By Michelle Theriault Boots
3:32 PM AKDT, May 23, 2011
Scott Dickerson, a Homer-based photographer and surf entrepreneur, recently drove his white truck and trailer to Anchorage to do two things.
First, surf the bore tide, and second, evangelize about his new favorite outdoor activity: Stand-up paddle boarding.
He parked his trailer at Westchester Lagoon on a bluebird sunny May day and pulled a couple of what looked like extra wide surfboards down to the water’s edge, prepared to give anyone who expressed interest an impromptu lesson.
This week he held demos at Sand Lake and Campbell Lake that drew more than 30 people – “from 5-year-olds to grandmothers,” he says.
His theory: Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but Alaska has around 3 million of them. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that wherever you live in Alaska, there’s a lake a couple of miles from your house.
Paddle boarding – a newish sport that’s beloved by everyone from Hawaiian surf legend Laird Hamilton to vacationing Hollywood actresses – is an ideal way to explore Alaska's flatwater. But it hasn't really caught on here yet.
Dickerson hopes to change that, so he met me on the edge of Westchester Lagoon on a sunny, 65-degree day to get me on the board. The trails looping the lagoon were packed with dog walkers, bicyclists and joggers. But there was nobody out on the water.
I asked if I needed to change into a wetsuit, and Dickerson said no. But what if I fell in?
“You will not fall in,” Dickerson told me.
You don’t know me, I told him. If it is possible to fall in, I will fall in.
“You will not fall in,” he repeated.
Dickerson had me kneel in the grass at the edge of the lagoon, and then swiftly scoot myself onto the board, with the long paddle crossing it.
I anticipated a lurching, inelegant struggle to right myself out of downward dog position that would culminate in a loud splash.
That would be followed by me emerging from the lagoon like the Swamp Thing, having instantaneously contracted a number of fatal diseases from whatever inspired park authorities to erect signs that suggest that the water is unsuitable for "wading or swimming."
But that's not what happened.
Paddleboards are shaped like surfboards but are wider and much more stable. Instead of feeling like a slippery fish under my feet, the board felt like a table.
With a lot of alternating arm paddling, I started to propel myself around, admiring the lake's crown of mountains and birch trees.The boards are ideal for lakes, though whitewater versions are also suitable for paddling down a river.
You can even fish off of them or pack gear, just as you would in a kayak.
But stand-up paddling feels much different from kayaking. Above the water, your vantage point is higher. You feel more active and rely heavily on your core muscles.
Suddenly, a small group of paddlers had gathered on the lagoon – Dickerson, his friend, and Sunil Gianchandani, an Anchorage resident who happened to be out for a mid-day paddle.
He said he'd gotten into the sport last summer, mostly on lakes. He also packed his inflatable board for a longer trip to Hawaii and has paddled in Canada as well.
“It’s just a great workout,” Gianchandani said.
Dickerson does a lot of paddle surfing on ocean waters down in Homer, but he believes the Anchorage area – a population center that’s also dotted with a number of small lakes -- is an ideal place for touring on endless Alaskan summer nights. The boards are fairly light and portable enough to toss in the back a pickup or lash to the top of an SUV.
But for now, other than his occasional demos, there aren’t many ways to try out stand-up paddling in Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage’s REI store does stock two kinds of paddleboards: a SurfTech composite board that runs $1065 and a less expensive Bic brand board that’s $799.95.
REI's Kevin Burr says stand-up paddling seems to be growing in popularity in the Anchorage area. The Anchorage store started stocking a few boards in-house because so many people were ordering them online and having them shipped to Anchorage.
There’s currently nowhere to rent paddleboards in Anchorage, but Dickerson hopes to change that, as well as find more distributors.You can also buy paddleboards directly from Dickerson himself, through his company Surf Alaska.
Dickerson says he’d like to see Alaskans be less wary of their abundant waters. Wet and drysuit technology has advanced to the point where a couple hundred dollars will buy you gear that’s guaranteed to keep you warm – and safe – in frigid water.
And also, you probably won't fall in.
After 30 minutes of blissful paddling around the lagoon, I headed back to shore.
I managed to dismount and found myself back on boring dry land, without a drop of water on myself -- just as Dickerson had promised.
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