A Winter SUP Descent Through the Grand Canyon

Germans Markus Leppänen and his girlfriend Maria Stelzig had a common idea for adventurous couples: take a big trip before they got tied down with a family and a house. The difference? They’re actually doing it. And, they’re raising money for charities along the way through their Time 4 Charity project. When the opportunity to run the Grand Canyon arose while they were in North America, they took it, even if it was December. Leppänen, despite limited SUP experience, decided to do it all standing. Here, he tells us how it all worked out. —Will Taylor

SUP mag: What’s your SUP background?
ML: Before the trip I had SUPed just three times. From the beginning I never thought it would be interesting and didn’t know what all the hype was about. When I tried it, it was really, really great. I thought it would be easy to stand up but it’s hard to not fall in. Then you try to go from eddy to current and it’s really hard. The Grand Canyon trip came about and I thought it would be a great thing to take a SUP down.

SUP mag: How did that work out?
ML: In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I would do the whole thing but I was getting better everyday and I could do all the rapids. It was so fun.

SUP mag: Why winter?
ML: My girlfriend and I go back to Germany next May so we won’t be here next summer. We looked how it was in the winter and sure, it can be cold and you could hit a winter storm but if you are not unlucky you have many advantages: you don’t have to fight for crowded campsites and you can make campfires. We were really lucky with the weather but when the sun goes away or the wind picks up, it gets chilly.

SUP mag: What’s the most crucial gear you had?
ML: Drysuits. You have to use them in the winter. It kept me nice and warm. Besides the SUP, the second most important piece of equipment was the drysuit.

SUP mag: What was the most challenging rapid?
ML: Lava Falls. It’s the last big rapid on the whole trip. It’s the most intimidating one and the one where I had the longest scouting and debating where to go.

SUP mag: And?
ML: It was fine. I got in half way before I got hit by a crushing wave that swept me from the board. My tactic on the whole river was to take the speed lines where there is more water and less rocks because I had no knee or elbow pads. I hit the main flows so if I fell in I didn’t hit rocks. At some point in the bigger rapids there would be a big hole or wave that would take me off the board. My girlfriend did safety from her kayak. She only had to collect my board twice. I would almost always hold on and get back on myself.

SUP mag: How did she enjoy the trip?
ML: She loved it. She was most concerned about it being too cold. She was surprised it wasn’t too bad. The guy we went with had done it five times before and they were all summer. And now he prefers the winter.

SUP mag: Did you wear a leash?
ML: I didn’t have one. Next time I would bring a leash. On big water like this, if you intend to go where there aren’t rocks protruding from the water it’s fine.

SUP mag: Any advice for first-time whitewater SUPers?
ML: I wasn’t an expert in SUPing before, but I had a lot of whitewater experience so I know about reading water and know what to do and where to go from kayaking. Even someone who doesn’t know these things can run most of the rapids in the Grand Canyon. They can do 1 to 3 or 4 rapids (Grand Canyon scale) and it’s so much fun. You can progress and after two days you can see how you stay on the board. The Grand Canyon is 90 or 95 percent flatwater. On a SUP you can take turns and it really adds to the trip. It’s a totally different experience seeing the cliffs and mountains standing.

SUP mag: Any SUP plans in the future?
ML: When you SUP you get those crazy ideas but like a solo SUP descent, self-supported down the Grand. That would also be interesting for the future but we’ll see. If there’s anyone interested, I would be up for that.

For more from their trip check out their website or follow along on Facebook.

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  • Captain Mike

    What a great trip we had. One raft, one kayak and Marcus on the sup.
    25 days on the river. Marcus kept such a good attitude
    The whole trip even with a little dipping in the river now and then.
    They were great folks to share such a fun trip with.
    Captain Mike

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