used on lakes and rivers.

"I remember thinking they could be really fun to use in rivers, but the fiberglass boards weren't the best for whitewater," said Zach Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Company and general manager of ECHO River Trips, who first started experimenting with SUP in 2010. "When inflatable boards came out they were a big improvement.

"The thing I love about SUP is that it's just really fun. Doing the simplest moves on a class I or II river is challenging and different."

At Next Adventure, keeping inflatable boats in stock has been a challenge.

"When I started here two years ago, the joke was that our boss thought it was a fad or a trend," Higgins said. "But sales have really increased. This year we got a ton in stock and still sold out the inflatable SUPs."

But the popularity has become an issue for the Oregon Marine Board, which determined SUPs to be an official vessel. That means users must wear a life jacket, have a sound producing device (whistle) and get an invasive species permit for boats 10 feet or longer inland.

The problem is that many people don't wear life jackets, Massey said, which can be a big issue on rivers like the Columbia and Willamette that seem flat but have dangerous currents below the surface. Three people have died on SUPs since 2009, all of them on rivers — the Columbia, Willamette and Chetco — and all after falling in without a life jacket.

"Rivers are dynamic, with current, hydraulics and temperatures rarely above 50 degrees," Massey said. "Lots of folks don't wear life jackets and that's a big worry for us because it's very easy to fall in the water."

Even with the risk, both retail and outfitters have found success with SUP.

Tim Thornton, owner of White Salmon, Wash. outfitter River Drifters, found that bringing SUP on rafting trips on the Deschutes River added a fun element.

"We brought a few boards on overnight trips and found that it was actually one of the highlights," Thornton said. "You have younger dads who don't necessarily want to sit in an inflatable kayak but still want a challenge and really like SUP. It's fun for the entire family."

And just like every new outdoor activity, SUP is being taken to places it was never expected to travel.

Backpackers are bringing SUPs to high alpine lakes in the Cascades Mountains and fly-anglers are using them.

In more extreme circumstances, paddlers like Collier and Thornton have even taken SUPs down big, roaring Class III and IV rapids. They've perfected tricks like the rock hop, rock spin and — proof that everything comes full circle — river surfing.

"You're really in touch with the water on a SUP," Collier said. "It's by far my favorite thing to do on a river right now."

Tim Thornton paddles his stand up paddleboard down the Hood River in 2013 photo. Whether it’s the ocean or estuaries, alpine lakes or white water streams, the number of people floating Oregon waterways on stand up paddleboards has skyrocketed the past two years. Statesman Journal via White Water Rafting, Zach Collier - AP