Paddling for Inner Peace

Whitefish's Jonni Pekus paddleboarded 30 lakes to ground herself during the pandemic

By Micah Drew
Stand-up paddleboarder Jonni Pekus with her 14-foot racing board on Whitefish Lake on Oct. 2, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On July 18, Whitefish resident Jonni Pekus was stand-up paddleboarding her way down Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, on a glass-smooth surface, hopeful for a relatively quick circumnavigation of the 10-mile long lake.

“Coming back along the left side of the lake the wind kicked up so hard and the water was white capping,” Pekus said. “I ended up paddling on one side of my board for nearly three hours and it almost killed me.”

A stand-up paddleboard is often considered a leisurely way to pass the time on a lake or river. Fleets of paddleboards can often be spotted congregating in still water, while their owners balance their way through yoga practices.

Then, there are people like Pekus, whose exploits on a paddleboard are anything but relaxing.

“I put down more than 270 miles this summer,” Pekus said. “It’s not too crazy, but it’s a little crazy.”

The first time Pekus got on a paddleboard was in 2015, when she did a race as part of the Glacier Challenge. Despite being on an old board, using a “crappy paddle” and looking “like an idiot,” she did well, and got connected with local shop Paddlefish Sports.

Armed with a real board, Pekus entered a race on the Clark Fork River in Missoula and ended up beating several professional paddlers. She then raced the whole season across the Northwest U.S.

One race that stands out from that first year was one in Coeur d’Alene. In a 400-person, mass-start event, Pekus ended up falling off her board, kicking another competitor’s fin, cutting open her leg and still finishing second.

“I love racing,” Pekus said. “I truly enjoy the feeling of adrenaline and being scared and seeing what I’m personally capable of doing.”

Soon after discovering her new passion, several injuries forced a hiatus from competitive paddling for a few years. However, Pekus recently got back on the water with an audacious twist on paddleboarding to find a new outlet for her adventurous spirit.

Pekus works as a surgical assistant at North Valley Hospital where she oversees the clinical robotics surgery program. Early this spring, with the coronavirus pandemic on the rise, elective surgeries had been canceled and Pekus was struggling with a lack of excitement at her job, as well as a recent divorce.

“I felt like I’d lost all control of my personal and professional life,” Pekus said. “I’m kind of an adrenaline person and I definitely get an adrenaline rush from what I do for a living. We weren’t doing elective surgeries and there was just a lot of waiting around at the hospital every day.”

As someone who had always fallen back on exercise in moments of crisis, Pekus began spending several days a week climbing mountains. Before the snow melted completely, she had an idea to do a three-sport day: paddleboard Whitefish Lake, climb up Big Mountain and then snowboard down.

She finished her nontraditional triathlon, and with the impending onset of summer, her sporting endeavors began leaning toward the water and she continued heading outside to stay sane.

Almost every day, Pekus would take off from her house in search of a new place to paddle.

“I paddled around Tally Lake one day and was shocked how fast I did it and was interested in how many miles I had gone,” Pekus said.

Slowly, an idea started to coalesce. She had heard once that there were close to 50 lakes in Flathead County. She wanted to know how fast she could paddle around as many of those lakes as possible.

Armed with a GPS watch that could track nautical mileage, she set a vague goal for the summer of paddling the circumference of 30 lakes in Northwest Montana.

“I figured that maybe after 30 lakes, my heart would feel better, I’d feel better about the world and ground myself in the midst of all the trauma going on,” Pekus said.

The first lake she paddled around, Dollar Lake, was little more than a puddle and took her just 20 minutes.

From there, the mileage and the hours on the water grew. The eight miles around Tally Lake took two hours. The 20 around Lake McDonald took almost five, and the longest adventure, most of Hungry Horse Reservoir, was a multi-day trip.

For Hungry Horse, two friends joined Pekus, one in a kayak for company and another in a speedboat to set up camp and serve as a support crew, which became necessary on the second day as a storm chased the two paddlers off the reservoir.

She still made it 40 miles and a good portion of the way around the lake before bailing, enough to count it on the official lake list, which totaled 182 miles.

“It’s been so cool to explore this part of Montana, not really knowing where I’m going but looking at a map and seeing a lake that looks nice,” Pekus said. “It was fun to see the distance on all of them and challenge myself in a different way.”

Pekus is considering getting back into racing but ultimately wants to find a way to combine her love for backcountry snowboarding and being on the water.

“I might dabble in racing, but I want to go paddle lakes that haven’t been paddled,” she said. “I’ve thought about selling the house, putting the trailer on the truck and paddling every lake in America, but I can’t do that … I have to be responsible.”

She plans to find a way to balance her worlds of cutting-edge surgery and checking off big beautiful lakes across the country, a life balance she thinks everyone should strive for.

“I’d promote everyone doing a crazy adventure like this when times are crazy,” Pekus said. “It heals the soul … and everyone needs a moderation of crazy. ”

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