Tranquility of winter paddleboarding

If you’re allowing your paddleboard to hibernate through the winter, it’s time to consider waking it. Extending your standup paddling season only takes a bit of planning, proper clothing and a break in the weather.

According to the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nev., winter storms walloped Tahoe with the seventh wettest January in 114 years of record keeping — and we were only halfway through the month. Storms were lining up and several feet of snow was forecast for the rest of the week. But there was one day between storms when the sun broke through and the wind waited for me to attempt my first winter SUP experience.

Author Lisa Michelle on the waters of Lake Tahoe at Zephyr Cove.

I pulled into the Zephyr Cove parking lot around 1 p.m. Half the lot was closed and parking was difficult due to work crews demolishing the “Tahoe Queen.” Her paddlewheel was severed. I watched her decks being splintered by a massive excavator and felt nostalgic as I stretched on my wetsuit first and cold surf booties next.

The lake was tranquil. Surrounding me in every direction was the expanse of the mountains decorated by an epic snowfall. I paddled toward Cave Rock in treasured silence and solitude.

A foot of snow glazed the beach. I plowed through with my board in one hand and paddle in the other. Either I launched near the dock or kept walking past tourists questioning my sanity and taking my picture when they thought I wasn’t looking.

“It’s freezing out there,” said a woman bundled in a long black fur.

“Not really. Warmer than the 38-degree air temperature,” I said as I wrapped my leash around my leg. Lake Tahoe’s water temperature averages between 40 and 50 degrees in the winter.

Jay Valois, left, and Ernie Brassard enjoy standup paddleboarding on Lake Tahoe off Kings Beach. | Courtesy Ernie Brassard

I had checked the weather that morning, then rechecked the radar before leaving home. But, to be safe, I scanned the sky for threatening clouds. All was clear. The wind was still as I stepped into the frigid water and onto my board. I paddled with a small hydration backpack, making certain I had cleaned out anything that shouldn’t get wet. Access to water through a hose hanging at my chest is much more convenient and safer than digging out a bottle. If you are extremely susceptible to the cold, you can fill your reservoir with warm water, not hot, then place a few hand-warmers in a sock. Place the sock against the reservoir away from your back. Drinking warm water helps increase circulation and will aid in keeping you warm. Also stowed in my backpack were protein bars, a beanie and cell phone, all kept in plastic bags.

There were no boats, no jet skis and no wake boarders. The lake was tranquil. Surrounding me in every direction was the expanse of the mountains decorated by an epic snowfall. I paddled toward Cave Rock in treasured silence and solitude. The emerald water was as clear as ever, revealing a maze of rocks like ancient ruins and I wondered why I hadn’t paddled during winter before today.

Working up a sweat on a cold day can go from invigorating to exasperating in a hurry, but I kept myself comfortable in my 4/3mm wetsuit with a slow and steady pace. A dry suit is also an option. My neoprene surf booties are 2mm and better suited for Southern California waves than for Lake Tahoe in winter. My feet were cold, but not the miserable numb bricks that would make me reconsider going out. If purchasing booties for Tahoe, I recommend a thickness between 3 and 5mm. My hands were gloveless and only slightly chilled as I drifted to shore — eager for my next winter paddle.

“[A winter SUP experience] is magical,” says Ernie Brassard, founder of Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival. Without a doubt, I concur.


Safety tips
The best way to a successful winter SUP session is to personalize it with short, trial paddles. Find what works best for you. Remember, if you plan on falling in you will plan accordingly.

A PFD, personal flotation device, is required. According to the U. S. Coast Guard, SUP boards operated outside a surfing, swimming or bathing area are vessels under USCG regulations. While operating a vessel, standup paddlers older than age 13 must have a USCG-approved appropriate Type I, II, III or V life jacket. The Coast Guard does not require the vest to be worn, although it strongly recommends be attached to your board. A child younger than age 12 must wear his or her USCG-approved life jacket at all times.

  • Stay close to shore so you can get out of the water quickly if you need to.
  • There is safety in numbers. Paddle with friends and stay together. If you paddle alone, always let someone know your exact plans.
  • Don’t count on the weatherperson. Check conditions and familiarize yourself with your favorite spots.
  • Always wear your leash.
  • If water becomes choppy and you’re feeling tired or unstable, ride on your knees or sit down and paddle.
  • If you are inexperienced, go with an experienced paddler and stay close to shore.

By Lisa Michelle