They look like oversized surfboards, but we are 300 miles from the nearest ocean. They are Stand Up Paddleboards, called SUPs, and they are evidence that the hottest new sport to hit the outdoor world has made its way to West Virginia.
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It’s an unseasonably warm May evening and I am standing at the edge of Summersville Lake with a dozen or so things that look like oversized surfboards scattered about a patch of grass. With me is a group of about a dozen people, ranging in age from from 15 to 60, mostly women and a few fellas, some fit, some paunchy. We are here to learn a completely new sport. What’s more, we are here to learn a sport that has been described as the hottest, most exciting thing to hit the outdoor industry: SUPs, short for Stand Up Paddleboards.
What is a SUP, you ask? Exactly my question when I first started seeing them strapped to the roof of cars driving through Fayetteville. Take a surfboard, make it bigger and more stable, add a very long paddle so you can propel yourself standing up. It’s a trend or the next generation of water adventure, depending on who you ask. A little web research turns up hyperbole. It’s “like walking on water,” says one website. “Intrinsically pleasurable on a deep level,” says another. “Anyone can do it!” Regardless, it has hit Fayetteville and the New River Gorge, and I have been eager to try it.
Which brings me back to the beach where my classmates and I are wondering if this sport is in fact as easy as they say. Our instructor is Melanie Seiler—a very fit and psyched gal who’s been leading the local SUP charge. It is 6:00 p.m. and I settle in, prepared for a detailed talk about safety and technique. Not even. Seiler’s talk is over in eight minutes and includes succinct, step by step instructions on how to stand up and wield the long paddle without looking like a goober.
We tote our unwieldy boards down to the shoreline and tentatively shove off on our knees. My board is surprisingly stable, and I’m not alone in this discovery. By 6:15 most of us have hopped up easily and are planted on our boards. At 6:20 I am confidently paddling along with Seiler’s advice ringing in my ears: “Don’t worry about it, just paddle.” By 6:30 I am feeling some glide. By 6:45 I am mulling over what kind of board to buy. By 7:00 my shoulders are burning and I can feel my abs.
There is some magic going on here. No doubt it has to do with being on water alone with the breeze and the birds. I feel a bit liberated, it is so easy.
Easy and exciting. Standing up on a surfboard-like craft and paddling about, I feel like the door to adventure is wide open. I am not even thinking about getting hurt, or breathing deeply to calm my nerves. I did not wrangle with a bunch of complicated gear. I just relaxed while I steadily wore myself out.
Take Your Pick: Flatwater or Whitewater
Flatwater: Explore the Lakes
Summersville Lake You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant SUP playground: The uncrowded, clean and wildly scenic Summersville Lake has a myriad of quiet coves to explore replete with waterfalls and ducks and 2,700 acres of open water. Salmon Run put-in is the most convenient. Head North on Rt. 19 toward Summersville. One quarter mile south of Summersville, take a left on Airport Rd. It’s an immediate left to the put-in.
Hawks Nest Lake A wide, placid section of the New created by Hawks Nest Dam. Look for hawks, turkey vultures and, if you’re lucky, bald and golden eagles. Located below Hawks Nest State Park, 304-658-5212.
Boley Lake A small, beautiful lake lined with rhododendrons and hardwoods in Babcock State Park. 304-438-3004.
Whitewater: Easy Becomes Hard
Veteran kayakers who think nothing of paddling Class V runs suddenly find Class I and II to be thrilling again on a SUP. A word of advice from local Peter Iscaro, in his fourth season of SUP: head to the New. “It is deep and warm and not rocky,” says Iscaro.
Beginner Whitewater: The Upper New
Small waves and riffles broken up by long calm flatwater pools make this a perfect training ground for you to find your balance and get your whitewater feet under you.
Intermediate Whitewater: Fayette Station Rapid
Before attempting to tackle whitewater with any heft, look no farther than this easy test piece. It has everything you need to build your skills in one tidy package. 1. Giant eddies where you can work on the basics above and below Fayette Station Rapid. 2. Thread the Needle upstream, a gentle rapid with some giant boulders where you can practice ferrying across the current and entering and peeling out of eddies. 3. Fayette Station Rapid, a meaty, straightforward Class IV that provides some big waves but virtually no risk.
Advanced Park and Play: Gauley River Surfspots
The experienced SUP whitewater aficionado looking to surf waves will find some stellar “park and play” opportunities on the Gauley River, especially Perfect Wave right below Mason’s Branch. Recommended flows: beginner, 300-800 CFS (cubic feet per second); intermediate, 800-1,500 CFS; advanced, 1,500-2,500 CFS. (Read the Belva, WV gauge. Looking for even more? Try the Lower Gauley’s Five Boat Hole and Diagonal Ledges.
Boards Brace yourself for a bit of sticker shock: boards range from $500-$5000, with the average price coming in around $1000. Newbies should look for a multi-purpose design that will allow you to experiment across the spectrum. Here are a few guidelines: The longer the board, the faster and easier the glide. Shorter, thicker boards (7’-10’) are more maneuverable and are well suited for running whitewater.
Paddles SUP paddles have an elbow between the shaft and the blade to increase stroke efficiency. Choose one that is roughly 8” taller than you. If you are sharing it, consider an adjustable paddle. The cheaper paddles will be a combination of aluminum and plastic, making for a durable but heavy paddle. Lighter, higher performance paddles are made of fiberglass or carbon fiber. Prices start around $75 and head into the stratosphere.
PFDs A Personal Flotation Device is required because the Coast Guard classifies paddleboards as vessels. Choose any Coast Guard–approved life jacket.
Fiberglass or Inflatable?
Like traditional surfboards, most paddleboards are made from a foam core with a fiberglass and epoxy resin skin. Recently, however, inflatable boards have entered the market and are increasingly popular. Disavow the notion that inflatable means squishy. These boards feel almost as rigid as the non-inflatables. The advantages include durability and ease of transportation and storage. Inflatables lose a wee bit of performance in glide and speed.
Where to Try It:
Adventures on the Gorge offers a ½ day intro to SUP at Summersville Lake. Ace Adventure Resort offers a number of SUP adventures from $35-$99. Ace Adventure Gear has a limited selection of demo boards available for $20 a day. Reserve in advance.
Where to Find the Gear:
SUP retailers: Our area is fortunate to have three SUP retailers: Ace Adventure Gear, located on Fayette station Rd., Adventures on the Gorge in Ames Heights, and Water Stone Outdoors in downtown Fayetteville.
Photographs by (top to bottom): Candace Evans, Darrell Hensley, Chris Emerick, Christopher Danz
Category: Water Sports