It was only a matter of time before stand-up paddle boarding rode the wave of mainstream popularity to the lakes of Northwest Montana.
Now it’s a common sight to see someone planted flat-footed atop the water careening across Whitefish or Flathead lake, or even balanced peacefully in a yoga pose offshore.
“There’s a real connection to the water (on paddle boards),” said Whitefish resident Sonny Schierl.
Schierl opened Paddlefish Sports, 701 Spokane Ave., in Whitefish last May as a neighborhood source for the ascendant sport. Paddlefish sells and rents a variety of stand-up paddle boards, or SUPs, and offers yoga and fitness classes on lakes across the Flathead Valley.
Schierl, who has been trained and certified through the American Canoe Association, offers private individual or group lessons that teach riders a range of skills and techniques.
“It’s very easy to go out and do it, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of preparation or gear. But it can be scary at first,” he said. “In a two-hour class I can see the progress of someone who has never been on one to being so comfortable and doing something they have never done before.”
As the story goes, SUP originated in Hawaii among the island wave culture. While surfing remains the island’s iconic activity, paddle boarding emerged as a popular offshoot in the public eye thanks to well-known enthusiasts, particularly professional surfer Laird Hamilton. Hamilton has said if there were only one sport he could do, it would be paddle boarding. The sport is diverse and allows him to explore a range of waters, whether it’s riding across a peaceful lake, or ripping down the Colorado River or slicing big waves in Maui.
“It’s like a dance,” Hamilton told Good Morning America in 2008, adding, “It calms your spirit.”
Indeed, the sport rejuvenated Schierl, both mentally and physically. He worked as a carpenter for almost 20 years until a car accident on Big Mountain Road three years ago left him with nerve damage in his right arm. After extensive rehabilitation and numerous surgeries, Schierl’s life as a carpenter was over.
“I was scared, like ‘how the hell am I going to make my house payment?” he said.
Schierl went to the outdoors for recovery, except he could no longer kayak because of his injury. So instead, about a year ago, he decided to try the new craze — paddle boarding.
“I absolutely fell in love,” he said.
He began surveying other shops and developing a business plan. If he were a customer, what kind of store would he seek out? The answer: a friendly neighborhood shop, close to town and to water, offering a whole gamut of accessories of all shapes, all sizes, for all skill levels.
He started with about 10 rental boards. Now he’s up to almost 40.
“It’s exploded,” he said.
After settling in he added the yoga classes and purchased a fleet of boards more conducive to balancing atop water. He enlisted three local instructors, including Cyndy Stanley, to lead sessions for all skill levels.
“What I really like is once you step on the board you kind of drop out of your head and move into your body,” Stanley said. “Your body starts to take over because you naturally don’t want to fall.”
At the start of each class, Stanley asks all participants to get it out of the way and jump in the water. That helps take away the fear of falling. Then the experience begins, balancing atop quiet mountain lakes, like Blanchard or Murray, tucked away from crowds and traffic.
“That’s the beauty of it. You can really just tap into some of the surrounding sounds, like birds and the lapping water,” Stanley said. “It’s very peaceful and it’s very blissful. It’s also very comfortable to do on the water because you do have a little bit more of a feeling of lightness rather than lying on the floor.”
Just recently a family vacationing from Canada met at Blanchard Lake and experienced a private yoga session. By the time the day was over, and the boards were brought back with giant smiles, it sounded like Schierl had created a vacation highlight.
“I’m in the business of happiness,” he said. “Everybody who comes in here is so happy.”
For more information about Paddlefish Sports, call 260-7733 or visit www.whitefishpaddleboards.com.