On a sunny day four years ago, Scott Dickerson of Homer made a decision he'd appreciate more and more in the coming years.
Instead of hauling out his 17 1/2-foot NDK Explorer sea kayak for a paddle in Kachemak Bay, as he often did, Dickerson stepped onto a generic stand-up paddleboard a friend had brought to the waterfront.
"We were on the beach surfing in the waves, and I kept falling over and over," he said. "I thought, 'I want to figure out how to do this.' Before long, I was paddling and ... I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is really fun.' I haven't been on my sea kayak since."
Across the nation, stand-up paddleboards are gaining devotees like Dickerson. Between 2010 and 2012, participation grew by 400,000 people nationally to 1.5 million people, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Cristina Kochevar, water sports category manager for West Marine, the country's biggest water sport retailer with 308 stores, told the Los Angles Times, "SUP is going gangbusters -- the biggest growth initiative in our company."
An offshoot, paddleboard yoga, is already catching on in California.
Though shaped like surfboards, stand-up paddleboards are wider and considerably more stable. Most are made of glass-reinforced plastic using polyester or epoxy resin. Boards and paddles run from about $800 to more than $2,000 and should be matched to an individual's size and ability. Most boards have a traction pad on top.
"Anybody can do it, from teenagers to grandparents," Dickerson said.
In Alaska, paddleboarding is gaining devotees too -- if slowly. "I'm amazed at how slow people are to adopt it," said Dickerson, who thought the sport would take off in Alaska two years ago.
Perhaps it's just now reaching the stage where growing curiosity translates to action. After all, the fat-tire mountain bikes ideally suited to Alaska's snowy climate didn't pick up here until they'd been on the market several years.
On Sunday, Wasilla residents Tom Fredericks and Marvat Obeidi will open Stand Up Alaska on the west shore of Wasilla Lake near the Parks Highway. Ten boards will be available to rent initially, and Fredericks says he'll add 10 more by July.
"The sport is growing exponentially," Fredericks said. "It lets you explore with a bird's-eye view, silent and quiet. It's a feeling like nothing else, standing and gliding on water.
"I think that with women especially, paddleboarding is going to be really huge. It's a core workout, but it's also a great social sport. You can be paddling next to someone and having a conversation while immersing yourself in nature."
But the sport is new enough to still intrigue the curious.
"Every time someone sees me out in Turnagain Arm, I get 500 questions," said Leif Ramos, 41, an avid Anchorage paddleboarder. "I think it's growing in popularity, but I still I find myself alone a lot, especially in November, December, January and February."
No surprise. Turnagain Arm water temperatures dip below freezing over the winter. Even so, Dickerson notes that wet-suit technology has improved markedly and these days, "You can walk right into the water in middle of winter and not get cold." Ramos agrees. "I bought this new wetsuit, and on a 12-degree day in 30-degree water, I'm like sweating. It's like a heat wave in Tahiti."
Boards are sold or available for rental in Anchorage, Wasilla, Sitka, Homer and Juneau -- and there are signs the sport is gaining momentum. "Last year, we couldn't keep them in the store," said Trevor Thompson of the REI Anchorage rental department. As a result, REI went from three to five rental boards this year.
Devotees contend paddleboarding offers a first-rate core workout. "On a paddleboard," says Ramos, "it seems like you use every muscle in your body." Adds Dickerson: "In sea kayaking, your legs are numb and your butt is sore. Stand-up paddleboarding just feels like you had a really nice workout. Everything is worked out -- your back, stomach, shoulder. Beginners say their feet get tired because they're clinched up and tense."
Plus, it's convenient. Boards are easy to throw in the back of a pickup or SUV.
Stand-up paddleboards can negotiate an array of conditions, from a leisurely paddle on a flat lake to surfing 6-foot waves in salt water. The Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championship is July 27 in Hawaii, with competitors paddling across 32 miles of open ocean amid swells that can exceed 10 feet. In Southcentral Alaska, SUPs regularly negotiate the boretides of Turnagain Arm. When conditions are right, it's possible to ride the boretide for a half hour or more up to five miles. "I still find it totally mind blowing and can hardly believe it myself," Dickerson said.
While tides are predictable, boretide waves are much less so, depending on such variables as tide and wind. Some days, the boretide is barely a ripple. Other days, the waves are a couple of feet high.
"It's a challenge every time," Ramos said of Turnagain Arm. "You study the mud flow, study the tide. Yesterday, the wind was a big factor, blowing sideways as the waves coming in. But you really feel like you're part of the elements out there. You feel like you're connected to everything."
Quick and easy access to new spots is what appeals most to Dickerson about paddleboarding. "It can be some bay you've never been to, you can jump on the board and explore the coastline. You can sometimes paddle right up to bears on the shore. Inflatable boards can be carried by a float plane and go pretty much anyplace."
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com.