They say St. Peter was able to walk out on the water before his faith gave way and he started to sink. I think about that as I stand on a cove off the Arkansas River, upright and level with the water, hoping that my trembling legs will keep me from falling in. Looking from the water level, you’d think I am just standing there on the river, but in fact I’m doing something nearly as strange— I’m balancing on a surfboard.
Jim Frank, owner of Ozark Outdoor Supply and a longtime outfitter for all things paddling, is my guide in this venture. He sits at the boat ramp and casually calls out a warning: “I’d stay away from those bushes over there, there’s a snake swimming in the water.” If not falling in the Arkansas River—filled with who knows what else and cold to boot—isn’t motivation enough, the thought of a snake keeps me determined not to lose my balance on the board. I pull through the paddle and try to turn my board the other direction.
This somewhat difficult motion is my first attempt at Stand Up Paddleboarding (often called SUP), one of those new/old sports that seems to have suddenly taken the imagination of everyone with access to water, inland or coastal. It’s Hawaiian in origins, practiced some say since as long as people have had paddles and boards. The recent phenomenon started in the 1960s when surf instructors would paddle out on a board to take pictures of tourists learning to surf. From there it became a way to train while the surf was down; a way to be on the board and still work on balance and core-building for when the waves were good. It’s been slowly spreading within the surfing community and then inland ever since. In 2007, the first Stand Up Paddle boarding race was held on Lake Tahoe and last fall the first World Championship was held in Oahu, Hawaii. It’s become a sport all its own.
“The sport hit Arkansas only a couple of years ago,” says Frank, who started seeing SUP boards five years ago at the outdoor expos. As the market has exploded so have the number of people offering the boards and as it is with so many things, Frank says you get what you pay for. You can buy a board for as little as $600 with top-of-the-line boards going for $1200 and up. A decent board is somewhere in between. There’s an increasing variety of options, however, with some inflatable boards that could be used someplace like a rocky river (Frank would like to take one on the lower Buffalo, he says). Some boards are also made custom for fishing. By being able to stand upright someone can spot fish and easily paddle around to the best spots. But most folks are attracted to the boards as a tool for relaxation and fitness.
Standing on the board in the Arkansas River, the fitness benefits are obvious. My legs feel shaky and I have to keep my core tight as I paddle along. A light breeze comes and I nearly lose it. “People do yoga on the boards,” Frank tells me, and I can see the attraction. For my part, I’m just glad to have just stood up without trouble. I make it back to the boat ramp snakebite- and hypothermia-free. Stepping off the board I feel relaxed—there’s something calming about walking on water or at least gliding along its top. I look forward to summer and lakes and another chance to be able to say “surf’s up” in Arkansas.