by Mike Harvey
If you want to simulate what it feels like for 99 percent of whitewater standup paddlers who attempt running a waterfall on a paddleboard, try this:
Go to your nearest municipal pool with a high-dive and jump off with an air mattress.
OK I realize a drop stitch paddleboard inflated to 15PSI is harder than an air mattress and there's no moving water or rocks in a pool, but you get the picture. Truth be told, both scenarios require roughly the same level of skill.
I've been biting my tongue on for a few years now and felt like I needed to get something off my chest…please, stop posting photos of you "running" a waterfall on a standup paddleboard.
Before the five or six people that have successfully accomplished this stunt distract us from the purpose of this diatribe by sharing video evidence of their successful waterfall drops, let me acknowledge the talented paddlers like Corran Addison, Dan Gavere, Aaron Koch and Spencer Lacy who have cleanly run waterfall-style drops on standup paddleboards. Yes, it can be done. Our team rider Lacy ran a drop on the Upper Youghioheny River on his 9-foot MVP and the video is still being shared all over the place.
But here's the thing…most of the photos we see are of people posed right above the crest of the drop (typically the last place they were in contact with their board) before ejecting clear of their equipment.
Fact: The vast majority of paddlers who attempt this stunt will never stomp the landing.
That's not a criticism of skill level, but an observation of physics. Assuming you could keep your feet in contact with your board while falling vertically, once you land from height the shock absorption of landing on a flat surface on top of a board is translated directly into your body. We only have so much suspension built into our feet, knees, hips and back; something is going to give.
The reason someone posts these photos is pretty simple…social media loves them. It's a guaranteed "like" fest for the poster, with all the associated warm and fuzzies that come from people validating your sick image in the nonstop barrage of sick images that our feeds have become. But here's the question I want us to discuss…is all this posing above waterfalls good for our little nascent sport?
Forget for a moment that it's actually harder to execute a clean eddy turn or "S" Turn on a standup board than it is to jump off a waterfall with a SUP along for the ride. Even if people were stomping waterfalls right and left isn't it kind of sending the wrong message about whitewater SUP? For paddlers who come from the world of surfing, it perpetuates the image that whitewater SUP is some kook-infested sideshow. For the vast majority of people who participate in standup paddling on flatwater it makes whitewater SUP look scary and the bar for entry impossibly high.
I come from a background in whitewater kayaking and I distinctly remember having a conversation with a legend of whitewater paddling named Kent Ford back in 1996 when I was taking my ACA Whitewater Kayak instructor certification course as a 21-year-old aspiring pro. Kent, a former Olympic slalom paddler who has dedicated his career to teaching whitewater paddling skills to the masses, was concerned at the time that whitewater kayaking was headed down the wrong path. He put it this way:
"I like the extreme, and I think that's really awesome that it's a part of the sport, but I think what we need more of at the moment is balance…the imagery out there of the extreme, at least in this country, has become what people think kayaking is. I think that's been detrimental to the sport. I love the extreme, and I love that people do that, but the problem is that we don't have these big machines of public relations putting it out there that class 2 whitewater is in many people's hearts what the sport can be about."
Sitting here over 20 years after Kent first aired these concerns to me about kayaking, whitewater kayaking has clearly contracted in terms of the number of participants. Is this because of media images of extreme whitewater? Of course not, but I doubt whitewater kayaking's obsession with big drops helped bring many people into the sport.
In the 25+ years I have been obsessed with whitewater paddling I have paddled almost every craft possible down a river. I love moving water in a way I can't coherently explain in words. When I discovered SUP I instantly loved the new perspective, standing high over the river and seeing features with a new eye. I also loved that the same skills I could do with my eyes closed in a kayak were suddenly new again. And it was great that my whole family, including my wife and daughter who are not big fans of being upside down stuck inside a plastic kayak, were excited to run our local class 2. In my experience this is what the vast majority of people enjoying whitewater SUP are doing—just loving being on moving water and learning new skills in a relatively safe environment.
I realize I am running the risk of coming off as the crusty veteran peeing in everyone's punch bowl…but you know…if the flip-flop fits. So the next time you post a sick shot of you "running" a waterfall on a standup board just know that I won't "like" it.
Jumping off waterfalls into pools can be really fun. Next time don't be ashamed to just skip all the extra accessories and post a cool shot of you jumping without the 10-foot board.
-Mike Harvey, Salida, CO
(Opinions expressed by Mike are his alone and don't reflect those of Badfish SUP. He's just grumpy because it's not snowing in Colorado.)