Paddling tips from Gerry Lopez

Paddleboarding in Bend results in impromptu lesson

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published May 21, 2014 at 12:11AM

If you go

Getting there: The Deschutes River is one of the most obvious and popular places to paddle, but Cascades Lakes such as Elk and Hosmer will make fit summer options. Rent or buy boards at Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe, 805 S.W. Industrial Way,

Difficulty: Moderate

Cost: Board rentals start at $20

“I’ll show you a couple of techniques for paddling.”

So said legendary surfer, snowboarder, standup paddleboarder and Bend resident Gerry Lopez after he saw my strictly amateur standup paddling technique.

Now I’m not saying every beginner who rents a paddleboard and heads out on the Deschutes River will get an impromptu lesson from Lopez, but that’s what happened when I went paddling last Thursday.

Earlier that morning, I’d headed to Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe, located near the Colorado Avenue bridge in Bend.

The staff made the rental process quick and easy: For $20, you can get a one-hour rental; for $40, a two-hour rental. If you want to rent one all day and take it to Sparks, Hosmer or one of the other Cascade Lakes, that will set you back $80. Nearby StandUpPaddle Bend also offers rentals, and both shops offer instruction for beginners.

Before I set out, one of Tumalo Creek’s employees adjusted my paddle for height and gave me pointers such as what part of the board to hold when carrying it, and where I should stand.

They’re not too heavy, depending on what kind of shape you’re in, but either way, watch out if it’s a windy day.

I was on a nice, wide 12-foot board, which made for a surprisingly stable surface. But I realized quickly that a standard surf kind of stance, with one foot in front of the other, was not going to cut it. Instead, the proper stance is more akin to being on skis, with feet side by side about shoulder width apart.

I was on my way, in the loosest sense of “on my way.” I’d been standup paddling once before — five years ago, for another article about standup paddling, when it was a little newer to Bend. I’d gone with a group of local devotees that included Lopez. A few months before that, in January 2009, I had written a profile on him and his then-new book, “Surf is Where You find It.”

Point being that Wednesday was only my second time on a paddleboard. Whatever skills I picked up in 2009, I must have forgotten during the long interim. I wasn’t going nowhere fast, but I was going somewhere slow. I paddled upstream toward the Bill Healy Bridge, my intended turnaround point. I was heading into a strong headwind against an even stronger current.

On the other hand, it was mid-May, and not yet 11 a.m., the sun was out, and the temperature near 70 degrees — a pinch-me-is-this-real kind of day.

I’d have pinched myself if I hadn’t been so afraid of losing my balance in the process. The one time I stopped to hitch up my trunks a little, I almost fell. After that, I let my drawers droop as they may.

If you’ve tried standup paddling, or have a board of your own (lucky!), you know it only seems intuitive. As I began to conjecture out there alone on the water, the people you see standing bolt upright are, well, not doing it as efficiently as they could. I’m not saying they can’t get anywhere, but on a windy day the human body makes a pretty good sail or windbreak, depending.

I tried hunching and squatting a little more to make myself smaller and get better strokes, but no matter what I did, I was still being passed like a Prius on a NASCAR track by parties traveling the same direction on water and land: First and foremost, kayakers.

Sure, with their low centers of gravity, this made sense. I was also getting passed by users of the adjacent river trail, including the slowest of joggers, walkers and folks pushing strollers. Also, I assume, snails.

The river narrows a little by the Old Mill footbridge and the Columbia Avenue bridge, and the stretch between the bridges was even more of a slog. It took me five minutes or longer to get past Red Robin. Every time I self-consciously glanced over during that interminable span, I was grateful it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

I began to regret not opting for the two-hour rental; at the rate I was going, I’d never make it to Healy Bridge and back in just an hour.

Still, I took solace in the fact that I hadn’t yet been passed by any standup paddlers, although I hadn’t seen any others on the river. That, of course, is when a guy with a baseball cap and salt-and-pepper ponytail glided by me on the right, also paddling upstream. He looked almost at ease, bending at the waist and digging into the water like he meant it. He rode a sleek paddleboard that seemed to ride higher on the water than my rental. Despite his speed, his board did not appear to have a motor on it.

I grimaced and tried to salvage my dignity, still advancing maybe a foot for every two or three strokes. As the distance between us grew, I realized the man was Lopez.

Forget shyness or not wanting to be a nuisance. I vowed to get a better look when he came back my way. If it was Lopez, I’d say hi and maybe ask for tips — if not a tow back downstream.

I didn’t have to.

Once I reintroduced myself, Lopez volunteered to show me the proper form for paddling: Take a wider grip, keep the legs slightly bent and relaxed, fold forward at the waist. Keep the upper arm straight, and the hand atop the paddle also fairly relaxed. He also told me to bury the entire end of the paddle, which was green, in the water as I stroked.

“Bury the green,” he said encouragingly, noting that, done right, paddling engages the core. Indeed I did. On top of that, I began to gain speed. For a brief time, it actually felt as if I was keeping up; more likely, he just slowed down to paddle beside me.

Lopez noted the wind and mentioned that more water was being released upstream, resulting in a stronger current and water levels higher than the day before.

It was all going so swimmingly, but then Lopez said he’d show me one more thing: a technique for turning that, as it turned out, brought out every awkward-lefty insecurity I forgot I had. It involved maintaining the grip, and switching sides. Imagine paddling in a canoe, then switching sides of the boat without changing your grip.

“This is the lefty in me,” I said, all elbows.

“It is counterintuitive,” he said, all generosity.

It must have taken five minutes, but he was a patient instructor. Eventually, I was doing pirouettes.

Lopez said he had to get going. I thanked him, and happily surrendered my goal of reaching the bridge.

The rushing current made the trip downstream a far easier job. En route, I practiced the paddling technique he’d shown me, as well as the occasional turn.

I kept one eye out for a familiar face on the shoreline, just so I could boast that the paddler up ahead — rapidly disappearing in the distance once again — was the one and only Gerry Lopez, and he’d just given me standup paddling tips.

I didn’t see anybody I recognized, but I took pleasure in flying past them anyway.

Even if the current was really doing the work.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com