The wave at the play park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado is wide, glassy and huge. It moves fast, and Nikki Gregg is the only known woman in the world who can catch it standing up.
Gregg, a personal trainer and hard core kayaker, is one of the best whitewater stand up paddlers out there, male or female. She’s one of a handful of people who have started running rivers on their stand up boards.
Stand up paddling was born on the waves of Hawaii, and has made its way to inland flat water. Now, paddlers are beginning to look to rivers for a challenge.
“Whitewater is still very niche, but the whole sport is blowing up,” says Dan Gavere, the men’s world champion. Gavere, who has a background as a pro kayaker, says he initially got into stand up paddling for the fitness, but quickly started looking at the rivers. “To push myself in a kayak I’d have to run something threatening,” he says. “On a board it’s not so dangerous and it’s more accessible.”
Because the technique and the destinations are similar to kayaking, a lot of the first people to pick up the sport have been kayakers. “People who know how to read the river pick it up a little faster because they know the strokes,” Gregg says.
The main divergences between the sports are speed and maneuverability. “The ability to move around on the board is the difference,” Gavere says. “On a standup board you can move up and back quickly. You can get the board to plane quickly and get a lot more speed.”
There is also the reality that you’ll be off your board and in the water a lot. “When I first started I was always in the river. I’d swim 20 or 30 times. Now I’ll do the same thing and not swim at all,” Gavere says.
For beginners, Gavere recommends scouting the river before you go, starting off small and outfitting yourself with shin and knee pads, a helmet and a lifejacket. “It’s nothing to take lightly—it can be dangerous. You have to be willing to take a few falls and hits,” Gregg says.
Despite the possibility of bruising, Gregg says the adrenaline rush of standing up in the river makes the sport worth it. “If you’re used to whitewater it turns class 2 into class 4,” she says. “It steps it up a notch.”