With the explosion of growth in stand-up paddleboarding over the last few years, RiverRocks wanted to get in on the action by creating an event for the general public. While the 31-mile Chattajack welcomes sell-out crowds of SUPers and kayakers each year, Ann Ball, event producer for Chattanooga Presents!, which produces RiverRocks, says the idea this year was to incorporate more non-competitive sports into the lineup alongside the endurance favorites.
So she asked Randy Whorton, director of Wild Trails and an avid stand-up paddleboarder, to come up with something fun.
Whorton knew that the distances of SUP races can be intimidating to newcomers. He wanted to plan something more accessible.
"A lot of these new SUPers are coming from whitewater or flatwater paddling, and those are historically not endurance sports," Whorton says. "They're not used to paddling for dozens of miles — it turns them off a bit." Moreover, anyone can sit in a canoe and paddle along leisurely, he says, but SUPers have to completely relearn their sense of balance to stay upright on a constantly moving object.
Enter the Poker Paddle, a concept lifted from cycling tours and motorcycle trips.
Featuring a down-and-back paddle, the event isn't a race. Instead, paddlers travel a 25-mile route with three checkpoints, getting tokens at each checkpoint. Once every paddler is finished, they turn their tokens in for randomized poker cards. The best hand of five cards wins.
It won't be totally random, though, Whorton says. To incentivize people to push themselves and paddle the whole 25-mile journey, he's created a way for participants to get more than five cards. Each paddler gets a token for signing up, and each checkpoint grants two tokens, meaning finishing two checkpoints before turning back will get you a five-card hand, but hitting all three checkpoints will give you seven cards, increasing your odds of a good hand.
It's all in good fun, though; the big goal is to introduce beginner SUPers to longer distances.
"This is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, and I think it's safe to say that with anything new, you don't want to just jump in head first," says Whorton. "The Chattajack, for example, is 31 miles, and people treat that like such an epic thing. I come from an ultrarunning background, so I'm used to the endurance, but new paddleboarders probably aren't."
The growth of the sport in Chattanooga is apparent, he says. Four years ago, there was only Rock/Creek Outfitters selling SUP gear. Now, companies like L2 Outside and Chattanooga Paddleboards have popped up offering rentals and gear.
"The demand is obviously here," Whorton says. "It's such an amazing, complete body workout, and we'd like to introduce people to a new way of looking at it."
Visit riverrockschattanooga.com/poker-paddle for more details.