The Rise of Stand Up Paddling in Alaska
By Jennifer Tarnacki
Special to Glacier City Gazette
It’s a little after midnight on summer solstice. Upper Trail Lake in Moose Pass is dusky. I grab my board from its resting place amongst the mossy trees and it slinks into the lake with a plop, disturbing plumes of sediment. I climb on.
The paddle disappears into the dark murk, propelling the board silently forward. Knees shaky, twisting around for the leash, I balance and rise. Gliding into the liquid immensity, wind licking my skin, I participate in a watercraft as ancient as humans have lived near water.
Standup Paddleboarding (SUP) seems like an unlikely trend to arrive in Alaska. It requires a wetsuit; those slick, dreaded hassles, along with a rather expensive arsenal of boards and gear to safely sport in the frigid waters of the north.
Yet throughout the Kenai Peninsula, there are SUP outfitters opening for business. It’s growing as a sport here, with new suppliers bringing in boards from Hawaii and rental fleets providing for small business entrepreneurs. From Courtney Larsen of Adventure Guru in Cooper Landing to Karl Mittlestadt in Girdwood to Alaska Rivers Company, opportunities to practice SUP are here.
First documented in Polynesia as a way to stand up in shallow coral waters to spear fish, variations of the paddleboard have appeared throughout history. SUP became known in the U.S. in the early 2000’s when professional Hawaiian surfer Laird Hamilton popularized using a paddle with a surfboard. Since then it’s exploded in popularity in the lower 48, and now it’s reaching our state.
Paddleboards come in hard top versions or as inflatables. The easy to transport inflatable boards make it possible to bring them anywhere, and in Alaska, that can mean on helicopters to glaciers and on bush planes to remote island lakes. In a land of enchantment, the adventure opportunities are endless.
Sami Glascott offers teacher training in Anchorage as a way to encourage the sport in Alaska. A business whiz, she trains the next class of SUP instructors to safely coach in Alaska waters. This means life jacket, PFD and a leash, bare minimum. Safety and gear are of utmost importance for SUP here.
Recently on a crisp June weekend in Anchorage, as her class gathered to practice rescues in the lake, we had to pause and wait for a moose to swim across. “That’s Alaska for you!” she laughed.
SUP can be done on any navigable water, adding to its diversity. River paddling, like on the Kenai River in Cooper Landing, is different than surfing the bore tide of Turnagain Arm or calmly paddling the lakes near Moose Pass. Each landscape requires different mental acuity. River demands absolute attention; the current permeates all thought. The ocean tide demands fluid motion and rapid responses. Lakes seem to encourage the pleasure of languid contemplation.
On a paddleboard, you can merely drift or row but only at your own speed. It’s not quite the same as surfing, rafting or canoeing. SUP has different qualities. From your floating observatory, you feel slightly ajar from the mass of forest, moving a little faster than on foot. It’s an ancient pace.
Kayaks, canoes and boards were some of the very first forms of entry into wildernesses. Archeologists have found a canoe that is 5,000 years old. From sea kayaks insulated with seal skins by the coastal Alaskans to Amazonian river boards and the notorious Italians on their gondolas in Venice, every culture has found a way to utilize their waterways. They were our entry into the unknown.
Gliding past the water’s edge, everything is still, silent, nothing but rustling in the branches and slopping in the barnacles below. No other sport is quite as intimate with its elements. Balancing on a board demands mindfulness. Monks in 500 A.D. China were known to drift along rivers on single rod of bamboo. The agility required was a form of active meditation. This closeness and intimacy with the water, it slowly works its watery magic.
Japanese have a concept called “shinrin yoku” or forest bathing. Similarly, time spent on water has been shown to increase brain wave patterns conducive to creative thinking, expansive thought and an increase in overall well-being.
Mindfulness in nature is a form of awareness in which your mind is allowed to move on hues, senses, textures and nuances. It’s paying attention to sensations: a chill, a wet niggling up the back of a wetsuit, a burst of exhilaration. In short, all the subtle ever changing stimulations of nature. Neuroscientists have shown that generative thinking emerges here. Immersion in nature, with its slower form of stimulation, boosts creativity.
Traversing the arteries of Alaska waterways is to enter intimately into the forces that create things greater than us: mountains, valleys, rivers. Glaciers and rivers are of deep time, they carve the Earth; they are land makers, reality shifters. Life-giving water recycles and cycles through waterfalls in Amazonia up into the sky, crossing hemispheres in a whirling dervish of cloud, water vapor, rain, and snow. Ecological logic runs through the streams and rivers like a truth; natures cycles are alive and happening everywhere.
Birds skim the surface of Tern Lake. Valiantly protecting their nests, they dive bomb the unwary paddler. Bear and moose lope in the boreal jungle on lake shores. Salmon dart beneath the board, epic mountain vistas loom, and glaciers melt into lakes, which merge into rivers to eventually reach the sea.
Glacial water has a bluish tint, an electric hue. In Resurrection Bay, glaciers calve into big chunks that come rolling in as waves. Glaciers from deep time, containing secrets of atoms past, calve and slide, rising into our waters. What does this glacial melt say? It’s melting, which says enough.
It’s no coincidence that the intimacy and power of water inspires environmental activists. Paddlers, feeling fierce connection to their water, have protested drilling barges by surrounding them in their tiny crafts. The scent of algal rot, the muddy, sandy glop at the bottom of lakes, the remnants of fish; they speak scent to memory. The saltiness of seawater reminding us of the oceans in our sweat, in our very blood.
In a world where development prevails, where normalcy means pavement and smartphones, billboards and computers, it could be lurking in our Pleistocene brains an old urge to commune. Paddling is a way to connect, to speak with water, hear its messages. In an age of constant distraction, of short attention spans, paddling is a digital detox.
To inhale the salty musk of the ocean, feet wet. To feel the uncontrollable power of a wave, or the immensity of wind. To emerge from the glacial water after a long paddle, refreshed and rejuvenated, like being baptized by Earth.