A final watery showdown.
Running rivers is a rite of spring, and warmer weather begs us to seek out a seaworthy vessel and hit the water. But which one is best suited for the aquatic environs of southwest Montana? Now, we have way too much respect for the canoe to pit it against any of its less-noble brethren, so that leaves us with the kayak and the paddleboard—a fine matchup, indeed. May the best craft win.
When paddleboarding hit the mainstream, it was billed as the greatest workout since shoe-less running. It engages the core. Twenty minutes is all it takes. It will replace all your other workouts. The hyperbole goes on and on, but to be fair, we were a bit tight after our first loop around Hyalite. The same can be said for kayaking, however, making this one too close to call.
Like most outdoor pursuits, these activities are as dangerous as you want them to be. That said, we haven’t seen any mind-blowing videos of paddleboarders ripping huge waterfalls or running class V rapids, and most swiftwater rescue courses aren’t geared toward boarders.
Over the decades, kayaks have become so specialized—long for flat water, short for rapids, wide for stability—that you’d need a fleet to cover all conditions. With enough practice, a single paddleboard can put you on just about any body of water in southwest Montana, from a wide-open reservoir to a winding, rapid-laden river.
There’s no better source of comedy than watching a person paddleboard for the first time: clamber on, fall off, repeat. On the other hand, with the exception of a tiny playboat or the nimblest of touring models, all kayaks can be fairly effectively maneuvered right off the bat.
Laird Hamilton rode a paddleboard across the English Channel, which helped launch the craft into the mainstream. But that’s Laird Hamilton, the superhuman. With sea kayaks crossing entire oceans and whitewater kayakers dropping 100-foot waterfalls, the paddleboard falls short in terms of street cred.
Hauling a kayak around is kinda like fat people having sex: awkward and arduous, with lots of grunting. Hard paddleboards are big and heavy, too, but many can be slung under the arm like a surfboard, and inflatable models are lighter still.
Kayaks go back some 4,000 years, with Eskimo hunters cruising snow-covered shorelines in search of seals and walrus. Ancient peoples stood up on various watercraft, but the paddleboard itself didn’t appear until a few hundred years ago, in Hawaii. And as a modern recreational activity, paddleboarding is barely a decade old, a pre-pubescent schoolboy compared to kayaking’s grizzled old patriarch.
If you’re at Canyon Ferry doing yoga on your paddleboard, don’t be surprised if a powerboat roars by, engulfing you in a tsunami-sized wake. A sea kayaker placidly paddling the shoreline is unlikely to incite such mischief, mainly because kayaks have been around long enough to warrant resignation among the redneck crowd.
Like all things outdoor-recreation oriented, the price boggles the mind. Both vessels start around the $1,000 mark, and a “good” one will run you more than that. Throw in the “essential” accessories and you’re looking at a rice-and-beans summer. Sounds like you might want to stick to the ol’ rope swing for your watery adrenaline rush.
What else can you use a kayak for? An old one might become landscape décor or be turned into a garden bed, but mainly it just takes up space—until you sell it for $25 to a college kid who doesn’t notice that the hull’s worn down thinner than cardboard. A paddleboard, on the other hand, can be set on legs to make a cool work bench, picnic table, or any other manner of outdoor furniture. Not to mention that in a mad rush of passion, a paddleboard provides a smooth, flat surface for some rhythmic lakeside lovemakin’. Try that on a kayak and you’ll need to pawn the thing just to pay off your chiropractor bills.
Survey says kayaking is still king when it comes to southwest Montana waterways. While paddleboarding has its appeal (mostly lying on one come a hot day in August while a gentle breeze pushes us around Hyalite Reservoir), it can’t match the feeling one gets crashing through whitewater on the Gallatin or gliding along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake.