SUP (Stand Up Paddling) is the act of standing up on a surf board – not the little modern ones, but the big longboard-styles from the early days of surfing. The paddling is done using what looks like the big brother of canoe paddles, taller than the paddler, with a curved blade. Now, instead of paddling with your hands while lying down, then jumping up to catch the waves, the entire trip is done standing up on calmer waters. At least for beginners, it is. As stand up paddling grows in popularity, more extreme uses are being devised. Some daredevils are surfing on them, some racing and others are even trying to navigate white water. The sport is in its infancy. There is no telling how it will develop.
I learned the sport on still bays and quiet backwaters. And what backwaters they are! Just behind the dunes of the South Walton County, Florida, beaches are a series of 17 rare coastal dune lakes. There are only 3 or 4 places in the world where these unusual bodies of water can be found, and Walton County, Florida, has the highest concentration of coastal dune lakes in the world. Some, like the one known as Western, are brackish water, tidal, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The mix of fresh water and gulf water creates diverse micro-ecosystems where a wide selection of plants, animals and fish thrive. Conversely, some dune lakes are fresh water, totally landlocked. At least one is more of a vernal pool, filling during the rainy season and slowly lowering over the rest of the year. All represent unique habitats for marine life, and offer some of the finest birding on the Gulf coast.
During a tour of the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park with its several dune lakes, Park Ranger Leda Suydan, pointed out an alligator in No Name Lake. Then we spotted the bloated carcass of a young deer in the shallow water. “It probably came for a drink and instead became a meal for the ‘gator.” She explained. “They wait for the meat to decompose before feeding. He’s hanging around to protect his meal; we shouldn’t go any closer.” I was glad not to be practicing my new SUP skills on his turf!
The nearby town of Santa Rosa Beach fronts on both the Gulf and on the coastal dune lake Western. It is the headquarters for the YOLO Board Co. which promotes stand-up paddling. Owner Tom Losee teaches the basics of what he refers to as Yolo boarding during an hour of fun paddling on the lake. In no time at all his instruction had me standing and paddling like a pro. The fact that I’m a canoeist and kayaker who used to surf probably helped, but before I could revel in my prowess he said people rarely fall off the boards because “it’s an easy sport to learn.” So, don’t let a lack of experience stop you, almost anyone can do it.
Tom knows what he is talking about. Within moments of standing up on my board I was skimming along through the water grass. While admiring the water lilies, I saw lizards skittering across the pads to escape, and big fish leaving swirls in the water as they ducked underneath them. It is a wonderful perspective to have, standing on the board viewing everything in and on the water with ease. Where was my fishing rod when I needed it most? I left my camera on the dock, too, “just in case”, but I was sorry not to have it with me when I coasted within a few feet of an egret near the shore. Heck, I stayed so dry I could have had my shoes on! I think that the next time I go I’ll take a light stool with me so I can lean against it to fish and photograph in comfort. Maybe a lunch, too.
Before I got too comfortable, though, I learned that there are YOLO Board races with erect paddlers covering mile-long courses in a very short time. SUP offers an excellent core workout which is only intensified by racing. SUP is so much more than relaxed bird watching or fishing. It is becoming a competitive sport! That’s all well and good, but I’ll stick with a leisurely paddle around a lake, or on a meandering river, exploring the water as if I could walk on it, and at about that pace.