Taking a Stand

Paddleboarding gains popularity on Michigan’s lakes and rivers


Photograph by Marc Nader

For Brian LeFeve, stand-up paddle boarding is a spiritual experience. 

No stress. No phone. Just his body, the board, and the water.

He glides along rivers, winding through quiet trees, foliage, and wildlife. It’s calm and serene.

LeFeve, owner of Great Lakes Surf Shop, started paddleboarding nine years ago. He saw the sport begin to grow in Hawaii, and he decided to try it on the lakes and rivers of Michigan.

“I am a wind junkie,” he says. “I windsurf and kitesurf and I was always sitting on the beach waiting when there was no wind. I wanted to find something I could do when there was no wind. So a friend built me a board, and that was it.” 

A paddleboard is a large surfboard that can be maneuvered and propelled by paddling instead of relying on the wind or waves. 

Paddleboards have become increasingly diverse over the years, allowing boarders to paddle through water trails, surf Michigan waves, race, fish, circuit train, and even do yoga atop of them. 

For beginners just starting out, finding your balance on a rental board is a good place to start.

Local shops across Michigan offer rentals that typically include the board, ankle leash, paddle, and life jacket. Many shops also offer lessons. 

“Lessons are good things,” LeFeve says. “If you know how to paddle efficiently, there is less effort and less fatigue.”

LeFeve suggests that first-timers buy an all-round board that’s more of a traditional surf-style with a rounded nose. They’re wider, more stable, and can be used for casual cruising and yoga.

For touring and racing, there are displacement boards. They’re faster, track straighter, and are better for long-distance paddling.

“The industry is really catering to everything now to offer boards with fishing pole inserts (and) even or full deck pads so you’re not slipping when you do yoga,” LeFeve says. 

And for an all-round paddle, a fiberglass and carbon composite combination should be able to handle any type of paddling. 

“Being out on the water is a great way to learn the water with your family.”— Brian Lefeve

Chris Ferrara, of St. Clair Shores, began paddling about five years ago with his wife and two kids.

It started as a casual pastime but soon escalated. 

“I do a lot of training, probably five days a week, and it is a different experience every time you go out on the lake,” Ferrara says. “One day the water will be completely dead flat and you are paddling next to a gorgeous sunset, and the next day you might have a 20-knot wind blowing you … and no one else is crazy enough to be out there but you.” 

Now Ferrara says paddling is one of his main ways to exercise, and he travels around the Midwest paddling in races — and his kids do too. 

“My wife started us out when she got herself a board, and I fooled around with it,” he says. “And now my 13-year-old son enters pretty much every race I enter and he usually wins. Being out on the water is a great way to learn the water with your family.” 

Ferrara says that paddleboarding can be as simple and casual as a taking leisurely sunset ride or as intense and demanding as training for a race. 

“You can start out by just renting a board or borrowing a friend’s board,” Ferrara says. “And don’t stop once you get the hang of it — there are ways to accelerate your skill level by racing, surfing, and down-winding … it’s an endless progression.”

Some of Ferrara’s and LeFeve’s favorite places to paddle in Michigan include the Huron River, the Tawas River, Belle Isle, Stony Creek, Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron near Lexington, and Lake Michigan near Frankfurt. 

“(Stand-up paddleboarding) is about exploring new places that you can’t get to by boat,” LeFeve says. 

“We’ve paddled Pictured Rocks and Lexington, and plan on doing Harsens Island this year. 

Where to Find Paddleboards

Shops that sell boards or offer rentals and lessons can be found along the west coast of Michigan up to Traverse City, and speckled along the Upper Peninsula. Closer to home, find them at the tip of the Thumb in Port Sanilac, in Port Huron, and several metro Detroit spots: 

• Great Lakes Surf Shop
23517 Nine Mack Dr.,
St. Clair Shores,

• Detroit River Sports 
Algonquin Park Drive, Detroit, 313-908-0484, 

• That’s WasSUP 
141 E. Walled Lake Dr., Walled Lake, 

Metro Detroit events

Once Around Belle Isle, 10 a.m. Aug. 13 on Belle Isle. The event includes a race, yoga workshops, circuit workshops, lessons, vendors, and a concert. For more information, go to oabidetroit.com.

Find information about stand-up paddleboard races at midwestsup.com

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