Surfing the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – The attraction of stand up paddle boarding, according to its practitioners, derives partly from the way it draws on some of the best elements of other water sports. Like kayaking, it provides a smooth, efficient means of conveyance across the water. Like surfing, it demands attention, balance and core strength. And like canoeing, the long-shafted paddle acts as a simple, elegant tool capable of taking one anywhere they wish to go.

It is this combination of qualities attracting increasing numbers to the sport, on the waters of the Flathead Valley and beyond. And it’s what compelled Jay Dobbins, his wife Sarah Dobbins and their friend Erick Gelbke to launch their new business, Stand Up Paddle Montana, aimed at encouraging curious paddlers in the area to give it a try.

“This is a sport that just really appeals to a huge amount of people,” Gelbke said. “The ease and access to the water is something that everybody should check out.”

“This could be the easiest thing to do that you’ve never tried,” he added.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the three had their trailer, loaded with boards, set up near the water during an event for the Montana Land Reliance at the Flathead Lake Lodge. Gradually, several attendees filtered over, and Jay and Gelbke set them up on a board, holding it steady in the water for a newcomer to step onto, showing them where to stand and the proper position for paddling. Within a few minutes, the paddlers were up and moving from the calmer waters of the inlet toward Flathead Lake.

Demonstrations like this are exactly the type of niche Gelbke and the Dobbinses hope to fill with their business, renting and selling stand up paddle boards, as well as offering lessons and delivery to, for example, someone renting a house on Flathead or Whitefish Lake for a week and looking for a new way to get out on the water.

Erick Gelbke, with Stand Up Paddle Montana, uses a long paddle to push his paddle board across the water of Flathead Lake at the Flathead Lake Lodge. Paddle boarding has been picking up in popularity in the valley..

“If you can stand up and walk, you can stand up paddle board,” Gelbke said. “You don’t have to have the same knowledge base as you would if you were in a kayak out on the water.”

Stand up paddle boarding’s roots stretch back to ancient Hawaii, but the sport has reemerged in the last several years as surfers find they can catch more waves, as well as get a better view of incoming sets of waves by standing up. Jay Dobbins first learned about stand up paddle boarding there, and upon moving to Montana, had one shipped up here from a surf shop in California.

“We just slowly collected boards over the years,” Jay Dobbins said. “Since we were both into canoeing and kayaking around on the lakes, we just combined the two together and here we are.”

The board itself is typically wider, heavier and with a higher volume than a conventional surfboard, which allows the paddler to avoid sinking even when motionless. Prices for boards range from $600-$1,300. Stand up paddle boards also feature an area for improved traction along the top, and according to Gelbke, this lets the paddler walk around the surface of the board, changing positions to avoid fatigue from a prolonged, repetitive motion.

“To me, the freedom of walking around on the board is part of what makes it so cool,” Gelbke said. In rougher waters, the paddler can move to the back of the board, elevating its nose, or the “trim” of the vessel, to better handle incoming waves.

The height afforded by standing on the board provides excellent views, particularly of what’s beneath the water, which can sometimes be tough to see sitting in a kayak.

The newness of the sport, and the attendant lack of boundaries that come along with it, also account for its appeal. In Missoula and elsewhere in Montana, stand up paddlers are taking their boards on rivers, surfing waves and navigating whitewater. YouTube features video of someone paddling the Upper Yellowstone River.

“I’ve run a little bit of whitewater this spring,” Gelbke said. “And it was the most tired I’ve ever been after a river run.”

Sarah Dobbins, left, and Erick Gelbke use long paddles to push their paddle boards across the water off a dock at Flathead Lake Lodge.

Gelbke’s board is equipped with straps to secure dry bags for touring. He hopes to paddle the length of the Hungry Horse Reservoir on his board this summer.

“I was a sea kayak instructor and guide,” Gelbke said. “Paddle boards have pretty much eliminated my need for my sea kayak stuff all together.”

The three partners are also working with a yoga instructor who hopes to teach classes with students on the paddle boards.

“Later this summer, we’ll try to hold a flat water stand up paddle board race,” Jay Dobbins said.

In the meantime, however, the partners are taking advantage of the summer months to get out on the water every chance they can.

“The sport is just growing so much; there’s just so much interest,” Gelbke said. “It’s happening all over the country and all over the world right now.”

To contact Stand Up Paddle Board Montana, check out or call 406-471-2932. Paddle boards are also available to demo and for sale at Sportsman Ski Haus.

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