The river picked up speed, sucking me into the churn. I pulled my paddle hard through the water and braced myself. This was only Class II whitewater, but my heart was pounding at a Class V rate. That's because I wasn't in a raft, or even a kayak — I was balancing on a standup paddleboard.
Whitewater SUP got its start in mountain towns out west, when professional kayakers took a cue from surfers and started experimenting with standup boards. "It's like walking on water," says Ken Hoeve, a Colorado resident who traded professional kayaking for professional standup paddling. "Once you try it, you're hooked."
Manufacturers now design boards specifically for rivers — they are wider and more buoyant than standard SUPs, with decks built to shed water and allow for easy resurfacing in rapids. Elite paddlers like Hoeve, clad in helmets, life vests, and body armor, run dangerous Class IV whitewater on these boards — the paddling equivalent of surfing Pipeline or Jaws. "Except that in the ocean, the waves come in sets," Hoeve points out. "The river never lets up."
My maiden voyage was along a mellow section of the Colorado River about an hour west of Vail and deep enough so that rocks were not a concern. Sean Glackin, owner of Alpine Quest Sports in Edwards, Colorado, had assured me that I didn't need previous river-running experience; it's more important, he said, to be reasonably fit and comfortable in the water. I moved quickly from practicing basic paddle strokes in flat water to maneuvering through a slow section of the river before graduating to a three-mile stretch with sections of Class I and II whitewater.
Having paddled SUPs in reservoirs and lakes, I didn't find the moving water too difficult. The rapids were another story. One minute I was on my feet, jockeying with the water for control; the next, sailing off the tail end of the board. I hit the water backside first, legs skyward. I swam for the board, which was attached to my pfd via a specialized leash that breaks away if caught on rocks, and heaved myself up, paddling on my knees until it grew calm again.
A river is different when you're standing up. You feel its ebb and flow through the soles of your feet and have a better vantage point to read the current, spot rocks and eddies, and take in the scenery — until the water starts to churn again.
At the final stretch of rapids, everything clicked. With the paddle wedged into the waves for extra balance, plus a deeper bend in my knees to absorb the surge, I danced through the whitewater. The rush was far superior to the one you get while sitting in a boat; the same feeling you experience when you stand up on a surfboard after years of boogie boarding. At the take-out, I was truly stoked — and ready to go again.
To Do This Trip
Where to Stay: Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge is across the street from the world's largest hot springs pool. Rooms include unlimited access to the springs.
Outfitter: Alpine Quest Sports offers daylong river SUP lessons from $139.
Learn More: The American Canoe Association has a list of certified whitewater SUP instructors.