18 Mile SUP Paddle down the Charles River!

On May 20th, 2008 Trip Forman, Zack Johnson, Jeff Soderberg, CJ Walton and Kevin Houlker were the first to standup paddle from Charles River Canoe and Kayak in Newton down the Charles River to Downtown Boston, a stretch of approximately 18 miles. The Charles River is known around the world for collegiate sailboat racing, rowing (the famous “Head of the Charles” Regatta), and other waterborne or waterfront activities and scenery. With such a rich aquatic heritage, this seemed the perfect place for standup paddleboarding to make official long distance debut in the New England area. The equipment of choice for this trip was the Jimmy Lewis All Around Standup Paddleboards in the 10’6 and 11’ sizes. These boards were perfect for both covering long distances and navigating through boiling rapids and waterfalls! Below, CJ Walton, a resident of Milton, Massachusetts, graduate of Harvard University and currently working at MIT, (he obviously has some local knowledge!) recounts the recent standup paddleboarding adventure down the Charles River…..

…Over the years, I’ve taken many memorable “sessions” with Trip Forman. But this had to be one of the all-time most unforgettable and enjoyable sessions ever! Back-up a moment to the previous Friday when I received a call at my office in Boston, “CJ, are you interested in joining us for a standup paddle on the Charles River this Monday?” Followed by “maybe we’ll go all the way from Newton to downtown Boston!” I immediately sensed Trip’s enthusiasm, but had to take a moment to think about this offer. I recently vacationed in Cape Hatteras where my wife tried standup paddling and instantly loved the sport. As soon as my wife described her standup adventure and how much fun she had, I knew I had to try it. Thus I was eager to join Trip here in Boston, though standup paddling the Charles from Newton all the way to downtown Boston was about 18 miles or more. This was not quite the famous Boston Marathon route, but I was already starting to feel a bit challenged! The route also meant portaging (taking your boat or board out of the river an carrying it downstream until the river s safe again) over a bridge and around a dam, as well as carefully navigating or portaging around some shallow locations along the river. Last but not least, the forecast for that day was a west wind at 20 mph gusting over 30! A westerly direction meant the wind would be blowing strong and straight down the river, favorably at our backs. My first impulse was to pass on what seemed a standup eco-challenge or a session fit for an episode of Survivor. However, after some thought, I decided this sounded like a unique opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up!

Monday afternoon I arrived at the historic Newton boathouse, home to the well-known Charles River Canoe & Kayak Center. The Center’s owners and staff were enthusiastic to see and try standup paddleboarding. Two of REAL’s coaches, Zack Johnson and Jeff Soderbergh were on-hand giving introductory lessons to all the staff. It was impressive to see how fast the participants took to the sport and with Zack and Jeff’s friendly instruction, they were immediately paddling on the river and stoked! Meanwhile I tried talking Trip into starting our paddle further down-river toward Boston, and without portages over bridges and dams! Trip, however, was fully determined to go the distance and welcomed the adventure of anything the river presented along the way. I bought in, and quickly did some distance and time calculations. I figured this was going to be a four-hour trip and being late afternoon already, we wouldn’t arrive Boston until after dark. Though I also knew there would be a full moon to help us see at night, and added to the appeal of this adventure.

With a few pointers from Jeff and watching Trip launch, I jumped from the dock onto a new JL 11’ All Around SUP board. I half-expected to go flying off, but figured “what-the-heck” I may as well start such a momentous first standup session with flair, even if it meant falling in! To my surprise the board had great stability, I landed perfectly and immediately followed Zack, Trip, Jeff and Kevin (a childhood friend of Jeff’s and also new to standup) and started paddling downriver. My first sensation was how easy it was. The second sensation was how good it felt. I had done some kayaking in the past and really enjoyed it. However this was different; in kayaking you sit low and “roll” your paddle shallowly side to side. On the standup I was using my entire body, especially balancing using the strength of my legs and middle-core, as I leaned forward pushing (and pulling) the paddle to one side and deeper through the water. I was also seeing the water and surroundings from a higher vantage point. The board was also very stable and smooth through the water. I attributed some of the smoothness to the flat water we were paddling at the start (though having owned and ridden many Jimmy Lewis kiteboards, I honestly wasn’t surprised there would also be some “magic” in JL’s standup designs).

We paddled and glided through the upper section of the river, known as the flat-water Lakes section of the Charles. This part of the river is perhaps the most serene, and contains many bends and turns. With little wind here and butter-flat water, we easily cruised through this section. I made a game of taking curves like a racecar, trying to pick a straight line through the twists and bends. Sometimes a slight adjustment was needed to trim for a slight gust of wind or current. I was already having a blast and had a big smile as we continued paddling. It was also sunny and warm here and I was starting to wish I wore surf trunks instead of a wetsuit. After a few miles we approached our first portage, the Moody Street Dam and Bridge in Waltham. We all managed a successful landing before the Dam and pulled the boards onto the dock. Immediately we could feel the wind change here, and knew we would be dealing with a lot of wind blowing down the river from this point on. As we considered our portage over and around the dam, we noticed a huge sign on the building next to us advertising for Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant. We weren’t hungry but stopping for a few “Irish Car Bomb” shots seemed somehow appropriate before we continued on. Without any hesitation we entered the bar, and standing there in our dripping wetsuits during post work “happy hour” crowds, we all did shots and had our picture taken by the bartender. If I had any reservations about coming along on this trip, I left that bar knowing it would have been a mistake to miss this unique exploit!

