Open Spaces

Stand-up Paddleboarding Offers Fitness and More


Story by April Anderson

Water invites us to forsake the solid footings of land to paddle and float across its surface. It cools the body and soothes the soul. Beckoning us to exchange ringing cell phones for the enchanting songs of lovelorn frogs, water encourages us to discover its wonders and preserve its integrity. Still or flowing, it swirls with opportunities for adventure and reflection.

One way to enjoy nature, fitness, and recreation on the water is stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). “You can see what’s beneath the water, not just the shoreline,” Dave McLean said, an SUP instructor for L.L. Bean. “It’s like you’re walking on water.”

Chicago SUP owner Ian Jacobson reflects on the experience of being followed by a sea lion in British Columbia. “[The sea lion] was close behind and every time I turned around, he would go under. This went on for a while until I came to a point where the river narrowed and drifted out of the channel. I watched as the sea lion passed me and resurfaced, only this time I was behind him. The look on his face when he realized the tables had turned was priceless!”

“I can see so much more standing up than I can in my kayak,” SUP enthusiast Cheri Lewis said. Jacobsen shares that ducks have swum through the middle of an SUP yoga class in Lake Michigan, while McLean and Lewis marvel at the beauty of The Hollows Conservation Area in Cary. “One little girl who came with me [to The Hollows] said the weeds looked like castles under the water,” says Lewis. McLean has been impressed by the turtles and big fish he has seen while instructing classes at The Hollows. Noting the quiet, non-polluting aspects of the sport, McLean feels that SUP allows “a closer connection with the environment.”

The Crystal Lake Three Oaks Recreation Area’s Alpine Accessories Board House owner Rick Pasturczak sees people take boards out to the middle of the lake “just to enjoy the serenity.” Glimpsing a world teaming with life beneath and around the board can provide a valuable opportunity to reconnect with nature while cross-training outside the gym.

SUP invites competition and relaxation

SUP offers opportunities to engage and strengthen core muscles whether it is done navigating the Fox River, paddling around Bangs Lake, or enjoying yoga in Lake Michigan. For those who want to try SUP yoga, Jacobsen suggests using “solid, grounded movements and not standing on one leg [since the SUP] is not a flat surface.” Pasturczak recommends getting a flatter board with a full deck pad.

“Swimming is part of the sport,” McLean says. “On a really hot day, it’s fun to fall in—left or right of the board [to avoid hitting the board]—but you don’t want to be in shallow water.” Beginning SUP instruction emphasizes safety to reduce unplanned falls, get the student back on the board, and help him/her move in the water. Intermediate instruction helps the paddler become more efficient stopping, turning, and moving through the water. “I can turn a board within its own length and never stop its forward momentum,” Pasturczak said.

Racing and whitewater paddleboarding invites competition with wind and water for individuals with experience, while SUP fishing lures anglers thrilled with a catch. SUP fishing boards are differentiated from other stand-up paddleboards because they have specific tie-downs for equipment. Some fishing boards even have seats!

SUP offers opportunities for individuals and families to become immersed in nature while enjoying exercise. This summer, spend some leisure time on the water. Try an SUP experience that fits your interests and needs or watch as others hold a warrior pose, enjoy quietude, race around a nearby lake, cruise down a river, or go fishing on the water without a boat.

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SUP Secrets for Starters

  • Take lessons. “It’s important to start with a lesson to know where to stand on the board, the height of your paddle, and the main balance point to make it a fun experience instead of struggle,” Lewis says. Jacobsen adds, “It’s not just standing on a board and moving a paddle. You’re out there in the ever-changing environment.”
  • Get the right board. Paddleboard selection depends on user and use. “Buoyancy is tied to the dimensions of the board,” says McLean. “Hard boards are popular because they are easier to balance, glide, and turn,” Pasturczak says. Inflatable boards are handy for traveling and whitewater SUP. Longer boards support more weight. Narrower boards are better for racing because they slice through water faster.
  • Get the right paddle. “Lighter weight paddles are easier to maneuver,” Pasturczak says. “Adjustable, variable flex, cheap plastic, and aluminum paddles don’t perform as well as composite or carbon paddles. When you decide [the proper length for you], get a fixed length and cut it to the size you want.”
  • Acquire a stamp. Water usage stamps—required for canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards—are available through the IDNR and local sporting goods stores.
  • Be safe. Go with a buddy or at least let someone know where you will be and when you expect to return. Be visible. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved belt pack or life jacket. Bring a whistle and a waterproof fanny pack to hold food, water, and protective clothing. Wear sport sandals or other protective footwear if you are going to be portaging your SUP. Use the leash so you don’t lose your board. “Know your limits,” advises Jacobsen.
  • Look at the weather. “One of the biggest factors people forget is the wind,” Jacobsen says. Chicago SUP closes when winds are over 20 mph.
  • Consider the experience you want. During midday (noon to 3 p.m.) and weekends, Lake Michigan has more boat traffic, which means more waves. For a more peaceful encounter, visit busy lakes and rivers during “off” times.

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Places to SUP

  • Alpine Accessories Board House provides SUP instruction, yoga, and rentals at Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake. For details, visit
  • Chicago SUP offers community, parent/child, yoga, and fireworks paddles, as well as instruction and rentals on Lake Michigan. To learn more, visit
  • L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools will host SUP classes at The Hollows Conservation Area in Cary several times this summer. Visit for more information.
  • Lake County Forest Preserves’ Sterling Lake, Long Lake, and Hastings Lake Forest Preserve allow paddleboarding for those who have their own equipment.

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at