This June, the Payette River Games in Cascade, Idaho, will shell out a $50,000 purse for the combined Sprint and SUP Cross (think snowboarder cross) events. Clearly Stand Up Paddleboarding, which has thrived in ocean environments where it started, is coming of age as a river sport. SUP paddlers are successfully running harder and harder whitewater. A quick internet survey pulls up runs on the Class III –IV Savage River in Maryland and Class V South Silver Creek in California.
Local SUP paddlers are pushing the frontier on our home rivers as well, running the Lower Gauley River and the Lower New. And they are gaining national attention on none other than the Big Wave, an awesome, towering wave with a hefty foam pile found near the put-in to the New River Dries just downstream of the Rt. 16 bridge below Hawks Nest Dam. Big Wave has for years been the favorite training wave for a small group of elite freestyle kayakers. Once, pro paddler Jimmy Blakeney paddled his surf board out to the wave at a whopping 34,000 cfs (summer flows average 3,000 cfs), caught it first try, surfed it, paddled back to shore and never did it again.
Pete Iscaro first began surfing Big Wave on his Stand Up Paddleboard in 2009 when few people were attempting whitewater on SUPs. The Dries, which only runs when the New River has more than 10,000 cubic feet per second of water, was at relatively low levels. Then last July, it was a high water year and the Dries were pumping. Iscaro invited fellow SUP paddler Randy Fisher to give Big Wave a try. Fisher jumped in. “When I stuck the wave, logs were floating by,” remembers Fisher. “It was crazy! Now it is all I want to do.”
Eventually Fisher put up a video of himself surfing the Big Wave on YouTube. “It blew up,” he said. “People in Hawaii were sharing it.” Not long after, he got a call from Boardworks, a SUP company from California. He was invited to join their Ambassador program—he is now the only river surfer on the team.
If the New River Gorge area grows into even more of an SUPing hotspot, it will largely be thanks to Melanie Seiler. Seiler, a team athlete for Werner Paddles, has led the charge in SUP instruction, demo days, and, for three years running, a downriver SUP race on the New. She is the first woman to earn an American Canoe Association Level teaching certification for Level 3 Whitewater SUP. She runs the Lower Gauley and the Lower New on a SUP and is the only woman to surf Big Wave on a SUP so far. “The intimidation factor was huge,” she remembers of her first attempts. These days Seiler shreds the wave with ease.
So far, Iscaro, Seiler, and Fisher are consistently surfing Big Wave between 18,000 and 28,000 cfs. As this trio continues to push their level, we will see how much higher the bar can go. And soon they will likely have company. “Our area is becoming a destination for elite stand up paddlers,” states Fisher.
Photograph by Meghan Roberts