It was 8:15 a.m. on a Monday, and I was on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), cruising along a quiet, green channel toward Sand Lake in Anchorage.
No, this isn't normal. Usually at that time, especially on a Monday, I'm not standing up at all, never mind on the water atop a free-floating plank.
The Anchorage-based SUP instructor next to me was patiently teaching me how to move through the water on a board.
Amber Walker — a physical therapist, former competitive swimmer and surfing enthusiast — said she'd recently tried clipping on multicolored flashing lights during an evening paddle. The photographs from that weekend, with the colors sparkling across the water during twilight hours, were beautiful. She thought this would be fun especially for something like a bachelorette party.
Walker and Jennah Jones, co-owners of Alaska Wilderness SUP, spoke with me about their year-old business. They plan to expand paddleboarding events and lessons across Southcentral by focusing on races, retreats and even bachelorette parties.
Alaska Wilderness SUP is one of about a half-dozen paddleboarding businesses that have sprung up in Southcentral to take advantage of growing interest across the country. With businesses such as REI and Costco selling or renting paddleboards, the craze has hit Alaska full force.
Alaska Paddleboard Guru's website pitches its lessons in Southcentral as a way to get out on the water with Alaska paddleboarding pioneer Karl Mittelstadt, who offers sales, rentals and lessons. He's organizing a free Alaska Paddle Fun Day at Goose Lake on Saturday.
Liquid Adventures in Seward offers guided paddleboarding alongside glaciers. Surf Alaska in Homer provides customized tours and sales of SUPs suited to everything from placid lake paddling (my speed) to surfing the bore tide. Stand Up Alaska, a rental outfit in Wasilla, closed this year. A Facebook announcement said, "At this time we are focusing on our family."
Walker and Jones saw the growing interest in the sport, too. So in spring 2015, they started a Facebook group to gauge interest and found a group of people in Southcentral passionate about paddleboarding.
"Getting out on the water is calming, and a great way to get out and explore an area wherever you are," Jones said. Walker called paddleboarding "totally my happy place."
The two met in Colorado while studying to become physical therapists. They launched Alaska Wilderness SUP last June.
Before starting Alaska Wilderness SUP, Walker and Jones underwent training and certification through the Professional Stand Up Paddle Industry Association and received wilderness first aid certification through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Resources and mentorship were offered by Alaska Small Business Development Center, and they sought networking opportunities with other SUP businesses and renters in Alaska.
Their work paid off. In 2016 Alaska Wilderness SUP hosted a race at Kincaid, regular SUP fitness and yoga classes, group and individual lessons on Anchorage lakes and half-day trips at Eklutna Lake.
Their inaugural "SUP 'n RUN" race drew more than 50 participants. This year's race is scheduled for July 23 of this year at Kincaid's Little Campbell Lake with a cap of 100 participants.
The Eklutna Lake trips are also back and run every Saturday and Sunday from June through September. The four-hour paddles start early to avoid wind and are recommended for people comfortable with paddleboarding.
I had a lot of fun out on the water, even as someone who is not terribly balanced and not naturally adept at athletic pursuits.
The experience of essentially standing on a lake, my feet inches from the surface, gave me a new perspective. It felt playful, a feeling I don't readily access as an adult since so much of what I do outside is structured (I'm going for an hourlong run; I'm going to ride my bike to the grocery store, etc.).
"Great day at the office!" Walker said laughing as we paddled out toward Sand Lake.
I was provided with a wet suit, a personal flotation device (the other PFD) and a coiled "leash" that attached my ankle to my board in case I fell off, which turned out to be the correct assumption. Walker and Jones offered on-shore instruction before we got onto the water.
They taught me to hinge at my hips, extending my arms fully to bring the oar into the water at a perpendicular angle. It's not pulling yourself through the water, they explained; it's more like purposefully driving the oar into the water and then using hips and core to pull my body toward it.
I found this very interesting in theory even if I didn't quite embody it in practice.
I loved being out on the water and seeing the shore, and my city, from a different angle. For me, paddleboarding was yet another way to appreciate Alaska and all the incredible opportunities we have to be outdoors.
But don't take my word for it. Spending a warm, serene morning on a paddleboard in Alaska is absolutely worth trying. Who knows, you may find yourself hooked.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer, works in Anchorage and plays across Southcentral.