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Harvey: For an uncoordinated doof, paddleboarding in Alaska isn't as easy as it seems

Alli Harvey
Elmer Bico tries a stand-up paddleboard for the first time at Goose Lake on Saturday, June 14 -- with considerably more success than author Ally Harvey had during her initial attemp. Bico was one of about 150 participants in the free Alaska Paddle Fun Day. Loren Holmes photo

For the past few years, I have been amazed at how utterly relaxed everyone’s attitude about paddleboarding seems to be. The activity of standing up on what looks like a surfboard and paddling around a body of water is growing in popularity. Yet, in my experience, paddleboarding has only been humbling.

“Humbling” is my polite euphemism for embarrassing.

On July 4 weekend at Big Lake, I parked my butt on a dock and put my feet squarely on a paddleboard. My friend was giving me instructions, but here’s what was going through my mind:

I’ve tried this once before. I failed. I almost failed spectacularly by falling in, but thankfully, I only failed at standing up.

It was 2009, and I was at a work conference at Lake Tahoe in California. Tough gig, I know. The organization I worked for was a grantee of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, so I was invited to attend their conference. This particular training was special because company founder Yvon Chouinard was hanging out on the premises. I hadn’t met him in person yet, but knew I would.

When conference attendees were set free for a couple of hours in the middle of one calm and sunny afternoon, I strolled down to the dock. There was a little boathouse with an array of lake toys, including paddleboards. If you’ve ever seen a group of normally active and outdoorsy types confined, legs wiggling and hands fidgeting, to a conference room, then you can imagine how everyone booked it down to the water when we had a break.

Everyone but me, that is. By the time I got my relaxed self down to the boathouse, almost everything was gone. Everything except one paddleboard.

Looking out at the water, I saw many of my colleagues serenely standing on boards, at various distances out in the water, gliding effortlessly across the glassy surface of the lake.

I thought, “I am like them.” I thought this even though I am a notorious destroyer of things. Especially before coffee in the morning, I tend to lurch around and knock things over, not unlike Frankenstein. For this reason, I protect one of the most fragile objects in my life, my phone, in the burliest of cases available. Back then, this was the Otter Box, and even that was coming apart.

Also, this phone was in my pocket — the pocket of my jeans. Neither phone nor jeans would respond well to water, but I didn’t think about these things because suddenly, I figured, I embodied grace, poise, and balance. I was just like my colleagues out on the lake.

I grabbed the board and walked confidently to the water. The man in the boathouse casually remarked, “Hey, that paddleboard is actually a kids’ size — but you can probably do it; try it out!”

He advised me to try kneeling on the thing first, which I did, and the paddleboard rocked side to side precariously. Then the entire rear of the board slid into the water. (In retrospect, as a 155-pound woman, I had absolutely no business attempting to float on a kids’-size board, balance or no balance.)

I floated out in the small harbor, attempting to stand, still rocking back and forth dangerously. As my situation worsened, my jeans took on water up to my thighs, nearing the phone in my back pocket. The man in the boathouse became gradually silent, realizing there were no words to really help me. I found myself finally in the downward dog position, sort of stable for a moment, but not standing up anytime soon either.

I let my head hang down between my legs for a rest, and as my upside-down view of the shore came into focus. That’s when I saw Yvon Chouinard, founder of the multi-million dollar, innovative company Patagonia that was going to fund my job.

His expression was that of someone squinting into the sun; except his view of the lake was obstructed by my butt in the air as I tried and failed to stand up. I can’t say what was going through his mind just then, only what his face gave away. However, the relationship of grantor and grantee occurred to me.

I wanted to yell out at him that I am better at work things than I am at things like, oh, standing. But my entire focus was suddenly on not falling into the lake.

I slowly knelt back down to the board and turned around. When I’d arrived safely back on the shore, Yvon was gone. The man in the boathouse was very quiet.

Since that experience, I have secretly cackled when I watched paddleboarders fall in the water. I have also marveled whenever I see a paddleboarder stand up successfully. I don’t understand what they are doing right.

So when my opportunity came to try paddleboarding again, I took a deep breath, like the grown-up I strive to be, and parked both of my knees down on the board. This time I wore a bathing suit.

As it turns out, paddleboards are indeed designed to float even a clumsy person like me. The adult-size version is broad and stable. Bending my knees a little, and focusing on that elusive center known as my “core,” I was able to paddle my way out into Big Lake — even absorbing the rollicking waves that came through after a boat sped past. This is nothing short of a miracle, for all of the reasons previously described.

When I got home from my weekend, I was curious to see if paddleboarding is as difficult for others as it once was for me. I Googled paddleboarding in Alaska and found Liquid Adventures in Seward; I called and spoke to owner Chris Mautino.

Mautino laughed when I told him that I lack the key ingredient necessary for paddleboarding: balance. “The key element we teach is to stop looking at your feet,” he said. “When people get on a board, they want to know what their feet are doing, but really that throws your balance off. You want to be looking at where you want to go.” As part of Liquid Adventures’ paddleboarding tours, guests wear dry suits. Before ever setting foot on a paddleboard, everyone gets in the water in their dry suit. Once on the board, everyone is instructed to fall off. “Then it’s over,” Mautino said, “They’re not so concerned about falling off anymore.”

I asked him how often new paddleboarders fall in after that instruction. “Rarely,” he said.

Still, I can’t go back to Lake Tahoe and re-do my first time on a paddleboard. The most I can do with that moment is turn it into a story, which is a sort of re-claiming an embarrassing experience. However, I can say that paddleboarding is worth it, if you enjoy things like floating on water and being outside.

Luckily, very little poise is required.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.