Sarah Traven thinks she’s discovered the ultimate place to unwind: atop a stand-up paddleboard on Midwest rivers and lakes. “Water just calms you down,” she says. “Especially these days, when we’re all so go-go-go-go-go, it’s nice to just leave your stress on the shore and detach.”
Sarah’s such a believer in paddleboarding, in fact, that she and her husband launched SJ Paddle Boards (sjpaddleboards.com) to sell boards tailored to the Midwest. The start-up keeps Sarah busy (“It’s still a small company, so I wear most of the hats”), but she took a break to tell us more about her business—and why the Midwest is perfect for paddleboarding enthusiasts.
Paddleboarding on Lake Michigan in Indiana Dunes State Park (Photo courtesy of SJ Paddle Boards)
Made with the Midwest in mind.
Sarah and her family fell in love with SUPing in San Diego several years ago. But when she and her husband wanted to buy a board, they realized they had no space for an 11-foot board in their Chicago condo. The answer: inflatable boards.
Inflatables are easier to store and transport than traditional boards. “On the coast, everyone’s got roof racks for their surfboards because they can be out on the water all year long,” Sarah says. “That doesn’t work here. Rather than figuring out how to tie three boards to the roof, it’s just easier to throw them into a truck.” They’re easy to inflate, too; a hand pump can fill one up in three to five minutes.
But not just any inflatable would do for Sarah. She felt she could design and market a sturdier inflatable than those already available, and SJ Paddle Boards was born.
Tougher than you think.
Early inflatable paddleboards were squishy and sank. Sarah and her husband spent a year testing prototypes before deciding on their design Oscar, which uses the same technology as Navy Seal Zodiac boats. “If you were to push your finger into it, it would not leave a dent,” Sarah says. “It can bump into the rocks and it’s fine. You can put a dog on the front, and its nails aren’t going to puncture anything.”
Oscar deflated and rolled up; hiking through the Indiana Dunes State Park, Oscar in tow (Photos courtesy of SJ Paddle Boards)
An honorary member of the family.
The Travens were raising two sons while they were designing the board. “I knew that if I had another boy, I wanted to name him Oscar. So when we chose that final design, I was like ‘Oh, this paddleboard can be my third baby!’” (Sarah is now expecting a girl in August).
Sarah’s business is expanding just like her family: She’s developing child-size boards.
Our apologies to the coasts.
SUPing is better in the Midwest. “Ideal conditions are flat water,” Sarah says. “On the coast, you have to deal with the waves.” She recommends avoiding windy days if you’re venturing onto a big lake. Rivers are safe as long as you stay away from areas with dams or rapids.
Midwest paddleboarding (clockwise from top left): Lake Michigan in Door County, Wisconsin; Fox River in Geneva, Illinois; Rocky River in Ohio; Harbor Springs, Michigan (Photos courtesy of SJ Paddle Boards)
A bucket-list experience.
This summer, SJ Paddle Boards partnered with Mill Race Cyclery (millrace.com) in Geneva, Illinois, to offer paddleboard rentals as well as SUP yoga and private lessons. If you don’t want to buy a board (the Oscar runs about $1,400 regularly or about $900 on sale), rentals—available at many lakes across the Midwest—are an affordable alternative ($15 per hour at Mill Race).
“Paddleboarding is something that everybody seems to have on their bucket list,” says Bruce Heidlauf, owner of Mill Race Cycerly, which also rents bicycles and kayaks. “They all come back with a smile and say they’re going to do it again.”
Just plain good for you.
Balancing on a SUP board engages your core, and paddling works your arms. But it’s also relatively low impact. “It’s a sport where you can decide how relaxing or strenuous you want it to be,” Sarah says. “You’re toning and strengthening, but there’s also that quality of detaching and being out in nature.”
The Traven family; a little girl joins the bunch in August (Photo courtesy of Kelly Vanderploeg Photography)