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Stand-up-kayaking comes to Bozeman.

Every so often, a product comes along that changes adventure sports forever. There’s the AT ski binding, the graphite fly rod, mountain-bike suspension, the packraft. Every modern outdoor activity has evolved to allow us to go faster, farther, bigger, longer. Well, the latest equipment development has hit Bozeman—and it happened by accident.

Two summers ago, Las Vegas technocrat Harry Richards was hiking up Bear Trap when he witnessed a scene that struck innovative inspiration. A fisherman was floating down the river in a sit-on-top kayak, but was standing to enhance his casting distance. The angler hooked into a whopper right before Green Wave and, to Richards’ amazement, fought it all the way through the rapid, staying on his feet the entire time. The vision for stand-up kayaking was born.

Richards got to work right away, drawing sketches, collaborating with manufacturers, and figuring out which design would work best. After extensive hands-on research and development, he had a patent and a product: the world’s first stand-up kayak.

Much like it sounds, stand-up kayaking (a.k.a., SUK) is a cross between stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and hard-shell kayaking. Using a proprietary combination of polyethylenes, Richards created a custom boat mold that is durable, buoyant, and stable. For securing the feet, there are slip-on neoprene bindings and a nylon ankle leash. SUKers use a long, double-bladed paddle. As Richards found out during the testing phase, “the longer the paddle, the better the SUK.”

“The sport is still in its infancy,” Richards says. “But it’s already popular in southwest Montana. And with Bozeman’s rapid population growth, we anticipate more and more SUKing in the near future.” Richards’ fledgling company, SUK It Up, offers four models: SUKit, SUKcinct, SUKmor, and a round playboat, the Lollypop. A fifth model, soon to be released, is an inflatable version called the SUKy Duckie. Also in the works is a smartphone app, iSUK. “It’s kind of like Strava and Instagram combined,” Richards says, “but we’ll collect comprehensive user data to personalize the experience and pitch third-party products. It’s a place where people can join a like-minded community of other SUKers.”

This winter, Richards plans to host weekly SUK nights at the Swim Center.

Although business is booming, with hundreds of boats already out the factory doors, some folks point out that SUKing is nothing new. “Hell, my friends and I were doing it like crazy in the ’80s, back when it was really dangerous,” says “Mad” Chick Johnson, a semi-retired extreme athlete from Missoula. “Class II, Class III, Class IV… hell, we’d SUK anything! But I’ll be the first to admit, the equipment just wasn’t up to par. What Richards has been able to do is amazing, really. If only we knew back then! What lies ahead is a whole new world of safe SUKing.”

While Richards and Johnson are optimistic about the future, for the time being, SUKing remains somewhat of a counter-culture movement. Disliked by a majority of older, more conservative river-runners, it’s unclear how long it will take to be accepted into the mainstream.

“SUKing blows!” said one local paddler, when asked about the burgeoning trend. “The river’s already over-crowded. We don’t need more cocky jabronis clogging up the water. Screw those SUKers!”

Downriver kayaker, dry-fly purist, and local pastor Victor Iann echoes the sentiment. “It’s getting out of control these days,” he says. “What about tradition? Conventional values? My dad taught me that floating was a fixed-position activity, where the skirt goes on top! But standing up? And that oversized, double-headed paddle—my Lord, it’s a disgrace.”

“That’s just the way these things go,” Johnson counters. “Remember when snowboarding first came out? People thought it was weird and wrong. They still don’t let them on the lifts at Alta, for crying out loud.” As with all social change, progress is slow, but online forums and meet-up groups are popping up all over. This winter, Richards plans to host weekly SUK nights at the Swim Center. “It’s really hard to SUK on your own,” he says. “It’s just way easier and more fun with a partner. And we want to create an environment with no barriers to entry, a place where everyone can SUK freely, as much or as little as they want, enjoying themselves without judgment.”

While Richards and Johnson are optimistic about the future, for the time being, SUKing remains somewhat of a counter-culture movement.

That inclusive spirit has spawned a nascent enthusiast organization: United Stand-Up Kayakers. Membership in USUK is free, open to all, and comes with a members-only “Embrace the SUK” patch and a soon to be released magazine, SUK Life.

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As far as cost goes, Richards is doing everything he can to keep his boats affordable. “For a beginner-level boat, you’re looking at $450-$500,” he says, citing rising costs in Bozeman, where his factory is located. But as is often the case with new products, overly excited enthusiasts tend to go all in, only to find out that it’s not their thing after all—which makes for a robust used market. Outlying areas are where to look, Richards points out: “You can get a cheap SUK in Belgrade, or at least you used to. I heard there’s a guy in Three Forks who sells second-hand SUKs for a hundred bucks.”

As far as where you’ll see these SUKers, the lower Gallatin is an obvious hotspot, but according to Richards, one of the best stretches is actually on the Jefferson. “There’s this under-the-radar wave train called the Teaser,” he says. “It’ll surprise you, shock you even. The eddy access is perfect, and no one’s ever there. I’ll SUK there for hours without getting bored.”

And for those with more derring-do, there are plenty of other SUK-friendly locales to be explored. “People are really pushing it,” Johnson says. “First it was Yankee Jim, then Bear Trap and the Mad Mile.” By the time this story goes to print, Johnson will have attempted the first SUKscent of Quake Lake.

No matter how people feel about it, stand-up-kayaking isn’t going away. So, this summer, if you feel like branching out and trying something new, give it a shot. Who knows, you may just get SUKed right into it.

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