Paddleboarding Tips from Adventure Paddleboarder SUPPAUL

“Once I stood up, I didn't sit down.”

Image courtesy of Paul Clark, www.suppaul.com


When adventure paddleboarder Paul Clark picks up the phone, I’m instantly reminded that he could be sitting on the banks of almost any river in the world; the first thing I hear coming from his end is birdsong.


“Right now, I'm on the North fork of the Umpqua river in Southern Oregon,” he explains. “I’m sitting in the van, and the door is open. I wanted to let in a little bit of outdoor breeze and wind.”


Clark, aka adventure paddleboarder SUPPAUL, lists Bend, Oregon, as his place of residence, but he says it’s more accurate to call his converted Ford Transit camper van his home.


“I’m mostly on the road,” he says cheerfully. “And on any given day, this van could be holding up to 18 different paddleboards.”

And paddleboarding – or rather, exploring the world via paddleboarding – has been the driving force in SUPPAUL’s life since 2013, when he traded in his sea kayak for a paddleboard after attempting a record-breaking 1,000-mile solo navigation of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez.


“I was doing what has become a norm of mine,” Clark laughs ruefully. “I find an activity, a transport type of activity – kayaking, skiing, climbing – and I get obsessed with it. The second time I paddled the entirety of the Sea of Cortez, I did it as a 28-day event. I was going for a record and notoriety; the whole narcissistic, aspirational thing. But I broke up with my girlfriend on that trip. I had to visit a physician on that trip because I had these crazy infected blisters on my hand. I had some issues with my boat and sponsorships, and I was just doing these things… not for the love of paddling. And if you force yourself to do it eight-plus hours a day, seven days a week, you get burnt out. And I got burnt out on that trip.”


When Clark arrived in Cabo San Lucas, he sold his kayak and bought a one-way ticket back to the States.


“Kayaking was history,” he recalls. “That was the last time I was in a sea kayak.”


SUPPAUL’s Discovery of Expedition Paddleboarding


An avid outdoorsman for more than 20 years, Clark focuses mainly on human-powered, long-distance travel, carrying all his gear and supplies on his back or, before 2013, strapped to the deck of his sea kayak. But being a sea kayaker precluded Clark from exploring rivers the same way he’d been exploring coastlines.


“I was never interested in rivers prior to finding paddleboarding,” he explains. “To me, rivers meant either technical whitewater kayaking – where you're bashing your face on rocks, doing cartwheels in holes and dropping big waterfalls – or the other end of the spectrum; big party boats with coolers and alcohol and, you know, lawn chairs. I didn't think the river could be a low-impact place until I found paddleboarding. And since I found it, I've had no interest in sitting down in a boat. Once I stood up, I didn't sit down.”


Clark’s first multi-day paddleboarding trip was on Oregon’s John Day River. He grabbed some ultralight sleeping gear and an ultralight shelter, and some dehydrated backpacking meals and loaded them into a small, waterproof pack that he tethered to his board. “It’s like backpacking on a river,” he says.


Since then, Clark’s again paddled the coastline of Baja’s Sea of Cortez – this time on a paddleboard – chased adventure on the waters of Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago, explored the Soça and Salza rivers of Slovenia and Austria, paddled the remote alpine lakes and pristine rivers of Patagonia’s Rio Puelo Valley, and much, much more.


Image courtesy of Paul Clark, www.suppaul.com


“These are the trips where I’m eating the food the locals are eating. I’m listening to the music and smelling the smell, and getting deeper and deeper into a cultural experience,” he explains. “Once you're able to really commingle with locals and learn about their environment, that's when the trip becomes exciting.”


Most of his early adventures were solo exploits, but these days, Clark – a self-confessed introvert – has found he enjoys some company on his journeys, particularly as the world struggles with the distancing and isolation caused by COVID-19. COVID is also an issue that has recently limited his international travel, but Clark’s taking the opportunity to explore American rivers, and to reunite with friends he hasn’t seen in some time.


“Rendezvousing with friends wasn't the priority when I was younger,” he says. “But these days, coming out of quarantine, the reality is human contact is critical: listening to people's voices; getting that hug; getting those things that the Coronavirus is taking away from us a little bit. Just spending time with friends, running some fun rivers, laughing and reconnecting… humans are social creatures.”


SUPPAUL’s Advice on Getting Started in River Paddleboarding


Clark came to river paddleboarding already possessing many of the requisite skills and much of the requisite knowledge, but he says those are less important than possessing a willingness to *ahem* row your own boat.

Image courtesy of Paul Clark, www.suppaul.com


“The willingness to be the pilot of your own craft – as opposed to being part of a crew – requires self-confidence and some fitness,” he says. “So, the first advice is always, ask yourself if you’re a candidate for it. Are you willing to get weird? Are you willing to be doing something that very few other people are doing?”


“River paddleboarding is not like lake or ocean paddleboarding; It’s not paddleboarding in docile areas. Along with fitness, skill and knowledge, it requires a certain design for the board, for durability and maneuverability.” (Clark’s Hala Gear paddleboard is built with a spring-loaded retractable fin that allows his board to roll over river obstacles without getting snagged. “I can roll over rocks, and it doesn't send me head first.”)


“As far as technique, stay low and keep your paddle in the water,” Clark advises, noting that trying to stay standing in rough water without enough experience leads to frustration. “Too many people try to stand up in a river. They get bucked off, and the negative experience confirms their idea that this is a stupid sport, and off they go. When I’m teaching folks, I encourage them to stay low and keep their paddle in the water; be active and be deliberate.”


“If you’re paddling a river on your knees, you're staying low. That's great. Be stable. The idea is to have fun and paddle the next day.”


Learn more about SUPPAUL at www.suppaul.com SUPPAUL's Essential Gear Picks:

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