Stand-up paddleboarding on rivers taking off in Colorado — The Know

John Blackshire envisions a day when the South Platte River becomes a lively waterway attracting flotillas of stand-up paddleboarders and other water enthusiasts. He imagines riverfront establishments popping up where floaters can pause for coffee or craft beers. He even sees the urban river becoming a means of transportation, like the bike paths that run parallel to it, from Littleton to downtown Denver.

Those are dream scenarios, but Blackshire believes they are realistic and worth pursuing. Especially now, as river paddleboarding and river wave surfing increase in popularity.

“I just think the cities along the South Platte River in the Denver metro area, along with great non-profits like the Greenway Foundation, have been such good stewards of the South Platte River corridor that commercial business interests and property owners see the value of place-making on the river,” said Blackshire, co-founder of the Colorado Stand-Up Paddleboarding Club.

“It’s happening right now in our urban backyards, this great greenway with coffee shops, bars and restaurants. If the flows are right and you’re good enough, you could create a day right here in our backyard, paddleboarding from coffee shop to coffee shop or bar to bar or restaurant to restaurant.”

Paddleboarding is a growing sport in Colorado and around the world. According to Statista, a company that specializes in providing market and consumer data, the number of stand-up paddleboarders in the U.S. increased from 1.15 million in 2011 to 3.56 million in 2019. Last summer saw an influx of newcomers to flatwater lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, driven by the pandemic to find new outdoor recreation outlets. For the adventurous, progressing to the more difficult discipline of paddling on moving water can be the next step in the learning curve.

RELATED: Paddleboarding exploded in popularity in Colorado during the pandemic

“River surfing and down-river whitewater paddleboarding are really taking off,” said Willy Taylor, owner of Altitude Paddleboards in Englewood. “We’re seeing the river side of things grow quite a bit. It’s getting very popular, especially in Colorado, where we have some good whitewater, a lot of good paddleboarders and three really good paddleboarding companies.”

Three of the top paddleboard manufacturers in the U.S. are based in Colorado: Sol in Telluride, Hala in Steamboat and Badfish in Salida.

“When I first started paddleboarding in Colorado over 10 years ago, there weren’t a lot of people doing it,” Blackshire said. “Now, when I float down the South Platte River, I run into other people. It’s definitely become more accessible and well-known.”

There are challenges on the South Platte because flows are controlled by water managers and it seldom runs high. Right now, the river is at very low flow, Blackshire acknowledged, but he still finds ways to have fun.

“The river naturally forms pools, and in those pools you can get in a great workout,” Blackshire said. “You can do interval workouts, you can practice your balance, or even do SUP yoga. When the water’s not really moving, there are other things you can do besides paddle downriver.”

But when the flow is sufficient, Blackshire enjoys cruising for hours at a time.

“Usually I paddle downstream and then I take a Lyft or an Uber back to my starting spot,” Blackshire said. “Or you can use the light rail. You can start at the Mineral Station (a mile north of C470 in Littleton) and paddle downtown. That would be a long day — two to four hours of paddleboarding, depending on the flow — and you can take the train back. They do usually want you to deflate your boards, though, before you get on the train. Almost every river paddleboard is inflatable.”

Another growing part of the sport is wave surfing. The Colorado River Surfing Association has a list of surfable waves in Denver, Thornton, Glenwood Springs, Buena Vista, Pueblo, Salida, Montrose, Eagle, Durango and Florence. One highly regarded venue is the River Run Park in Sheridan, which has multiple waves for surfers of different abilities, including one designed to be surfable even when flows are low.

For paddleboarders who feel ready to transition from flatwater to rivers, Blackshire has some advice:

  • Be somewhat proficient on a lake first.
  • Make sure you’ve researched whitewater risks and whitewater safety.
  • Choose a level that is appropriate to your skill level. Maybe do a Class 1 river (rated easy with fast-moving water, small waves and few obstructions) your first time out, then Class 2 (rated novice with straightforward rapids and wide, clear channels).
  • Don’t attempt any Class 3 rivers (rated intermediate with rapids and moderate, irregular waves, strong eddies and currents) until you’re proficient in river stand-up paddleboarding.

Because river paddleboarding is a potentially dangerous sport, lessons are highly recommended.

“We don’t recommend you go out and try to learn it on your own,” Taylor said. “There are some things to learn: eddying in and out, how to self-rescue, just different tips and tricks.”

Taylor said the river paddleboarding community is a welcoming one.

“If you go to one of the river surf parks, people are great,” Taylor said. “They help everyone. It’s not like surfing on the coast when everybody wants you off their wave. It’s way more inclusive, people are trying each other’s boards — it’s a lot of fun.”

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