James Dickey gave Ed a canoe, Evil Knievel designed a rocket and Huck Finn had a raft. Lewis and Clark relied on dugouts, and Coppola lent Willard a PBR. Rivers can really get in the way, but they can emancipate as well.
Jo Cassin, co-owner of Idaho River Sports, has been helping free people to negotiate Idaho's rivers for 23 years, and this summer she is focused on stand-up paddle boarding--or SUP--as a means of exploration. Cassin maintains the excited look of someone about to divulge a big secret. Her wide eyes, sunny brow and frequently clasped hands decorate a forward lean that anticipates an always friendly, "Can I help you?"
Every Tuesday night at Quinn's Pond on the Greenbelt, Idaho River Sports runs clinics to teach the skills needed to stand on what are essentially large surfboards and row them. The response has been tremendous, with between 15 and 20 people showing up each week, reflecting a national trend for this burgeoning sport. The appeal for many students is the promise of a fun new way to exercise. The dual requirements of balance and paddling strengthen leg, arm and core muscle groups, while delivering a terrific aerobic workout.
Cassin says unlike kayakers, her SUP students don't fit into any particular demographic. The gender break is about half and half, with a surprisingly strong turnout from kids, older adults and--shall we say--the unconditioned. In fact, Cassin herself was turned on to SUP as a way to rehab a slowly healing ankle fracture. It has since become a big part of her fitness regimen. She has witnessed increasing numbers of paddlers take to boards on the Lower Main Payette, Redfish Lake, Boise River and Payette Lake.
Jimmy Smith sells boards and gives lessons out of his shop at Lake Harbor. Smith has the loamy demeanor of a carefree surfer and brings an infectious love of SUP to his instructional sessions. His background is in ocean surfing, but he is enthused by the paddling opportunities in Idaho, and it comes across when he teaches. He spoke admiringly of paddling the Boise River just below the dam and referenced numerous spots he wanted to explore.
His easygoing style was the perfect confidence builder for my wife and me, and within minutes of our first lesson we were gliding along the pond with relative ease. Smith deals primarily in sleek fiberglass boards with fins that are designed to move fast and accurately. My experience is in whitewater kayaking, and so I became more interested in the roto-molded plastic boards that are made to withstand the impact of rocks. For that task, I went to Idaho River Sports and sought the guidance of the employees who paddle.
"I want to demo a paddle board I can take down the South Fork of the Payette," I explained to one of them.
"Do you have skills?" he asked.
"Um, kinda," I said.
"I wouldn't," he advised.
Soon, Cassin and another co-worker joined the conversation, and I began to ask advice on how to paddle in rapids.
"When you fall, jump away from the board."
"Make sure you land flat so you don't hit rocks or entrap your feet."
"You'll need knee pads."
That wasn't exactly the advice I was seeking. Regardless, I left with a whitewater board, collected my paddling and motocross gear, asked some friends to tag along to baby-sit me and headed off. With my optimism intact, we followed the curves of Highway 55 into the sylvan home of the Payette River. As Staircase Rapid came into view, I was struck by a familiar feeling: fear. An experienced kayaker's boat was pinned hard against a rock.
"Still thinking of paddling this?" a friend asked.
"Nope," I replied.
And so after we kayaked the South Fork, I clambered onto my paddleboard and drifted into the first series of waves by Banks, fearful yet confident and vaguely aware that people on the shore were pointing and laughing at me. While SUP paddlers appear graceful on flat water and big ocean surf, in whitewater, even a skilled paddler looks like a blind man with dysentery on a tightrope. I fell quickly, and while bobbing in the waves, wondered how to get back on my board.
It dawned on me that I didn't know what I was doing. It was an unsettling realization at an inopportune time. I proceeded to swim almost every named rapid on the Main Payette. I entered the water in more ways than Greg Louganis. I fell sideways and backward and forward and onto the board and into rocks and on my elbows and to my knees. Despite it all, I found the challenge increasingly appealing. I started setting limited goals approaching rapids, and while I achieved none of them, I began to imagine that one day I might.
As I dragged my board and my ecchymotic, cold, exhausted body up to the road, I reflected on the redemptive challenges posed by prohibitive rivers and the freedoms they promise the Huck Finn in each of us. And then thought, screw it, Moses had the better plan. But I'm sure I'll be divining my way down the Main Payette on a paddle board again before season's end.