TAGGART — Plenty of people like to play in the Taggart Falls rapid on the Weber River in a raft, inner tube or kayak. Taylor Bowman prefers to take it on standing up on a longboard, paddle in hand.
“It’s more of a challenge,” said Bowman, of Salt Lake City. “It’s just more fun.”
Welcome to the sport of stand-up paddleboarding, also known as paddle surfing.
When people think of surfing, they generally picture the pristine beaches and big waves of Hawaii or Australia, not Utah.
But every year since the last few, a growing number of adventurous types can be seen out on the state’s lakes and rivers, paddling their way across the open water or navigating through the rapids while standing on what appears to be — that’s right — a surfboard.
Like traditional ocean wave surfing, stand-up paddleboarding originated in Hawaii, when surfers would stand up on their boards and use a paddle to head out in search of the best waves.
The technique became popular sometime in the 1960s. In more recent years, it has spread like wildfire to the mainland and around the globe, including in Utah. It has grown to the point where there are organized competitions during the summer, such as the H2O Overdrive Summer Series, which held competitions last week at Jordanelle Reservoir and on the Weber River. It has also been a popular event at the Utah Summer Games for several years.
As recently as five years ago, stand-up paddleboarding was a fringe sport in Utah, practiced by a handful of snowboarders and other athletes. But over the past few years it has quickly become popular, said Rebekka Stone, owner of Utah Paddle Surfing, a Park City outfit that consistently rents out its fleet of 30 boards every weekend.
“Now it’s in the mainstream,” Stone said. “It’s been big in the coastal areas for awhile, but now it’s really growing in popularity inland.”
Stand-up paddleboarding is a sport enjoyed by lovers of many other outdoor activities, from kayaking and windsurfing to skiing and snowboarding. Stone, whose business operates out of a ski shop during the summer, said it meshes well with Utah’s well-established ski and snowboard culture.
“They really complement each other,” she said. “It’s good cross-training for skiers. They can get their ski legs during the summer.”
When Stone opened Utah Paddle Surfing in 2009 after moving from Miami, hers was the only game in town. Just three short years later, she estimates there are about 30 companies in the area involved in different aspects of the paddleboard business, from sales to rentals to repairs.
The rapid and dramatic rise in the popularity of stand-up paddleboarding can largely be attributed to its simplicity. A first-timer can become comfortable paddling on flat water within an hour, as opposed to traditional surfing, which for most people takes years to master.
It’s not for everyone, Stone said, but those who try it and like it become hooked for life.
“I rarely see our renters more than once,” she said. “They either hate it and quit, or they love it and go purchase their own board.”
It’s also a relatively affordable pursuit. While custom-made paddleboards require an initial investment of about $500 to $1,500, the activity itself is free on most waters. There is no pass required, and usually no admission fee.
There are several types and sizes of paddleboards. Some are made of reinforced plastic and a foam core or hollow wood construction like traditional surfboards. More recently, inflatable boards have become immensely popular. The standard board is built for one rider, but there are also jumbo-sized boards that fit up to seven paddlers or more.
Competitive races are held around the country year-round, with warmer locales hosting events during the winter months. And as the sport grows, so does the length of the races. Lake races typically range from one to five miles, but some can be as long as 10 miles or more.
Stone said the first official 10-mile race in Utah happened this year, and various organizers are shooting for 20-mile and 30-mile races in the near future.
“In 2009, five miles was a long way,” she said. “Now it’s much more of a sprint.”
Stand-up paddling appeals to all athletes because it helps improve balance, strength and conditioning, said Mike Nelson, who has been paddling for several years and has introduced dozens of friends to the sport.
“It’s an excellent core workout,” Nelson said. “It works your whole body. I would recommend it to anyone trying to get in better shape and have fun doing it.”
Stone said Utah, the nation’s second-driest state, has become an unlikely breeding ground for some of the top athletes in the sport.
“At this altitude, getting some of the times they are getting is amazing,” she said. “Utah is producing some incredible paddling athletes.”
That’s a major reason why — as strange as it sounds — Utah has become synonymous with surf culture.