Ben Friberg surfs the Ocoee River.
Ben Friberg is a veteran class V boater who helped spur creek boating exploration with the Total Vertical Feet Challenge, which had participants running steep rivers in an attempt to rack up the most vertical feet in a month. Now he’s traded his boat for a plastic surfboard, and is pushing the envelope of what can be done on a stand-up paddleboard in the Southern Appalachians.
When did you pick up SUP? About two years ago. It was addictive immediately, but it was tough to advance because not too many other people were running whitewater. I had to watch videos of people running western rivers on paddleboards to learn. But it’s a different scenario here in the South. Western rivers are deep. If you fall, there aren’t a lot of consequences. Here, if you fall, you’re hitting rocks.
What board do you use? The Imagine RapidFire is a 50-pound, stable, super fast plastic paddleboard which allows me to use rocks intentionally to move downriver.
Do you ever bother pulling out the kayak anymore? I still do some creek boating. But on any river that you can safely run on a paddleboard, I’ll take that over my boat. You’re surfing waves, running rapids. It demands every thought from you, which is what attracted me to kayaking in the first place. And the freedom is amazing. It’s the same feeling you get on a surfboard or skateboard.
What do your friends think of your transition to paddleboarding? Stand-up paddleboarding allows me to experience the river in a completely new way. Your head is six feet above the river, reading the water, seeing three moves ahead. When you see the moves and execute them the way you see them, there’s a feeling you get, similar to a surfer who carves a wave. It’s like when you first start kayaking and you know you finally have the skills to use the forces of nature to move you down river. You feel that energy. With the paddleboard I get to experience that all over again. Eventually, I think my veteran friends will make the switch, too.
You have some paddleboarding first descents to your name. Is there a limit to what these new boards can run? Definitely. You can’t really do creeks with a paddlebaord. And I don’t see anyone pushing class IV, not yet. Big drops are tough. I think big class III is the next horizon. Decent sized holes, small ledges, that sort of thing. I like the river running aspect of the paddleboard. The Nantahala is fun. The Hiwassee is fun. The Ocoee is amazing. But if you’re running a paddleboard on the Ocoee, it’s a class-V experience.
It’s such a new sport, do you see the design of boards changing drastically in the near future? They’re already changing. Surfing a river wave can be frustrating on a big board. Some guys are designing shorter seven-foot boards specifically for surfing. That’ll be interesting, but they probably won’t be stable enough to take down river. There’s one guy who’s experimenting with straps so he can roll the board. I’m playing with a slalom ski boot design. Basically, it’s a half-boot for my back foot that attaches to the board, which will allow me to blast ledges.