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Get on board: Stand-up paddleboarding offers another way to hit the water in New Mexico

MST Adventures leads a stand-up paddleboarding tour during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (Courtesy of MST Adventures)

By most accounts, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) – at least in the form that it’s currently known – originated in Hawaii as something of a less intimidating alternative to surfing.

Though the art of propelling oneself through the water on a floating structure with a paddle likely has origins dating back thousands of years prior, the sport initially rose to prominence in the United States behind the efforts of surfing legend Laird Hamilton in the early 2000s. SUP has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity since then: According to a study conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association in 2013, SUP had the highest number of new participants among outdoor recreational activities.

The growth of SUP has followed a similar path in the Land of Enchantment. Matt Gontram, owner of New Mexico River Adventures, was one of the first to seize upon the opportunity in the state approximately a decade ago.

“When we started New Mexico River Adventures our very first year, we brought it into the fold right away,” he said. “We were the first river company to offer stand-up paddleboarding lessons and rentals. We were the ones to start it right on the Rio Grande.”

Currently, Gontram’s company offers a guided three-day trip on the Rio Chama for $495 or a half-day excursion on the Rio Grande for $90, but he says that SUP accounts for only a fraction of New Mexico River Adventures’ business, which is focused primarily on rafting. That said, Gontram admits that SUP has grown exponentially since NMRA first provided the option.

“Let’s be honest: Somebody looks at a whitewater kayak, they’re gonna be pretty intimidated to begin with … . You look at a paddleboard and anybody can get on one right away. You just stand on it, work on your balance and off you go,” Gontram said. “We don’t take paddleboards down any difficult whitewater. It opens up accessibility to everyone.”

“Now the actual board pricing has gone down, competition has gone up in the stand-up paddleboarding industry. It opens it up to a wide variety of people, which I love to see. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting people out on the river.”

Corey Spoores, owner of the Albuquerque-based MST Adventures, was initially turned on to SUP when he lived on Lake Erie in the early 2000s and he eventually brought that passion to New Mexico in 2017. Currently, MST Adventures offers five different SUP tours, which allow paddleboarders to traverse the Rio Grande at sunrise, at sunset, in the moonlight, during the Balloon Fiesta – and on a special brewery trip.

“Being on or in the river when it’s 100 degrees outside is really pleasurable, and it sure as hell beats hiking in the Foothills, which radiates heat,” Spoores said. “People are seeing the physical benefits (and) the stress-relieving benefits of activity done along the river.”

For the uninitiated, MST Adventures has a paddleboard fitness class that’s also held on the waters of the Rio Grande. It’s nothing too complicated, but it will help get the SUP-related muscles firing.

“We’re gonna do some very core-specific exercises so they can kind of know what it should feel like when they’re out paddling,” Spoores said.

When it comes to boards, Spoores recommends that New Mexicans go the inflatable route for convenience and transportation purposes. Price can range anywhere from $200 to $1,200.

“In New Mexico, only 0.003% of the state is covered in water. What does that mean to the layperson? It means you’re driving a lot,” he said. “I think inflatable paddleboards are a really nice item for New Mexico. They don’t take a lot of space to store. It doesn’t take a lot of time to inflate them. And you don’t need any special equipment to haul them. You don’t need a truck, you don’t need a roof rack. I can put three or four complete kits in the trunk of a Honda Accord.”

Gontram, meanwhile, says NMRA just recently acquired a new fleet of SOL-brand inflatable paddleboards.

“We love them. They’re very stable, very stiff, compact,” he said. “We think they’re great.”

As far as finding a suitable spot to paddleboard, well, most any body of water can be fair game. Of course, the more ambitious and adventurous will be able to find the prime locations.

“I’m not gonna give you my favorite spot because it won’t be my favorite spot (any more), it’ll be everybody else’s favorite spot. … If you’re creative, you can find a place to paddle,” Spoores said.