• Paul Clark

SUP: Whitewater Park (An Introduction)

Welcome to the river. Whitewater parks are a great place to learn some valuable river skills, from river surfing to river running. There are some things to keep in mind, however, to keep both you and your gear less damaged.

Seeing paddle boarders arrive at a whitewater park for the first time is like watching those old movies of the mounted Calvary charging tanks in WWI. They are gung ho but you know it's not going to end well for the Calvary.

When my hometown of Bend, Oregon opened its celebrated whitewater park briefly last autumn I witnessed first hand paddle boarders with no previous river experience simply get destroyed. Not in the technical river surf as much as in the misnamed “safe passage channel.” Ledges caught fins sending bare-foot paddlers scrambling over lava rock and tripping headfirst into shallow water,. “Ghost boards” were a regular sighting floating unattended down river leaving one to wonder if their owners were laying unconscious somewhere upstream.

The Bend Whitewater Park reopens this month after a winter of continued construction. I want paddle boarders to understand a few things before playing in any river park, whether it be here or the numerous parks emerging throughout the States.

The reality for those new to paddle boarding at a whitewater park is a cracked board, broken fin box, lacerated toes, bloody shins, concussion, near drowning, and a possible lawsuit with the parents of a kid they nearly decapitated with their leash.

Here is my advice to those of you who plan to SUP at a whitewater park. This is not an article about reading the river, or teaching you how to surf river waves. It doesn't address river etiquette or how to approach the lineup of play boaters and surfers. This is simply condensed advice to help mitigate damage and injury.

1. You wouldn't go to a skate park with roller skates.

The whitewater park is intended to challenge a paddler's river skills, river surfing, and river running. Paddling rivers with a boat or with a board requires skills and experience to do it safely and efficiently. It's a river sport. There are river specific boards. And there is a river uniform. Notice I use the word river? This is not flat-water paddling. And it's not ocean surfing. Leave your beach gear and mindset at home. Otherwise you are just another kook.

2. S.H.I.P.P.

The river uniform. It's what whitewater kayakers wear for a good reason. And it's what experienced whitewater SUP boarders wear. You want to look experienced, right? More importantly, you want to wear these things to be safer on the river.

  • Shoes. Yes, shoes.

  • Helmet, always.

  • Insulation (dress for immersion)

  • PFD, always worn in swift water

  • Protection in the form of body armor like shin and elbow guards.

3. Save yourself the heartache.

Glass boards will get thrashed. Period. Unless you are on a first name basis with a ding repair guy, inflatable boards designed for river use will be your best bet. They are shorter and wider, more nimble and stable. The better boards will have indestructible fin boxes as well as small and flexible fins. Inflatables are less painful to land on and are less likely to injure others in a collision.

Some whitewater SUP-Cross races are making inflatable boards mandatory as well as limiting the sizes to under 11'.

Specialty SUP river surf boards do exist and are preferred over inflatables in steep, technical waves.

4. To leash or not to leash?

The answer to that is still subjective. There are pros and cons to both. I like to know my board is with me when I flush down river. A leash can and does get tangled on the paddle and boards and sometimes other people.

The critical thing is wearing a quick-release leash above the waist. Don't even consider an ankle leash.

5. Get instruction and take advice from better paddlers.

River running or river surfing, there is a pretty steep learning curve to whitewater paddle boarding. There are technical skills. And there is a lot to know about the river's hazards. The river is a powerful place to ride. Every time I paddle in whitewater I feel I'm learning something new. It's great to get influenced by other paddlers.

6. Remember, this is a river sport. Have fun. Go with the flow.

Paul Clark is “the duffel bag paddle boarder." He is an author, photographer, adventure SUP correspondent based in Bend, Oregon. Visit his site www.suppaul.com for media and adventure paddle boarding resources.

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