This is the first in a monthly series in which we put local fitness and recreational opportunities to the test.
"This is the best thing I've ever done!" a woman called out, smiling broadly as she skimmed across the water, standing up straight, paddle in hand.
It was a sunny Saturday morning at Gunpowder Falls State Park in eastern Baltimore County. We were there for Ultimate Watersports' stand-up paddling class. To begin, instructor Josh Finch rounded up the 14 of us (ranging from teenagers to people in their 50s) on the banks of Dundee Creek and had us introduce ourselves. Several participants talked about first seeing stand-up paddling (SUP for short) while on vacation in Hawaii and being inspired.
Josh told us SUP is an ancient sport that became popular in the Aloha State in the '60s when surfing instructors used long boards to keep watch over their students. Today, SUP is popular among athletes for cross-training: It gives a good core workout as you twist your body into each paddle stroke.
The boards are longer, wider and thicker than traditional surfboards, which makes them easier to balance on. This is part of the appeal for beginners. You can learn stand-up paddling in one session, some people say. I had my doubts and prepared myself for some splashy wipeouts.
After a brief lesson in paddling while we were on land, we donned our personal flotation devices (provided by the company), grabbed a board and got in the cool water of the creek. Finch demonstrated how to get on, pulling himself onto his hands and knees and then sitting back on the board. Then we all tried; surprisingly, this turned out to be relatively easy. He showed us where to place our feet — just a little back from the middle of the board and at least hip distance apart. Grab the paddle, bend the knees, then slowly stand up, he said, making it look like anyone could do it.
And, it turned out, everyone could.
We stayed in our group for most of the lesson, learning how to turn, how to make a quick stop and how to make a faster turn by stepping back on the board. Finch showed us how to lie on the paddle and our stomachs and use our arms to move forward in case we're ever facing a strong wind. He told us that you can also just lie back on your board and drift. I have to admit that sounded very appealing.
But we were there to learn, and so I stayed upright and kept practicing. When the hourlong class was over, everyone was looking good, standing up straight and moving steadily across the creek. After the lesson, we had a free hour of board rental time to practice, and we all took advantage of that, moving farther down the creek along the marshy grasses.
SUP turns out to be a great way to enjoy nature. It's a lot like kayaking, but your ability to see farther across the horizon makes it even better. I imagine that early-morning SUP time on rivers could mean some great bird- and animal-spotting. Plus, it's just flat-out fun to feel like you're walking on water.
As we headed back in, I was already thinking I'd like to rent a board some time soon to work on moving around with more ease. Or maybe buy my own board and start exploring creeks and rivers. Or maybe just go drifting.
7400 Graces Quarters Road, Baltimore 21220
Time: 10:30 a.m. Saturdays through October
Cost: $40 per person; minimum age of 13. Water shoes required.
Other classes include SUPDOG clinics — learn how to paddle with your best canine friend — and yoga on SUP boards.
Reservations required: 410-335-5352. More info: http://www.ultimatewatersports.com