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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Stand Up Paddling: An Exercise in Enjoyment

Jun 30, 2011 10:09AM ● By Carrie Jackson

Photo: John Hehemann

Almost every time Bill Hehemann heads out to the Skokie Lagoons he knows to expect curious stares from kayakers and fishermen. Even though his sport of choice is wildly popular in Hawaii and on both coasts, it’s still relatively unknown to people on the water in Chicago. They see him standing up—on a board—with a paddle, and ask, “What is that?” The simple answer is standup paddle boarding, or SUP, and according to the Outdoor Industry Association, it’s become the fastest-growing sport across the nation.

Hehemann owns Shaka Water Sports, one of a handful of distributors of boards, SUP accessories and information in the Chicago area. He’s out on the water every day, and although he races the boards professionally, it’s a great option recreational activity for basically anybody. “It’s fun to do alone, or with somebody else,” says Hehemann.

What surprises most people about SUP is how deceptively simple it is. “A beginner can be up and paddling solo in about 20 minutes,” says Hehemann, “and if you're already familiar with water sports and have some experience with surfing or windsurfing, you'll be up and running in 30 seconds.” When Suzen Cook, a massage therapist and co-owner of Lumbar Lounge, in Rogers Park, visited Hawaii last year, she saw how popular it was and wanted to try. She was discouraged by her niece, however, who thought it might be too difficult. Not easily swayed, Cook came back to Chicago, ordered a board and promptly fell in love with it. “It’s like flying over water,” says Cook. “Really cool.”

Cook, a former marathoner, now does SUP in place of running. “It’s better for my body,” she says. “I’m not hurting my joints running on pavement. It’s mostly core and upper body, but it’s even good for your legs, because you’re in a semi-squat.” In fact, many triathletes use SUP for cross-training, because it targets muscles that otherwise aren’t utilized. “It works almost every muscle on the body,” says Hehemann. “The board is making micromovements over the water, so your feet and hips are constantly making micro-movements to adjust.”

Sean Strasser, who works at the Northwestern Sailing Center, in Evanston, has found that SUP is a great way to introduce people to water sports. “Learning to sail and surf takes a lot of time,” he says, “and SUP is an easy thing to do when there’s no wind.” It’s available for any body size and fitness level, from four-foot tall children to six-foot-five bodybuilders.

The Sailing Center is one of the first places in Chicago to offer SUP rentals and lessons, which also include a brief course on water safety. Several area retailers sell boards and paddles, as well as offering used equipment, rentals and lessons. “Finding the right board can be difficult if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for,” cautions Hehemann, and he recommends purchasing from a store that is already reputable in water sports, especially surfing, or going through a distributor like Shaka Water Sports, that offers a try it and buy it option. There are different board for recreational paddling and racing, and water conditions and body size are also important factors. Boards are typically 10-12 feet in height, and weigh around 23 pounds. In contrast, a paddle weighs only two pounds and most are adjustable in height, allowing users to cut them to fit.

If you already have a board and paddle, almost any body of water is suitable for SUP. In the Chicago area, Lake Michigan is an obvious choice, with in-city rentals and lessons at North Avenue beach and other locations. However, Hehemann says that most beaches have restrictions or require some sort of boating permit. Two exceptions are Montrose Beach, in the city, and Park Avenue Beach, in Highland Park, but he recommends the Skokie Lagoons over either of those. “It’s free, beautiful, nobody is on the water and because it’s secluded, it’s always calm,” says Hehemann. Cook has a season permit at the Dempster Street Beach launch, in Evanston, which she likes because she stores her board there and can head out anytime without much planning.

“SUP has given me a new appreciation for Lake Michigan,” says Cook. “I get to see the city and the lakefront from a different angle.” Strasser agrees, and says SUP is a great way to encourage water sports. “A lot of people don’t use the lake, and it’s a wonderful resource.” Hehemann has been out almost every day this year since March, when the ice first started to break on the Lagoon. A devoted yogi, he uses his time on the water to recharge, get away from the city and make friends with the ducks and herons as he paddles by. Ultimately, relaxation is the biggest benefit for Cook, as well. “To me, it fills my soul and I love the peacefulness,” she says.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston freelance writer and blogger who got hooked on SUP after her first time out. Visit her at

Great Lakes Board Company; visit or call 773-575-4787.

Laser Performance, 2112 Jackson Ave., Evanston 60201; visit or call 847-866-7765.

Lumbar Lounge, 1445 W Jarvis Ave., Chicago 60625; call 773-381-1445.

Northwestern Sailing Center, 1823 Campus Dr. (lakefront) Evanston, 60201; visit, e-mail [email protected] or call 847-491-4142.

Shaka Water Sports; visit, e-mail [email protected] or call 847-971-8487.

Shred Shop, 3801 W. Oakton, Skokie, 60076; visit or call 847-679-3060.

Windward Sports, 3317 N. Clark St., Chicago 60657; visit or call 773-472-6868.