This story was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
West Virginia’s world-class waterways are becoming recognized as destinations for stand-up paddleboarding.
Birthplace of Rivers. Wet Virginia. The Whitewater Capital of the East. There’s certainly no shortage of sweet superlatives when it comes to West Virginia’s status as a world-class aquatic playground. While river rats around the globe recognize the Mountain State as a mecca for kayaking and rafting, there’s a new paddlesport that’s been taking the waterways by storm: stand-up paddleboarding, also known as SUP
SUP is the act of standing on a board while using a paddle for steering and propulsion. Although the sport originated in Hawaii as an alternative way to surf big ocean waves, the boards have made their way inland. The world of SUP now includes many variants: long fiberglass boards for surfing ocean waves, short inflatable boards for whitewater rapids, and stable boards for flatwater paddling and fishing. There are even boards specifically designed for SUP yoga classes.
With a small equipment list—board, paddle, lifejacket, and a few other accessories—and relatively low cost of admission compared to kayaking and rafting, SUP is a great way to dip your toes into the world of paddlesports. And, whether you’re feeling inspired to surf whitewater rapids or just pull off a floating shoulder stand, West Virginia’s wealth of lakes and rivers provides the ideal setting for getting your SUP on.
Fayetteville’s Prolific Paddleboarder
Leading the growth of West Virginia’s SUP community is Melanie Seiler, a Fayetteville native and former rafting guide who fell head over heels in love—and off her board—in 2008 when she first set foot on a SUP in the churning waters of the New River. “One day at the take-out after a river trip, there were people with paddleboards. I was very curious, and they let me get on the board and play around,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with the activity, and I proceeded to buy a board that week.”
That fall, a friend showed up during the Gauley season with paddleboards designed for surfing in standing waves—spots in rapids where the flow can hold a paddler in place. “We surfed and played all day long, and then we paddled and clawed and climbed and hauled our boards all the way up the river to where we put in,” Seiler says.
She continued paddling through the winter, donning a drysuit to explore West Virginia’s rivers for SUP-friendly sections and surf spots. Seiler had seen it all as a rafting guide, but SUP gave her a new perspective. “It was a way to make the river interesting again,” she says. “Suddenly, class II and III whitewater became a new challenge.”
Seiler has continued to be a prolific paddler. In 2011, she developed the state’s first commercial SUP program for Adventures on the Gorge, teaching guests the basics on Summersville Lake. That same year, she organized the inaugural New River Gorge Stand Up Paddle Race, which has been helped every year since. In 2015, she founded Active Southern West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for physical activities, including free paddleboard classes, in the Fayetteville region. She still serves as the group’s executive director while also working as a backup guide for Mountain Surf Paddle Sports, a Fayetteville-based SUP outfitter owned by her friend and fellow SUP visionary Meghan Roberts. Last year, Seiler even organized and led a SUP trip that took 100 people out on Summersville Lake to see the solar eclipse on the water.
Stand Up for Yourself
Head to Summersville Lake this summer, and you’ll spot flotillas of paddlers exploring the coves dotting the seemingly endless cliffline. Take a trip down the New River, and you’re bound to catch ambitious paddleboarders attempting to navigate its legendary whitewater alongside rafts and kayaks.
The SUP experience can be as varied as the waterways in which paddleboarders stand, and that is what makes SUP such an appealing watersport. “West Virginia is great venue for paddleboarding because we have every variety of water venue. We have a lot of gentle rivers to explore on paddleboards, including sections of the Blackwater, Meadow, and Birch rivers. And we still have a lot of rivers that have yet to be discovered for paddleboarding, especially in the class II to III range,” Seiler says.
Seiler is quick to steer potential paddlers toward a mentorship. “With any paddlesport, that isn’t something you should go attempt on your own,” she says. “It’s amazing how quickly your board can get away from you. It can’t be stated enough to have the proper gear, such as footwear and the right leash, a PFD, and helmet.”
If you’re heading out to the river, be prepared to adapt your balance. “Whitewater is very different in anticipating how water will move and push against the board, and about applying the right movement, changing steering navigation, and forward momentum,” Seiler says. When you’re ready to catch your first wave—well, be prepared to swim. A lot. “One of the biggest perceptions is that people think they’re gonna catch the wave on their first attempt,” Seiler says. “We talk about how many hours are required at surf spots. Some spots require 800 hours of trying before you can catch that first surf.”
Of course, your board never has to touch whitewater. There’s plenty of paddling pleasure to be found on calmer waters. Seiler encourages anyone who’s interested to get out and stand up. “Anybody that can hike a trail or ride a bike can figure out the balance needed for paddleboarding.”
West Virginia’s Top SUP Spots
- Summersville Lake
- Stonewall Jackson Lake
- Lake Stephens
- New River
- Upper Cheat River Water Trail
- Upper New, Glade Creek to Grandview
- Middle Gauley, Sweet Falls to Masons Branch
- Upper New River, Stonecliff to Cunard
- Gauley River
- New River, New River Dries
written by Dylan Jones