OREGON CITY, Ore. - I saw the boat slip approaching and realized much too late that I was going to hit it.
Seconds later I was in the Willamette River - my paddleboard floating next to me and my personal flotation device (PFD) doing its job by keeping my head above water. No, I wasn't in danger of drowning. I was at a marina close to shore, trying to learn stand up paddleboarding. As you can tell, I hadn't yet learned how to stop the momentum once I was going.
I laughed at myself, a little embarrassed to be honest, and remembered what the instructor had said about getting back on the paddleboard - go from the back and slide your body up the board. That part was easy. The rest? Not so much.
But that doesn't mean I didn't have fun trying and, to be fair, I only fell that one time. The rest of the time I actually was able to paddle around the marina - a little wobbly in the knees - but I was doing it. Some people have a hard time with balance and some don't - I figured out pretty quickly that I was the former.
The experience came courtesy of Team River Runner PDX, a Portland, Ore., chapter of a national non-profit organization that gets wounded warriors, and their families, out on the water. They work with folks with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, amputations and other disabilities.
Team River Runner originally started out with whitewater kayaking and is now looking at other water sports, like stand up paddleboarding, to help with recovery.
"We are learning that the amazing healing powers of the water can be experienced in many different ways," said Marnie-Anne Sell with Team River Runner PDX. "The bottom line is we want to help encourage health and healing for wounded service members, veterans and their families through paddling."
Team River Runner PDX takes wounded warriors out once a month for a little fun and we joined them during their last outing at Sportcraft Landing in Oregon City, Ore.
Photo by Scott Cheesman.
For a lot of folks, stand up paddleboarding comes naturally and it's actually a fairly easy water sport to learn. There are a few key things to get the knack of - like the correct way to hold your paddle, where your feet should be placed and how to make turns - and then you're off and paddling.
"A lot of times if you rent a stand up paddleboard, they'll spend a couple of minutes doing some simple instruction with you to get the basics down, which of course is more helpful than just trying to figure it out on your own and getting frustrated," said Julia Harmer with Stout Creek Outfitters.
Harmer has also taught stand up paddleboarding at a community college in the Portland area and helped this reporter with her first time. And as bad as I thought I was doing, Harmer boosted my spirits by telling me, "I think you did great."
"Just take it slow and get comfortable with it," was her advice to me. "Maybe go someplace that's flat, like a lake, or a place where you can see the bottom so it's not as intimidating (as the river). And just take some time - the more comfortable you are with the water and understand the water, the less intimidating it seems."
Photo by Scott Cheesman.
Harmer asked if I wanted to try taking the paddleboard out into the main river channel, but fear set in and I decided to stick to the safety of the marina. However, the two of us did hop into a two-person kayak after my lesson and took a nice trip up to the base of Willamette Falls.
It was my first time kayaking as well and I did much better at that water sport. I'm apparently a pretty decent rower and of course it was amazing to see the falls from a different vantage point.
Photo courtesy Team River Runner PDX.
A few weeks before, I had been at an REI store attending one of their introductory classes on stand up paddleboarding.
"It's a relatively low learning curve - not very steep at all," said Tanner Goodson, REI's stand up paddleboarding instructor. "Yes, there are some finer points and techniques you can learn, but at the end of the day you're paddling. You're pushing a stick with a fin on it through the water."
Photo by Scott Cheesman.
Goodson had some great tips for beginners - like what to do if you're out in the middle of a lake or river and suddenly find yourself worn out.
"The first time you go out, it's a new experience because you're using muscles that you're not used to using," he said. "You're using all these foot muscles and it's a total body workout. It can fatigue you fast."
"So let's say you're in a flat water situation," he explained. "You get too far out and you don't know your limitations as far as your strength levels and stuff. You wear yourself out. I've done it. I've paddled out into the middle of the lake, thought I was going to be OK and got out there and had nothing left."
What do you do at that point? It's easy - just stop and take a break.
"Just sit there and recoup a little bit," Goodson said. "I've got a little bag attached to my board that's got some Clif Bars and stuff in there. So I'll just sit there and chill out for a little bit, recoup and then paddle back to shore."
And what about stand up paddleboarding in the ocean? It's best to leave that to the advanced folks.
"For ocean water, I don't even know where to start," Goodson said. "You've got all kinds of things to worry about - the surf, the chop, getting out and not knowing how deep the water is. You've got way more things to worry about."
"I've read articles about guys that paddleboard all the way between the Hawaiian islands," he added. "I don't know how far apart the islands are, but that's a whole different ball game. You have to have your head in a whole different place to do something like that."
Whitewater takes even more skill.
"I've seen video of guys doing it and I'm utterly amazed at how well they are able to keep their balance," Goodson said. "Again, when you're out there you're using muscles you're not used to using. They must have like some kind of crazy training regimen to get their muscles to where their feet are constantly moving to balance the board back out."
"And they don't look like they're moving fast, but that's because they're in control every bit of the time," he added. "If you see a paddleboarder moving down the whitewater really, really fast, chances are he's out of control. These guys are smooth. It's like a good skier - you see them and they're just carving."
Stand up paddleboarding has long been popular in Hawaii, where it's called Hoe he'e nalu. But it's only been in the last decade or so that it's begun to take hold in the mainland United States. And folks here in Oregon are starting to get into it.
"It's becoming more popular," said Goodson. "I would say the exposure has been more influenced by people like Laird Hamilton and those athletes - surfers that are kind of making the jump to paddleboarding."
Goodson hails from Georgia and said paddleboarders there kind of get a bad rap, unlike here in Oregon.
"I feel like more people out here are open to the idea of it, whereas over there it was kind of a nuisance because you're in the way of the jet skis or ski boats," he said. "Out here it's like 'hey, what is that guy doing? Can I try that?' "