Before our adventure could continue we had to get our boards across the Moody Street Bridge. Logistically this should not have been too difficult as each person simply carries their board and paddle, and these boards are very light for their size. However with the wind gusting around 25mph over the bridge, plus rush hour car and pedestrian traffic, portaging an 11’ surfboard and paddle sideways against the wind was tricky. The cars all stopped for me, though pedestrians strangely did not. They were actually pretty reserved, and if they thought we were kind of kooky to be in wetsuits and carrying large standup surfboards over the Bridge, they politely didn’t laugh at us (well we probably got some stares and smiles). I carefully held onto my board, waiting for each gust, and managed my way across without incident. We walked a bit further and decided to put in just after the Dam. This may not have been the best location, as the water level and bottom terrain was unknown, though I don’t recall if we had too many options at that point. I watched as Jeff, Kevin and Trip all went through a narrow and sketchy underpass. There were a lot of rocks after the Dam and so we carefully walked the boards through the shallow water. The next mile or so continued to be fairly shallow and very challenging. Trip, Zach and Jeff paddled fin-first and on their knees to keep the fin from being damaged on rocks. I didn’t want to risk any damage to the board and carefully walked the “sketchiest” sections. Some of the funniest moments came here. For example, Trip tried riding fin-first over a small waterfall and rapids section and just as he started over, hit something hard on the bottom and yelled out “Oh boy, I think I just hit a car!” Another moment was Jeff finding a soccer ball in the river, which quickly turned into a new sport of “standup paddle soccer”. I was very impressed with Jeff and Trip’s paddle passing skills, as well as Trip’s ability to continuously paddle the ball onto his board and kick it to Jeff!

Eventually the river opened up again and we hit deep water. And because the curve of the Charles River was so long for miles around Waltham, we ironically found ourselves entering back into Newton! Everyone seemed a bit confused, and perhaps for the first time we started feeling the distance paddled and distance yet to go. Trip asked how much further and I just said “far, we’re about halfway”. This was where we had to start making some time, and I focused on my paddling to maximize power and efficiency. I actually welcomed the strong wind now, since it was behind and helping push me. I was starting to get a bit tired, but nothing really ached. I got into a rhythm, and even conserved energy at one point by kneeling and paddling. Then with more strong gusts coming, I stood up to maximize the wind assistance and doubled my speed downriver. Eventually we arrived in Brighton, and started to be joined on the river by Boston area high school and collegiate rowing crew teams out for practice. Each boat would stop briefly and point and wave at us. Then as we rounded the last bend before Cambridge and Harvard University, I knew we were almost to the end and that the urban scene would perhaps be the most exciting part of our trip.

We arrived in Cambridge at dusk. For anyone who has ever been on or along a river at dusk, and particularly the stretch of the Charles River from Harvard to MIT, you know it’s a scenic and enchanting time. Boathouses and buildings on both sides of the river, from the magnificent architecture of Harvard Business School on one side, to all the individual upper-class dorms with their uniquely colored bell towers on the other, were lit like jewels along the river. Many people walking and jogging along the river waved to us, and took pictures with cell phones as we passed under the JFK Memorial Bridge. We were nearing Boston now, and with only two more bridges to go, we took a brief break at the Boston University boathouse to take in what we had accomplished and to plan where we would land and exit the river. We soon pushed off again on our final leg and passed under the Boston University Bridge, where we seemingly left any twilight we still had on the other side. As we entered the BU area we paddled mostly by the light of all the buildings along the river. Downtown Boston was now clearly ahead and we could easily make out famous landmarks, such as the Citgo sign and the huge bright lights of Fenway Park (where Red Sox pitcher, and cancer survivor, John Lester was at that very moment on his way to pitching a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals!).

As we approached the final Mass Ave bridge I told Trip we should see a full moon rise any moment, ascending ahead and just behind some of the tallest buildings in the city. As we passed under the bridge and at last entered the Charles River Basin and Esplanade area (host to the annual Boston Pops 4th of July concert and fireworks), a full moon ascended as if on cue. As if this entire trip was exciting enough, the perfectly timed full moon rising over the Boston city skyline was the grand finale, icing on the cake ! All five of us gathered around for pictures and “high fives” to celebrate the moment. It was truly spectacular. We paddled into the Basin under the moonlight and headed toward the MIT side of the river where we had planned our exit. The striking MIT quadrangle and dome were lit up, as well as the MIT boathouse, their dock bustling with activity as folks participated in the customary monthly moonlight sailing program. Crossing quiet paths with the sailboats at night, under the light of the full moon and with the full view of the city skyline, is another scene I will never forget from this trip. We paddled further along and made our final landing at a private boathouse where Trip’s cousin (and Boston resident) Lou graciously offered to pick us all up.

The entire trip had taken just a little over four hours, and was some of the most amazing time I’ve ever spent on the water. I was somewhat surprised how energized I still felt. I had expected I’d be tired from paddling the distance. However, my JL 11’ All Around board was very comfortable and stable, even going downriver in the heaviest wind swell, and the paddling was not at all difficult. On my way to work the following morning, I drove my regular route over the Charles River and by the boathouse where we landed the night before. I could feel the physical strength from the great workout that standup gives you. And I couldn’t help having a huge smile as I looked up river and remembered every insanely fun part of my first urban standup paddle session!

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