Laura Zgud doesn’t remember exactly when or where she was introduced to the idea of stand-up paddleboarding, (SUP) but she can clearly recall the first time she gave it a try.
“I don’t know if I saw someone somewhere paddleboarding, in Whistler or on a show or something, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that looks like a great sport, and something that I’d want to try,’” she says of the time about 10 years ago. “That was before there were paddleboards everywhere. But I had a surfboard; a soft-top longboard.”
So Zgud grabbed her nine-foot surfboard and her canoe paddle and headed for One Mile Lake.
The board was “a similar length as a stand-up paddleboard would be, but it was thinner. I remember it took a ton of extra engagement of my core muscles to stand up on it and paddle. But I was able to do it.
“And I remember a lot of people”—all of whom were unclear about what, exactly, Zgud was doing—“were like, ‘Oh, that looks cool.’”
Now an owner of Pemberton’s lakeside SUP rental operation The Paddle Barn, Zgud’s equipment has evolved since then—as has paddleboarding’s status locally.
These days, Zgud explains, her customers more often come up and say, “’I’ve seen this so much and I’ve been wanting to try it for so long.”
The concept of standing atop a floating vessel with a paddle to propel yourself forward can be traced back many thousands of years and to too many different places and cultures to pinpoint a single beginning for the sport. But unsurprisingly, stand-up paddleboarding’s modern roots are firmly planted in Hawaii—the same place where English explorer Captain James Cook became one of the first Westerners to observe Polynesian locals “wave riding” in the late 1700s.
As writer Jason Paul explained in an article for surfing publication The Inertia, modern SUP originated on Hawaii’s Big Island. As the story goes, an aging John “Pops” AhChoy, who moved to O’ahu in 1944, started standing on his surfboard in the lineup and paddling with an oar to catch waves, to prevent putting extra stress on his already aching knees.
That practice was eventually adopted by one of AhChoy’s sons, Bobby, a member of the Island’s “beachboys,” Paul explained. Not a cover band, but a group of locals who lived and worked on the beach teaching surfing and guiding canoe tours.
The surf instructors began using their canoe paddles to travel out into the surf, in order to get a better vantage point for beginner surfers and incoming swells and take photos from the water.
But when a car accident left the younger AhChoy unable to prone-paddle or kneel, he started using his oar to catch waves. “What started simply as a novelty tool for business became a water sport in its own right,” Paul wrote. “Bobby could be seen paddling at Waikiki from the 1960s until his death in 2007.”
As Paul continued, SUP started gaining international footing when the “Buffalo Big Board” contest in 2003 invited 49 competitors—including big wave surfing superstar Laird Hamilton—to participate in a stand-up division.
It didn’t take long for the sport to spread to the mainland, as water enthusiasts around the world began realizing that waves weren’t necessary when one is equipped with a paddle.
THE BIG KAHUNA
It was also in Hawaii where Whistlerite Steve Legge in 2005 was first introduced to SUP—or stand-up paddle surfing, as it was known then.
“Paddleboarding was so exciting for me, because you can stand up and I caught more rides on my first day paddleboarding on waves than I’ve ever caught in probably my life,” he remembers. “That’s why I got hooked on it so fast.”
Intrigued, Legge became increasingly involved in the sport as it began expanding to rivers, lakes, inlets and bays, to the point where he began distributing a brand of paddleboards in 2008. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Legge decided to launch his own brand, Kahuna Paddleboards. By March of 2010, Whistler-based Kahuna brought in its first load of epoxy paddleboards.
Five stores across B.C. and Ontario were initially “willing to take a risk,” and sell Kahuna boards, Legge says. Today, “I have 83 stores selling my brand across Canada.” On top of that, an additional 18 rental shops lease Kahuna’s wide range of epoxy and inflatable boards, contributing to Kahuna’s status as Canada’s leading distributor of paddleboards.
Kahuna’s boards are designed in Whistler. Though they’re manufactured overseas for the time being, Legge says he hopes to make the shift to manufacturing products out of its Function Junction headquarters as soon as this fall.
Legge says he’s witnessed significant growth recently as Canadians began clamouring for outdoor recreation gear amid a global pandemic.
“I didn’t think there was going to be much growth after 2018, and then 2020 and 2021, due to COVID, [business] has almost doubled again,” he explains, noting business has grown by nearly 30 per cent in the last two years.
Legge’s experience isn’t the only evidence of the SUP industry’s meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade.
