Looking to cool off and enjoy Western Colorado's scenery this summer? Consider stand-up paddle boarding. An offshoot of surfing that originated in Hawaii in the 1940s, the sport of stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is gaining popularity in the in-land states.
Hotchkiss-based Western Slope Stand Up Paddle Boards, or WSSUP, is one of a handful of Colorado's commercially licensed stand-up paddle boarding companies. Before opening day, guides were wrapping up spring training on the Gunnison River below where it joins the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
"It's such a new experience for people in this area," said owner Daniel Roman, who founded WSSUP last year. The first year was great, said Roman. "People were very supportive." While tourist business was slow, locals embraced it. "We pretty much survived on that local support."
Roman believes his timing was good, as Delta County is increasingly gaining attention for its recreational opportunities.
An avid outdoorsman, Roman grew up in Santa Barbara. He was a Boy Scout and took his first backpacking trip with his mom at age 14. After high school he moved to Colorado Springs to work in carpentry. "I didn't care for that," he said. After a year he went to college. Upon graduation he gave himself a gift: raft guide training in the Brown's Canyon of the Arkansas River, arguably the most popular stretches of whitewater in the country.
He then spent eight years guiding on the Arkansas, Gauley, and most recently Taylor rivers and boated in New Zealand. He dreamed of starting his own rafting company in Colorado, but all the permits are taken. "You could buy a rafting company for a million bucks," he said.
He decided to change direction. While transitioning out of guiding, he took a job on the Salt River in Globe, Ariz. The Salt is "very seasonal," he said. He was living in Crested Butte, but before he got out the door the Salt had dried up.
With his rental agreement canceled, he accepted a job at Zephros Farm in Paonia. After kayaking the North Fork during spring runoff he considered opening a rafting company, since no one in the area was running commercial raft trips. He quickly discovered why. "The North Fork, it's very seasonal," and rafting season ends by July. It's simply not financially feasible. If he was to start a rafting company, he'd have to find another income source for the rest of the summer.
Roman is also a certified SUP instructor with the American Canoe Association. Unlike rafts, paddle boards don't require a lot of water. He saw Crawford Reservoir, with Needle Rock as its backdrop, as the ideal place to get acquainted with the sport, and the Gunnison River below the North Fork as a perfect introductory run. The 300 cubic feet per second of water guaranteed to flow year-round from Blue Mesa Reservoir provides sufficient flow to run paddle boards.
The Gunnison River flows through the Gunnison Gorge National Recreation Area (NRA). Because it's located within public lands, commercial outfitters need a permit. A few fly-fishing companies are already permitted within the NRA, "But those permits are essentially maxed out," said Roman.
When he contacted the Bureau of Land Management for a permit, "They said, absolutely," said Roman. "But no fishing, rafting or kayaking."
"They see this as an under-utilized stretch of river," said Roman. "Relatively few guided trips go down this section of river."
He then approached Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a concession permit at Crawford Reservoir. They said he was the first one ever to ask.
It took about a year to get the permits, and last spring, WSSUP began offering guided SUP trips. "I was saving money to buy a house, and I started a business instead," said Roman.
Paddle boarding quickly became the main focus of the company. He'd hoped to offer raft trips this spring, but with the record-low snow pack, the rafting season abruptly ended in mid-May.
All of last year's guides returned this season, and a few more came on board, said Roman, who has eight local guides on call. "It's a super part-time thing right now." All of the guides are enthusiastic about the summer.
Under BLM permits, guides are required to have 50 hours of on-river training and hold current first aid/CPR cards. During their two-week training, which begins on Crawford Reservoir, guides learn how to read the river, practice various rescue techniques, and are trained in how to react to all the "what-if" scenarios they may face out on the river, said Roman. Per their permit, they carry a cell phone and track each trip's progress through a GPS ping system.
WSSUP is also licensed to run Ruby Canyon on the Colorado River below Grand Junction. At the end of training, Roman took guides to a multi-day trip through Ruby and Horsethief canyons.
When taking first-timers out on the river, "Instruction, instruction, instruction is necessary on this trip," said Roman during a recent training trip. Before heading down-river, they get acquainted with their boards in a big eddy, spending "adequate time learning how to paddle board before we move down the river."
WSSUP supplies boards, paddles, life jackets, and transportation. Because they don't want anyone getting cold, wetsuits (mandatory on cold days during cold spring run-off) and splash guards are available.
Most of his customers are "complete beginners" and are encouraged to start at Crawford Reservoir before venturing out on the river. Until they get comfortable with their craft they tend to spend a lot of time on their knees. Some board models are "tippy," so WSSUP uses the most stable boats available, including the Telluride-made "Sole" brand. "Generally," said Roman, "by the end of this trip, everybody's standing through the rapids."
Then there's the scenery. The trip offers views of the area's geological history and a variety of wildlife. With an abundance of year-round and migratory bird species -- raptors, Great Blue Heron, song birds, ducks and geese, it's also ideal for bird-watching.
This year WSSUP added a full-day trip with a lunch stop at Eagle Rock Shelter. Located on BLM land, Eagle Rock dates back 12,000-13,000 years and is one of the oldest and longest continuously inhabited Native American sites ever discovered in America. It is still undergoing excavation. Guides have received training on the site's history from BLM archaeologist Glade Hadden.
Then there's the river itself. After spring runoff, the water becomes crystal clear, "like an aquarium," said Roman. "During hatching season the fish are everywhere."
In addition to flat water and full- and half-day trips, WSSUP offers full- and half-day trips as well as overnight trips on the Gunnison, and three-day, 25-mile trips down the Colorado through Ruby Canyon. Paddle board rentals are also available.
In this area, says Roman, "There's not a whole lot of opportunities like this."