SUP: Catch a Wave

SUP’er views and destinations in the Northwest

By Ken Campbell (photos © S. Whitesell)

Depending on who you talk to, Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) is a fad, a sport, an exercise routine or just another way to enjoy the water. It might have been started by big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton less than 20 years ago or it could be something the old-time Waikiki beach boys did, back in the misty, sepia-toned days before Hawaii became the 50th State.

It doesn’t really matter.

Robby Naish, maker of Naish Standup Paddleboards, tests out a board on the choppy Columbia River with Mt Hood in the background. ©S.Whitesell photo

Regardless of where the idea came from and, for that matter, where SUP is going in the future, the fact is that it is certainly here now. (And by “here,” I mean everywhere.)

Even through the chill of a Northwest summer, you’d have to have been hibernating to not notice a spike in the number of people who are taking to the idea of walking on water.

If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re already behind. Still, it’s not something that should stop you at this point; the learning curve is a steep one and if you give yourself a little time to get used to the pitch and the yaw, you’ll be enjoying your time on the water in very short order.

You might want to take an introductory lesson (See related story by Suzanne Tennant here) to get a rundown on some of the finer points, but this isn’t an activity that requires extensive training and the purchase of lots of instruction books and videos. Just getting out there will be the essence of your education.

While the Pacific Northwest is woefully short of the long, perfect waves in southern California or anything resembling a languid tropical lagoon, the fact is that we have our own list of places that are seemingly tailor-made for a board and paddle. For an hour or a day (or longer, perhaps), it’s all about getting on the water.

Where to go SUP’ing

Destinations around these parts can be split up into different categories based on the conditions you’re likely to encounter.

Easiest for beginners will be the flat-water spots where wind, current and swell are not among the factors. Current—especially strong current—will add a degree of difficulty that requires knowledge of basic navigation, while swells and surf provide a different look at what a SUP can do.

Lake Union

Think early morning lake in the middle of Seattle, before the wind rises and the lake gets plowed up by power yachts and sea planes. The quiet waterways near the houseboat communities are beautiful and entertaining, set against a backdrop of various Seattle skylines.

Port Townsend

The PT waterfront is constantly in motion. The busiest parts of town are right along the shore, and access points abound, which makes getting on the water a breeze. Paddling up into the tiny port itself or around the corner and up to Fort Worden are both excellent choices, and current is unlikely to affect your progress south of Point Wilson (the eastern entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca).

Nisqually Delta

For the quintessential Northwest paddling day, look no further than the place where the Nisqually River meets salt water just north of Olympia. Most of the area is a wildlife refuge, which means that the shoreline is largely off-limits, but the conditions are often benign and the sheer number and variety of birds and marine creatures provide an experience that’s hard to find elsewhere.

It’s a river delta, so the muddy bottom is treacherous at low tide. Plan your visit around high water and stay to the south side, along McAllister Creek, where wind is rarely an issue.

Ross Island

Virtually in downtown Portland, Ross Island is not exactly wilderness. It’s essentially a gravel pit that has been in operation since the 1920s and, largely because of its history, has its share of environmental issues.

There are, however, some deep green sections of shoreline here to explore, especially toward the south and east, and the island is the venue for a late-spring SUP race series.

Deception Pass

Another Pacific Northwest gem is the narrow ribbon of water that separates Fidalgo and Whidbey islands.

Long popular with kayakers, the swirling currents and stunning scenery of Deception Pass provide a great place to get in synch with the power of the ocean. If you time it right, it’s an ideal spot to get a free ride as well.

Dress for immersion here — wetsuit or drysuit preferred — as the confusing eddy lines and contradictory currents can turn you from a paddler to a swimmer without much notice. While the conditions can often be problematic for beginning paddlers, it’s one of those places that, as your comfort level improves, becomes an inevitable SUP destination.

Crescent Beach

Since a SUP is, after all, a large surfboard, the waves along the shore are its natural environment. While many Northwest surfers flock to Westport, Grayland and the nearby jetties along the Washington coastline, the breaks there can be crowded and difficult to negotiate.

Crescent Bay, just west of Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, features well-shaped waves and a sweeping sandy beach. It’s not a secret spot, by any estimation, but it’s a big enough venue that you should be able to find your own slice of surf heaven without much difficulty.

Summer waves are small here, which makes it an ideal place to try surfing for the first time. And the next time too.

Waikiki Beach

No, not that Waikiki. There’s a small, sandy cove at Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly Fort Canby State Park) on the Long Beach Peninsula, right at the mouth of the Columbia River, where the swells form into ride-worthy waves beneath stunningly beautiful cliffs. Plan to paddle here as the tide is rising (waves are often closed-out and dumping on a falling tide), and watch out for the strong currents that form along the riprap shoreline to the west.

Ken Campbell owns and operates Azimuth Expeditions, offering custom kayaking and SUP instruction and tours throughout the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. He can be reached at