Just last week, the Resort Municipality of Whistler announced it recently installed six new SUP racks throughout town with space for 35 additional boards, to keep up with the rising demand.
The SUP industry was valued at approximately US$4.96 billion. in 2015, according to Statista Research Department, with that figure forecasted at the time to reach almost 10 billion U.S. dollars by 2020. A market research report from Technavio, meanwhile, predicted the SUP market would grow by another $59 million between 2020 and 2024.
THE BENEFITS OF BOARDING
But why has the world been so quick and willing to embrace the sport in the first place?
“As soon as you get out onto the water, it calms you,” says Zgud, a former yoga teacher who started out teaching SUP yoga classes on One Mile Lake, before purchasing the same rental business that once provided her students with their leased boards about eight years ago. Now, she spends most of her summer days at the Paddle Barn, renting out a fleet of 10 hard Kahuna boards (as well as two adult kayaks and one child’s kayak) on days where rain—or, more often, wildfire smoke—hasn’t prompted tourists and locals to stay indoors.
“I always ask people when they come back in from a paddle, ‘How was it, how was your hour, how was your time?’ And they always say, ‘Oh, it was so relaxing,’” she says.
“That’s kind of, I think, the hydrotherapy aspect of getting out on a paddleboard,” Zgud adds.
Other benefits include the sport’s accessibility for paddlers of all ages—and species. Lounging on a SUP is her dog’s “favourite thing in the world,” Zgud says with a laugh, while her eight-year-old daughter now spends much of the summer ripping around on her own kids’ board.
Additionally, the Paddle Barn’s Kahuna boards are generally stable enough—and, in One Mile’s case, the water calm enough—for the vast majority of first-time paddlers to stand up comfortably, says Zgud. But even if nervous paddleboarders choose to ditch the stand-up portion of the sport in favour of sitting or kneeling, they can still access the same good-feels associated with gently floating across the water, says Zgud.
Legge agrees. “It’s very relaxing, and it’s actually a fun little workout for your core, but it’s not a stressful sport. It’s one that’s enjoyed by all.”
And, he adds, “it’s a very social sport.”
In Whistler, it’s now far more common to see a SUP strapped to the roof of a car than a canoe or a kayak. Take a trip to any one of Whistler’s lakes and you’re sure to find a few paddleboards peppering its surface, or a group or two pumping up or packing away their inflatable boards onshore.
While these scenes could easily lead one to view Whistler as a legitimate SUP hub, Legge attributes that perception more to Whistler’s geography than a collective penchant for board sports.
“You think this is the epicentre? This is nothing,” says Legge, citing even higher demand in places like Ontario, Quebec, Vancouver and the U.S.
“Why has Whistler done so well? Because it has community lakes, without motor crafts,” he says. “Alta Lake, Nita Lake, Alpha. That’s why.”
That, and the emergence of inflatable boards better suited to apartment or car-free living. After getting its start with solid epoxy paddleboards, Kahuna developed its first inflatable model in 2014, Legge says. The development of compact, packable inflatable boards, “changed our market and doubled my sales,” he adds.
“You can now get to more places—backpack and walk into remote spots, that kind of stuff. So that was massive for the sport. That was a game-changer.”
Though the split varies by year, Legge says Kahuna is currently seeing about 47 per cent of its sales attributed to inflatable boards and 53 per cent from solid boards. But along with the rise of inflatables’ popularity came an influx of lower-priced, lower-quality options onto the market, enticing even more prospective paddlers to become SUP owners.
“I thought Costco was going to really hurt us,” says Legge. “But it has only helped us, because once people paddle a Costco or price-point board and then paddle one of mine, now, they give that price-point board up to the family and come buy [a Kahuna.]”
BRINGING SUP TO NEW HEIGHTS
With Whistler’s valley lakes seemingly busier and busier with every passing summer weekend, more than a few adventure-seeking inflatable SUP owners see hauling their relatively-lightweight backpacks uphill as a fair price to pay for the privilege of paddling across a remote alpine lake.
Blackcomb Helicopters, however, has been offering easier access to these kinds of peaceful, high-elevation SUP experience since it launched its summer picnic and paddleboarding helicopter tours about three years ago.
“We’ve been doing heli-picnics for a long time, and they’re great and really fun, but [people are becoming] a little bit more adventurous with their tourism choices these days. We thought we’d try and step it up a notch and give them something a little bit more exciting to do as well,” says Jordy Norris, sales and marketing manager with Blackcomb Helicopters.
