My vision for a bold and fresh new way to explore the rivers of Yellowstone Country was born on a redeye flight back to the Treasure State from the Garden Island of Kauai. While I began my odyssey of paddling the whitewater on the upper Yellowstone River in the cold, muddied waters of spring, it wasn’t until the height of summer, while rowing my salty Clackacraft as a fly-fishing guide, that I began to encounter others balancing their way downstream—clearly believing they, too, were leading the way in a river-travel revolution.
From the waves of Hawaii and the shores of Lake Tahoe to the hurried waters of the Yellowstone River, stand-up paddleboarding (commonly called “SUP” by the acronym-loving outdoor masses) has something to offer any and all water-worshipping river rats. Legendary rivers such as the Gallatin, Madison, and Yellowstone breathe life into the Bozeman area and truly represent the heartbeat of the region, and now stand-up paddling gives us yet another way to explore these iconic gems.
While not cheap to purchase, the equipment is relatively simple. As far as the boards go, the bigger and wider the better—look for boards that are between 30-34 inches wide for the most rail-to-rail stability. If you’re renting an inflatable (see sidebar), make sure to get enough air into the board to avoid the dreaded feeling of cruising down river on a mushy waterbed. When properly inflated, the board should be rigid with little flex from the nose to tail. When choosing a paddle, you generally want to add eight inches to your height.
First, find a smooth piece of water with little to no current—a lake or pond is ideal. Be ready to be humbled by legs as shaky as a newborn elk calf’s. Find the sweet spot (center) of the board, and begin by paddling from your knees to simply get the board moving. After a few good strokes, place the paddle’s shaft crosswise in front of you with the palms of your hands pressed down and parallel to your knees. Now press down on your hands, step up with your dominant leg, then repeat with the other and you are standing on a paddleboard! Once on the board, keep a parallel stance with your feet more than shoulder width apart. Widen your grip so your hands are a little wider than your shoulders and extend your arms with each stroke for greater power. Most important of all: keep your knees bent, eyes forward, and enjoy the ride.
Best Beginner River
When finding a piece of water to begin your stand-up odyssey, look for slow-moving rivers with depth, because falls are inevitable. Locally, Hyalite Reservoir is a great place to get your legs under you. For the more adventurous type looking for a river adventure, try the Lower Madison (from Warm Springs to Black’s Ford) or the “Bird Float” on the Yellowstone (Grey Owl to Mallard’s Rest). Of all the rivers running throughout Montana, there is perhaps none more perfectly suited for stand-up paddling than the Yellowstone. With its deep runs, swirly eddies, flat stretches, and rolling rapids, the ‘Stone is the ultimate river SUP destination.
No doubt about it, stand-up paddling looks a little weird—never before have I participated in any outdoor activity that has received more baffled stares, interested people walking out on their decks for a glimpse, or curious cars pulling over on the highway to witness something new and bizarre. And it will likely be different than anything you’ve done before. But it’s not as hard as it looks, so use these tips to explore your favorite lakes and rivers in a new way. Who knows—with a little patience and determination, you may just find yourself a bona fide practitioner of the latest revolution in waterborne adventure.
Michael Leach lives along the banks of the Yellowstone in Livingston and has launched a river-awareness campaign, “Stand Up For Yellowstone.” He plans to stand up paddle surf the length of the Yellowstone River in 2013. Check it out at standupforyellowstone.com.
Always hip to the latest outdoor recreation craze, Bozeman has come a long way toward making stand-up paddling accessible to the masses. Gone are the days of endless online research, calls to the 808 (Hawaii area code) for aloha wisdom, and gut-wrenching withdrawals from the bank account just to determine if this sport is for you. Today, there are four Bozeman shops that rent paddleboards; most of them can also get you set up with your own outfit. As with kayaking, a common rental for the beginner is an inflatable version, which is the best way to get started in our rock-infested rivers. Inflatables are also much easier to transport. Stop by one of the stores below and enjoy your new endeavor.
Northern Lights – The Barn
Round House Sports
Big Boys Toys Rentals