Water is in my nose. It’s in my eyes, a wave surging up and over my head. I am on my belly on a riverboard, hands clenching rubber grips, feet kicking to right a craft that is twisting sideways down a whitewater chute.
It is a hot day. I am in Banning State Park in central Minnesota, navigating a whitewater flume where the Kettle River pinches down inside a gorge of stone. “Eddy out at the right!” shouts a friend, an exit strategy called out from the river’s edge.
Riverboarding is a growing whitewater sport that involves running rapids in a prone position with a boogie-board-like craft. Participants kick and swim through big water and off drops, outfitted head to toe with fins, helmet, a wetsuit, life vest, and knee pads to protect from rocks.
In lieu of a boat, the sport’s namesake boards — beefy, customized platforms with handles, “brace grooves” for your arms, and buoyant builds — offer protection and maneuverability when the water gets rough.
Riverboarding has garnered a small but dedicated following in the United States, said Josh Galt, founder of FaceLevel.com, an online publication that covers the sport. Galt said about 1,000 people regularly participate around the world and compete in events. Last year, the U.S. Riverboarding World Championships were held on the Payette River in Idaho.
In Colorado, California, West Virginia, and Montana, whitewater guiding companies offer riverboarding trips. Clients learn on mellow water and work up to torrential rapids as high as class IV. Galt estimates that more than 500 people per year pay a guide for the experience.
In many states, despite numerous rapid-laden rivers and streams, riverboarding remains at the whitewater fringe. This is true in Minnesota, my home state.
Pete Curtis of St. Paul was initiated into the sport of riverboarding in 2006 on the Green River in Utah, where towering desert walls funneled a river on a nine-mile stretch. More recently, on the Gallatin River in Montana, Curtis negotiated a torrential run of holes, drops, and standing whitewater waves — all racing by with a river at flood level. “There was almost no time to prepare — it was mostly letting the river take me downstream and trying to avoid the worst of it,” he said.
Despite the potential drama, Curtis said people intimidated by fast water might feel more in control on a riverboard than a kayak. “You’ve got at least 50 pounds of flotation and your center of gravity is below the waterline, so you’re quite stable and can easily bounce off obstacles or the face of a standing wave,” he said.
On my trip down Minnesota’s Kettle River, standing waves and flood currents were not an issue. A rain had brought the river level up enough to be navigable, but it was moderately low. A friend and I met with Curtis and Mark Bedenbender, another area ‘boarder, for an afternoon session. “Keep scooted up on the board,” Bedenbender instructed as I pushed off.
We were below the main put-in at Banning State Park, where a large sign warns “VERY DANGEROUS RAPIDS NEXT 2 MILES.” Indeed, the proceeding named rapid sets — including Blueberry Slide, Dragon’s Tooth, and Hell’s Gate — are among the most infamous in the state.
Our group had a pair of kayaks and a pair of boards, and we switched disciplines throughout the day. Stanley Barton, my friend and a first-time riverboarder, ran multiple laps on a rapid to get a feel for the sport. He began by swimming into calm water, then nudging his board into the flow for a fast ride downstream.
Barton bumped over waves and was tossed between rocks, the board rocketing like a sled. His feet kicked to steer, and he fought to stay in control. “You need to have a level of submissiveness,” Barton said. “You really do have to go with the flow.”
I suited up and borrowed Bedenbender’s board for a run. The pool above Blueberry Slide was calm and quiet, a deceptive pause before the river turned and broke, its cascade skirting a wall of overhanging stone.
The riverboard bounced under my body, rocks bumping my feet dangling behind. I kicked and surfed through the bubbles and froth, the Kettle’s brown water pouring madly away.
The current sucked me sideways and I caught an eddy, the board spinning around and safe. I took a breath and looked out to the waves. Then I kicked off, the board snagging fast water, and I peeled back into the flow, on my belly, to do it all over again.