“Paddleboarding was kind of the hot new thing on the scene at the time. And still is, I guess. It was just a great mix, putting the two together.”
Norris says about three-quarters of Blackcomb Helicopters’ summer guests now opt to bring Red Paddle Co. inflatable boards along on their picnics to Whistler’s Rainbow Lake or Pemberton’s Marriage Lake. The company flew 60 paddleboard picnics in 2020, Norris notes.
“Paddleboards are an awesome option, because there aren’t really many other floaty devices that give you the control or the safety of a paddleboard, and also that we could transport up with us,” he adds.
Plus, paddleboarding is low-impact in the sense that it “doesn’t harm the sensitive alpine environment either,” Norris says.
“People love it. The water up there is so perfectly turquoise, crystal-blue that it feels like you’re on a tropical ocean, but it’s frigid glacier water. So it’s absolutely beautifully stunning to spend time up there.”
LEGEND OF THE LAKE (AND HOW TO GET ON HIS LEVEL)
Whistler might be home to many passionate paddlers, but most locals understandably tend to pack away their boards during the colder months in favour of more traditional winter pursuits.
That’s not necessarily the case for Arne Gutmann.
Like Zgud, his interest in the sport was first sparked when he was introduced to the SUP around 11 years ago, but, also like Zgud, his first paddleboarding pursuits were made on makeshift equipment.
“I grabbed my first wind surfer and use that as a board for two years,” he says.
Now, he’s a certified Ocean Touring Level One instructor who’s completed long-distance races like the 43-kilometre Maui2Molokai in Hawaii. At home in B.C., Gutmann typically paddles between 80 to 120 kilometres a week, and gets out onto the water between 150 and 175 days a year.
On any one of those given days, you can usually catch the Whistlerite circling Alta Lake—rain or shine, snow or sleet. Once the rivers begin freezing in the winter, Gutmann takes his board south to Squamish, to the saltier waters of Howe Sound.
“When you’ve got the right clothes, you can do anything. I think people sliding around in -20-degree weather on the hill is pretty crazy too,” he says with a laugh.
Gutmann represents a segment of paddleboarders that have helped take the sport well beyond its surfing origins. Today, consumers can choose between a variety of board shapes crafted for specific purposes, from SUP yoga to racing to touring—for example, the kind of overnight and multi-day camping trips that Gutmann relishes.
“You don’t have to be hardcore,” he says. “Pack a couple bags, go across the water a kilometre or two, [land] on an island, and now you’re in paradise for the night, or two or three.”
For Gutmann, SUP’s appeal is found in “immersing yourself on the water … but also the possibility of falling in,” he says. “So there’s this extra element of risk involved that just makes it neat, and makes it a little different than the status quo.”
But while many paddlers are drawn to the sport for its accessibility and mellowness, Gutmann is careful not to minimize the numerous risks inherently associated with it. “Once you go in the ocean … that’s where the real consequence comes in. That just depends on the individual, how far they want to go with it,” he cautions. “The safety concerns are massive. You just have so many other variables that could come up. And if you aren’t really experienced, you could find yourself in quite dire situations.”
To that end, while Legge says he’s seeing significant growth in the whitewater river portion of the SUP industry, Gutmann disputes that this sector will ever truly take off due to the relatively small crowd of paddlers brave enough to accept the risks posed by stand-up paddling your way through rapids.
“The consequence is almost too high. I’d rather be in the middle of the ocean, 20 miles from shore and I’ll feel more safe,” Gutmann says.
Even for those who tend to keep their paddling style on the less-risky side of the equation, Gutmann recommends erring on the side of caution, ensuring one’s swimming skills are up to par, and taking all necessary safety equipment, including a leash.
It’s worth noting here that the Canadian government classifies a paddleboard as a human-powered watercraft, meaning SUP’ers are subject to the same rules and regulations as those paddling a canoe or kayak. Namely, those navigating a SUP outside of a surf zone must carry a personal flotation device (PFD) and a sounds signalling device onboard. (No, your inflatable board doesn’t count as a PFD itself.)
As for those looking to get into the sport or to improve, Gutmann has a few tips: take a lesson, always paddle with a buddy, have someone videotape your stroke, and spend time seeking advice from SUP experts on the internet.
Even for someone with his level of experience, “Every time you get out, it is [a learning experience,]” Gutmann says.
“Every day and every paddle stroke I do, there’s awareness on what I’m doing with my stroke, because you can always improve on it. That’s what I do—I just always want to get better.”