It was about 32 degrees on Kenai’s North Beach when the three carried their paddles and boards through the shore-fast ice to the edge of Cook Inlet. A big sun sat low in the sky.
“She only (stand-up paddle boards) because I force her,” Kelly Williams said.
“She’s the one that got me interested,” said her sister-in-law, Nadia Daggett, of Nikiski. She prefers surfing, she said, but she is making due with paddle boarding.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Williams, of Kenai, said. “The community — everybody wants to get you involved.”
The third person with them, wearing a blue drysuit and baseball cap, was Perry Solmonson, Nikiski resident and co-owner of Sound Paddler, a kayak and stand-up paddle board outfitter in Whittier.
It was Solmonson, Williams said, that “set the fire” under her. He paddled the Russian River in early February.
The three slapped their boards into the water. Solmonson strapped his leash to his ankle and they pushed out, their boards bobbing as they cut through the waves.
Stand-up paddle boarding is a growing adventure sport in the Lower 48, Solmonson said, but, like all trends, it is catching on slower in Alaska. In a few years, though, he said, he expects the boards to be toted around on the Kenai Peninsula as commonly as cross-country skis.
All it takes, he said, is a nudge, like how Daggett picked it up from Williams. People see the boards on the beaches or on the top of cars, and they become curious, he said.
Then they just need the board, paddle, life jacket and drysuit or wetsuit, he said. With the gear — an about $1,000 investment — almost anyone can participate in the sport, said Scott Dickerson, owner of Surf Alaska in Homer.
“You have adrenaline junkies that get into it and the 67-somethings who get into it,” Dickerson said.
While Williams is still new to the sport, she said she began paddle boarding because she needed the “next adventure.” She has mountain biked, hiked and competed in races, but paddle boarding was new to her.
Now her life revolves around the tides, she said. She is even trading her car in for a truck to better accommodate her paddle board, she said.
“We live in God’s country,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you (stand-up paddle board)? There’s so much to explore.”
On Williams’ first trip out in Cook Inlet — her “maiden voyage” — she heard whales. And out in the ocean with her friends, she uncorked a bottle of champagne and they shared it. She also paddled up to a chunk of ice, considered boarding it, but thought better, she said.
Already she has a core posse of other women she paddles with, but she hopes the sport’s popularity will grow, she said.
Dickerson agreed with Solmonson — it will grow. Already he has sold 150 paddle boards to Girdwood and Anchorage paddlers, he said.
“Everyone I grew up with in Homer said ‘don’t go in the water; you’re going to die,’” Dickerson said.
He said that mentality has kept many rivers, lakes and bays relatively unexplored. But wetsuit technology is improving.
“Now in Alaska you can fall into the water and laugh and get back on your board,” he said.
It sounds simple, he said, but the technology is changing the cold-water-kills paradigm that he grew up with.
“The reason Alaska has so much potential is there’s all this water that hasn’t been explored,” he said.
Back by the beach, Solmonson paddled to the shore, stepped off and lifted his board from the water.
The mountains across the inlet had cut the sun in half, and Williams and Daggett paddled into the orange, purple and blue sunset.
Out in the ocean, they were dark shapes on their boards.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.