“It has to have something to do with Jesus Christ,” I tell my friends. “It has to do with wanting to be able to walk on water, don’t you think?” We’re walking back to the car, and the backs of our shorts are soaked. I’m trying to hold my towel over my butt, but it’s not really working. “Uhhh…maybe,” says Rylee. They aren’t convinced; they think that sometimes these activities are just about “having fun,” which doesn’t make any sense.
Stand-up paddleboarding (or SUP, as some, but certainly not I, call it) has overtaken my city, at least as much as a bunch of gentle, slow-moving, single-Minnesotan rafts are able to overtake something. Beloved local newscaster Belinda Jensen covered the burgeoning trend last summer. (Watch the clip for a better understanding of what it is we’re up against.) Regardless of how, exactly, this sport got to our lakes, one can hardly lay out on any of our shores without seeing at least a handful of lost-looking people standing on boards, paddling to nowhere. You might ask the friend reading a book at your side, “Should we ... get help or something?” but she’ll say, “No, I think they’re doing that on purpose.”
Paddleboarding seemed, to me, to take the equipment from surfing and kayaking, remove any element of skill, speed, or danger, and add the thrill of standing completely stationary. You would think that would put the activity firmly in my wheelhouse, and yet I still, somehow, find reasons to be nervous about it when we arrive at Lake Calhoun last Friday afternoon—not the least of which is that, while we wait in line, my friends are refusing to promise not to try to capsize my board.
It’s a half-hour wait for our turn (rentals at Lake Calhoun cost $16 for an hour), and during that time I watch people paddleboard away from the sand, around a corner, and out of view. I don’t like that I can’t see what they’re up to—or the fact that nobody seems to be coming back. Eventually, a very tan teenager at the rental shack calls my name and says our boards are ready. Another kid points out our equipment and tells us each to grab a life jacket (they have to be on our bodies when we “disembark,” but can be set on the boards later) and paddle. “Come back in an hour,” she says. I stand with one foot on my board and wait for the rest of the instructions, but apparently that’s it, because she is walking away. It’s probably fair to say that standing and paddling are self-explanatory for most adults, but I still would have appreciated a few extra words of caution. I like to know what I’m not allowed to do if I want to live.
IT’S ONLY AFTER I’VE been standing in the very center of the board for a few moments that I understand what I’m scared of: falling. The lake is fine with me. Jumping into the lake is fine with me. Falling from a standing position into the lake is, for some reason, really not fine with me. The water looks different—murkier—when you’re not entering it intentionally. It’s not necessarily logical, but it’s illogical in a way that is, at least, consistent with most other things I believe.
I decide to be okay with this. I paddle along behind my friends, and we all turn that same ne’er-to-return corner I watched everyone else turn, and it’s at that moment that I see the words “DO NOT DIE TODAY” written in spray paint on the bridge we’re paddling underneath. At least, I thought it was spray paint until I got closer and realized that the words had been grown and shaped in moss. I don’t know if anyone has taken the time to rank the relative levels of menace implied by the various substances with which omens can be written, but when someone does, I am certain that moss will be second only to blood.
Sure enough, a minute later, our boards encounter some turbulence. Rylee, who is leading our troop, turns around and yells, “LEVEL ONE RAPIDS AHEAD!” and Colleen and I look up to see a fishing boat creeping along up ahead and across our path, slamming half-inch waves back in our direction. I paddle to the side of the tunnel and try to drag myself through as if by pulley—pawing at the cement with my paddle-free hand—but neither my board nor the gravelly wall cooperate. It probably didn’t look like much, but with the combination of the little waves and the wind circling under the bridge, it was touch-and-go for a while there.
It’s when we emerge on the other side that I first see why people do this. The lake is open and sparkly, and there are attractive people all around us. It feels like we’re in that lagoon full of hot young merpeople in The Little Mermaid.
THE THREE OF US paddle around for a while, first toward an island, then under a second bridge, and then in a large circle. There isn’t really anywhere to go, but it’s okay because paddleboarding is actually pretty hard work. By the time we’ve gotten out to the main open area, our hour is almost half up. Until that point, we’ve been mostly quiet—it’s hard to talk much when getting too close to one another makes me start screaming. But now, we’re tired, and we all sit or kneel down on our boards for a few minutes of rest. It’s kind of pathetic.
“Which of us do you think would win on a survival contest show?” Rylee asks us. She does this a lot—she thinks she’s bringing up a fun hypothetical, but if one of us suggests that anyone other than her would win, she will argue until we concede. “You would,” I say, and it’s probably true. She is sneaky, crafty, and the most familiar with nature. Colleen disagrees, and, preposterously, says that I would win. Rylee considers it and says, “Katie would be good at sabotaging people.” I know that, deep down, she means it in a nice way. I wait for her to rebut herself. “But I would hook up with everyone, and win that way,” she says. It’s a solid plan.
Back underneath that ominous bridge from earlier, the current is running with us this time. I am still kneeling, and for the second time that day, I think of Disney. More specifically: I feel like Pocahontas. I tell this to Colleen, who immediately starts singing “Colors of the Wind.” Sort of. “Can you sing the song sweet ... berries ... of the Eaaaaaarth....” She trails off, and we can’t stop laughing.
We paddle back toward the beach. I am leading our trio now, because I am likely the most anxious to get back on shore. It’s not that it wasn’t fun—it was. Paddleboarding made me feel like a Survivor contestant, a Disney princess, and, just a little bit, like Jesus Christ. It’s just that after an hour of not falling off a slippery surface, I’m starting to feel like I’m pressing my luck.
Behind me, I hear more singing. “Let’s get down to buuusssiness! To defeat! The Huns!”
“Colleen! That is Mulan.”
“Close enough!” she yells. You know what? She’s right.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.