By all rights, Karl Mittelstadt should have a healthy fear of water. He grew up in Alaska, where most lakes are frozen or too cold to swim in for half the year. As a boy, he nearly drowned one summer during the Campbell Creek Classic watercraft race when a sweeper branch knocked him into the drink. But somehow, he overcame the odds to accomplish a six-year goal this summer: piloting a stand-up paddleboard the length of the Kenai River, from Kenai Lake 82 miles to where the river flows into Cook Inlet.
"You can't have a bad heart and attempt a trip like this," said the 47-year-old Mittelstadt, who lives in Girdwood, where he works for Alyeska Resort in winter and operates his Alaska Paddle Board Guru business in summer, taking people out on lakes to teach them the basics of the fast-growing watersport he loves.
Mittelstadt's savvy on stand-ups didn't come overnight. A skier and snowboarder for decades, he had his first introduction to paddleboarding in 2005 on a trip to Oahu, Hawaii.
"I was black and blue from falling on it so many times," he recalled.
That experience was enough to get him hooked, but it was a seven-year wait until he began seeing paddleboards sold in Alaska, and it was even longer before he was prepared to go into the turbulent water of Turnagain Arm.
"I worked out for a month before going out there," he said.
But over time, Mittelstadt got better, built his skills and grew more confident in his abilities. Now he'll regularly paddleboard between Girdwood and Anchorage, riding the tides in and out.
"The more you do it, the more you want to do," he said. "You start to become aware of all it's doing for your core, and you learn crashing in the water is way better for your spine. Skiing isn't even this fun, and sex is the only better exercise."
According to Amber Walker, co-owner of Alaska Wilderness SUP in Anchorage, stand-up paddling is a fast-growing sport worldwide that's gaining steam in Alaska too.
"Alaska is a little behind the pace and volume (of) the Lower 48 but it seems to be quickly on the rise," she said.
Walker attributed Alaska's lag to our shorter warm-weather season.
"Most people aren't too excited to don a (1¼ millimeter) wetsuit, with booties and gloves, before getting on the water when the air temp is around freezing," she said.
However, Walker added, the summer season, while short, is spectacular.
"Stand-up paddling the bore tide has really taken off in the last five years, and we are seeing more and more people purchasing their own SUPs for lakes as well," she said.
Paddling into the wildfire
Mittelstadt spent three years planning his Kenai River trip. His first two attempts were unsuccessful.
"The first year, I drafted a friend in a drift boat and was way overloaded with extra clothes and gear. (I) realized it pretty quickly when I flipped in the (Kenai River) canyon, but the main thing that stopped us was the Funny River fire," he said.
That 2014 wildfire eventually burned more than 150,000 acres right up to the Kenai River, and because Mittelstadt was on a 12-foot-6-inch inflatable paddleboard rather than a rigid one, he said the area was too risky to push though.
"Inflatable boards flex more so are better in rivers, but there was lots of hot ash falling out of the air on the board, and we were hitting sections with so little oxygen from it being sucked up by the fire," he said. "We had to pull the plug."
In 2015, Mittelstadt returned with friend and fellow paddleboarder Leif Ramos but again the elements were against them.
"The second year we made it from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake but then the wind came up. We were out in a chop that boats didn't want to be in. We had 3 ½-foot swells hitting us from the side. We couldn't switch arms in that kind of wind, so we were just stroking on the same side and cramping up," he said.
They ended up calling it quits and hiking out via Hidden Creek Trail, carrying their huge boards and all their gear.
"Carrying everything that whole way was so hard but it was better than being dead. I've lived in Alaska long enough to know you have to respect the weather or it will kill you," Mittelstadt said.
‘Scary water exploding in front of us’
This year, Mittelstadt packed all his usual gear in dry bags, including a sleeping bag and pad, stove, clothes and enough food for a week in case he had to pull out for a few days during inclement weather.
He also hooked up with a new paddling partner, Spencer Flyum, 30, of Girdwood. Departing in May, in unseasonable warm temperatures reaching 83 degrees, they set off.
"Everything was perfect," Mittelstadt said. "I didn't even fall once. I dropped to my knees and prayed a couple of times, especially in the Class IV rapids in the canyon, but other than that, it couldn't have gone any better."
Class IV whitewater is typically intense, powerful rapids requiring precise handling in the turbulent water.
"It was high water, scary water, just exploding in front of us with no set pattern," he said. "The farthest ahead I looked was the 10 feet of water in front of me, in a section of river 80-100 feet wide with the hydraulics turned way up. It only lasted 10 to 15 minutes, but it was digging in and your whole body bracing the entire time. I defy anyone to take a stand-up paddleboard though there, with a pointed nose and 50 pounds of gear strapped to it, and not say it's Class IV."
Looking back, even after years of planning and scouting the route, Mittelstadt said they weren't as prepared as they should have been.
"I knew it would be ugly, just not that ugly. We should have had helmets, elbow pads and other protective gear," he said.
Still, Flyum — who only began paddleboarding a year ago — didn't feel insecure.
"It was a great trip with gorgeous weather," he said. "I've known Karl for four years and trusted him, so was pretty OK confidence-wise. It was little dicey for me in a few sections. I went into the drink in the Naptown Rapids, which was pretty cold since we hit it not long after departing at 5:30 a.m.
"It took a while to warm back up after that but it was an adrenaline rush," he said.
They made the entire trip in four days, admitting they traveled at a leisurely pace to soak in their surroundings. Much of the route was solitary, because hordes of anglers had yet to show up in pursuit of salmon.
"It was like traveling through a ghost town waiting to come to life," Mittelstadt said. "We had tons of it to ourselves, relaxing on beaches with arctic terns feeding in water just feet away, and seeing eagles swoop down to grab gulls. The whole trip was so fulfilling."
Walker said paddling new routes or tackling distance records, often in support of charities, has become more popular in paddling media — even though no organization operates as a nationwide clearing house for records and first attempts.
"It's entirely feasible that Karl is the first to complete the entire length of the Kenai on a paddleboard," Walker said. "It's also entirely possible that he is the first to claim bragging rights about it. Regardless, it's an incredible feat that deserves to be celebrated, and hopefully it will bring more and more attention to the sport and SUP community that we love so much."
As is often the case with adventurers, the trip has left both men wanting to do additional treks, grander feats. Weeks after completing the Kenai trip, Flyum said he paddleboarded the length of the 25-mile Chuitna River out and back, and Mittelstadt said he is considering paddleboarding as much of the Yukon as he can.
As with any new pursuit, frontiers beckon.
"Water," reads a bumper sticker on Mittelstadt's van, "it's just snow on vacation."
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel and have run several mid-distance mushing races, including Colleen running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.