When Randi Hitchcock invites me to Memorial Park's Prospect Lake to try stand up paddleboarding for the first time, she says I don't need to wear a swimsuit — just water shoes, comfortable outdoor clothing, a hat and sunglasses.
I must squint at her funny, because she laughs and says, "You're 95 percent not gonna fall in."
Hitchcock, I know, is an authority on this: As a recently certified instructor through the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association, and co-founder with her husband Steve of the local outdoor adventure nonprofit UpaDowna, she has taken on serious promotion of SUP in Colorado Springs. Plus, I can't say I really want to don a swimsuit.
But I'm still dubious about there being only a 5 percent chance of ending up soaking wet.
My curiosity overrides my nerves, however, and I show up at the beach one Tuesday morning, ready to give this thing a try.
Hitchcock apologizes when I arrive — another guy has shown up before me and is already out on the water, meaning I need to wait to use the board. The downtime gives me a chance to check out the area.
The sandy beach is clean, and while the water looks cold, it's fairly clear and, more importantly, smooth today. A few fishermen sit along the northern edge of the lake, watching their rods. Middle-school-age campers fill four canoes, and chants of "heave-ho" fill the air. Two friends of Hitchcock's are here to SUP as well, but beyond that, the area is quiet beneath a beautiful puffy-clouded sky.
Two-hour SUP lessons like the one I'll receive this morning are free to the public through UpaDowna. Hitchcock explains that the organization is just trying to introduce people to the sport since equipment is minimal and accessibility optimal. Along with training, it provides complimentary access to a board, paddle and life jacket as well as the required permit — typically $5 a day or $50 a year for an individual.
Currently, those permits allow individuals to use Quail Lake off Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard daily from sunrise to sunset, and Prospect Lake Saturdays and Sundays from 5 p.m. until sunset, and from sunrise to sunset Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hitchcock explains that motorized and non-motorized watercraft must share the lake. She notes that the way to increase available time for SUP and other non-motorized water sports is through increased permit purchases, a good reason for her to continue promoting the sport to newbies.
Hitchcock still believes that Prospect is one of the best places to learn: "You've got good parking. You've got good access to 7-Eleven if you need a cold drink. You've got shade. You've got a playground for the kids. It's a really good place for a family to hang out and try water activities." And unlike at nearby reservoirs, the lack of motorized equipment helps keep waters calm.
Turns out the guy who beat me to the first lesson is Michael Hannigan, the former executive director of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
He paddles to the shore with a huge grin on his face, and Hitchcock talks him through landing — it's important to get down onto your knees before you hit the sand to lessen your chance of being knocked off.
I walk through a few inches of cold water to the board, which is quite a bit bigger than a typical surfboard. As Hitchcock says, "The wider it is, and thicker it is, and longer it is, the more stable it's going to be for beginners."
As soon as I scoot my knees onto the top — hip-width distance apart — I'm grateful for that extra width. I use my paddle to push myself away from the beach and feel fairly comfortable floating, until Hitchcock tells me to stand.
Remember that 5 percent chance of falling in? Here's a point at which that could happen. She gives me step-by-step directions for going from knees to feet, which involves a process of first making sure you're slightly back of center before placing your hands at the front of the board and pushing up into a V, or what's known in yoga as downward dog, butt in the air. I wobble and drop back down.
It's challenging to both the legs and the core. By the time I do get to standing, I'm exhausted but pleased with myself.
Having recently kayaked while on a vacation, I take quickly to paddling, so I putter my way slowly around the middle of the lake. And I watch as Hitchcock plays around with yoga poses on her board. (SUP Colorado Springs, a local rental and training company, teaches SUP yoga for the well-balanced, although I imagine swimsuits are recommended for those classes.)
Hannigan and I take turns going out onto the lake. Each time, it gets a little easier and, as he says, more "relaxing." We agree it's something we could see ourselves doing regularly. He gets moving faster than I do, and as a result Hitchcock teases that she's signing him up for the Rocky Mountain State Games race.
This is SUP's first year as an official sport in the Games, for which Hitchcock and her husband are commissioners. Participants are simply requested to pay for their entry, sign a waiver, and preferably know how to swim.
In conjunction with UpaDowna's board sponsor, Shaboomee, the race is a "Same SUP Challenge, because we put everybody on the same type of board with the same type of paddle so that there's no advantage of 'My board is faster than that person's board.'"
Hitchcock's hoping to have about 30 between this year's youth (ages 10 to 17) and adult competitions on July 26, and encourages people to come out beforehand to learn and practice through UpaDowna's weekly classes and monthly SUP Socials. All ages are welcome.
"We've had as young as 2 get on a board with me, which was awesome," she says, "and the oldest so far was 79."