"It's not quite as dangerous as it looks," says Mike Tavares, a part-time Chattanoogan and whitewater paddleboarder.
This month, Tavares and girlfriend Haley Mills will lead the first-ever Whitewater SUP Tour by Boardworks hitting spots in Alabama and North Carolina before heading west to Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
California-based Boardworks and a host of other companies are riding a wave of popularity for stand-up paddleboarding, also known as SUP. It's tough to pin down paddleboarding sales numbers or other statistics, but those in the industry say it's growing fast. "Talking to people in other paddleboard shops, they seem to see the sport double every year," says Mark Baldwin, owner of L2 Boards on Market Street.
But the whitewater version, which uses a shorter board along with elbow and knee pads, remains a small sect of devoted wave seekers for the time being. "Whitewater stand-up is really kind of a niche thing right now," Tavares says.
With the Boardworks tour and the discipline's growing popularity, some rivers could soon be standing room only.
Tavares, 29, and Mills, 26, met on the river and have pretty much stayed there. "That's kind of the basis or our relationship," Mills says.
The couple first met while paddling the Ocoee and have since taken their kayaks and their boards all over the United States. They live in an RV, splitting time between Chattanooga and Colorado.
Between the two of them, they have sponsorships from Immersion Research, Astral PFDs, Colorado Kayak Supply, Beyond Coastal sun care and Boardworks where Tavares works as a sales rep.
Both have long been passionate about the outdoors. Mills, a Kentucky native who graduated from Middle Tennessee State with a minor in outdoor recreation, began paddling on the Nantahala at 13 and is now a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team. Tavares, from Richmond, Va., has a recreation degree from Radford University and has worked as a raft guide and kayak instructor, including a stint at the Nature's Classroom Camp for kids in Mentone, Ala. He's paddled for nine years and got into SUP two years ago, a year after Mills.
"They're definitely top of the food chain when it comes to the whitewater stand-up paddleboarding," Baldwin says. The couple chose Chattanooga as a home base so they, like other local boarders, can stand in the place where they live (cue R.E.M.). Though they love to take their boards to the Ocoee, Nantahala and Rock Island State Park, the Tennessee River downtown has become one of their favorite places.
"Downtown is the perfect spot," Tavares said. "Easy access to the river - that's kind of unusual for a big city to have."
Take a stand
Like most things, paddleboarding takes practice.
But Mills said kayakers or canoeists who already know the area's rivers have a leg up in getting up on their legs. She suggests starting out on mellow streams and not being deterred by a few early spills. "Your first time you're going to fall off and get a little bit wet," Tavares says.
Getting wet shouldn't be a surprise, but some paddlers might be surprised by burning leg and core muscles after some time on the water, according to Mills. "It's a full-body workout which a lot of people don't realize," she explains.
Boards range from 9-foot whitewater boards to 14-foot racers, but most people start with 12 footers, Baldwin says. Some are inflatable, while others are roto-molded plastic like kayaks. There's the progression, you know," Baldwin says, comparing boarders to cyclists. "You've got to get your road bike and then you get your carbon-fiber bike."
So far, Baldwin says, Imagine Surf's Rapidfire board has been the standard for whitewater boarding but Boardworks' inflatable Badfish - which Tavares uses - is fast becoming a favorite. "Anywhere there's water you can stand-up paddle," says Tavares. "There's a board for whatever you want to do."
No matter the style, once a paddler is up on a board, they can expect an entirely new view. "It's a different look at the river," Tavares says.
"You get a great perspective because you're up higher," Mills explains. On a recent trip to Florida, Mills says she was able to see manatees in the water that kayakers paddled right past without seeing.
Baldwin has been amazed at the visibility even on the Tennessee around Maclellan Island. He says many days he can see fish and turtles 10 feet down into the water. "You see everything. It's like you're in an aquarium," Baldwin explains.
Paddleboarding has also given Tavares and Mills a new perspective on some of the Class I and II rapids they would blow past in a kayak. Some obstacles easy for a seated, two-bladed paddler can be a challenge with a single blade and high center of gravity. "In the paddleboard, it's definitely different," Mills explains.
So far - with helmets and pads on their elbows and knees - the couple has made it through the rapids uninjured. "Building your skill up with whitewater really isn't that hard," Tavares says. "As long as you play it safe and you don't paddle out of your ability it's really pretty safe."
Apparently, looks can be deceiving.