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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rich Landers: Stand-up paddleboarder conquers 31-mile length of Idaho’s biggest lake in 6.5 hours

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

A 31-mile water route up Lake Pend Oreille stood out to stand-up paddleboarder Jason Hershey as a challenge reminiscent of the Hawaiian Islands where he used to live, work and play.

“That’s the distance between Molokai and Oahu and a famous annual race for outrigger canoes with a newer division for SUP athletes,” he said.

But it was with little fanfare and no fame that Hershey launched at Bayview in the dark on Saturday at 4 a.m. and arrived at the Sandpoint City Beach at 10:30 a.m.

“I told my son and parents that I’d see them around noon, and I beat my expectation,” he said of his spirited competition with himself.

Scattered through the 6.5-hour unsupported trip were about 20 minutes of brief stops to drink veggie smoothies he’d prepared and to refresh his feet.

“It’s good to let your feet and legs recover from time to time by sitting and hanging them over the board or getting off in shallow water and wading a bit on the rocks,” he said.

Other than that, he stayed pure to the “stand-up” in SUP by never kneeling or sitting as he paddled, even when his body became a counterproductive “sail” in the breeze.

“The route from Bayview to Sandpoint is like a backward C,” he said. “You go east then north then west. When you paddle the length of Pend Oreille, if there’s any wind at all, you’re going to get screwed sooner or later.”

Indeed, his previous attempt to paddle Idaho’s largest lake was scuttled after winds knocked him off his board in the early morning darkness.

“This time I chose a calm day over the Labor Day weekend, but between mile 13 and mile 19 I still encountered this weird morning wind that comes down the Clark Fork River. There’s nothing like a headwind on a paddleboard to kill your confidence.”

Hershey, 45, has a chiseled muscular body to go with a background that has bred faith in his abilities.

Born in Spokane and raised in New Guinea before moving to Hawaii and becoming a beach boy on Waikiki, he eventually taught sailing and worked steering big outrigger canoes for groups. Incidentally, he’s also a reggae musician focused on Pacific Island music under the name O-SHEN. Some of his songs are sung in the native dialects of Papua New Guinea, an island nation where he’s been a celebrity.

“I had the privilege of being super early into stand-up paddleboarding before there were factory-made SUP boards or paddles,” he said. “We were using the biggest surf boards we could find and discovering the sport. It was something we did when the waves were too small for good surfing. We turned a lot of heads back then.”

Stand-up paddleboarding is a totally different sport than the much older “paddleboarding,” in which people lie prone and propel the board with their hands. The term paddleboarding, a favorite sport of ocean lifeguards, often is misused for the newer sport of SUP, he said.

Some 25 years ago, Hershey had friends who were the first to rent SUPs on Waikiki Beach. “The word spread and pretty soon every bench on Waikiki was renting SUPs,” he said. “Almost suddenly, we weren’t a bunch of weirdos as SUP boomed into the biggest water sport in the world. I don’t think there’s a beach resort on the planet that doesn’t have SUPs.

“When I go back to Hawaii and SUP, every now and then someone will say something like, ‘Hey, you’re the first guy I ever saw doing that back then.’ ”

When he returned to Spokane to live on family property north of town, he parlayed his skills into snowboarding in winter and challenging the region’s freshwaters during summer. In 2017, he SUPed the length of Priest Lake, 20.2 miles, in 4 hours, 45 minutes, including rest breaks.

Hershey has not competed in the Molokai 2 Oahu race, but he’s SUPed across the channel as part of an unofficial relay.

“Those ocean racers have the advantage of support, wind at their backs and swells that roll up and enable the paddler to surf the swells for 30 or 40 yards at a time,” he said. “There’s a lot of skill and strategy involved in riding ocean swells.

“In a lake you don’t get those advantages. You’re stroking the whole way. And I was totally unsupported between dropoff and the end.”

Lake Pend Oreille offered certain advantages, such as having a shoreline with geographic features to help gauge his progress for motivation. He stayed focused by paddling to a point and then to another point, achieving small goals all the way. Efficient paddling technique incorporates power from the body core.

“Both arms remain kind of straight, not bent at the elbow,” he said.

Leg strength also is important for long-distance SUP, as you’re standing and continuously flexing knees to maintain balance, especially in rough water.

“If I see a boat coming, I adjust my stance more sideways like a surfer and then as the wake goes by, I go back to a more parallel stance with one foot just inches ahead of the other.”

Hershey hydrated by sucking down two liters of water in the dark before launching. His minimal supplies were carried in a small drybag with a flat bottom on the board ahead of his feet.

“I tried to drink a liter of water every 10 miles and had some smoothies I’d prepared filled with chia seeds and lots of plants. The idea was to have mostly liquid snacks so I didn’t have to take time to chew. This got the calories I needed into my system quicker.”

Hershey has different boards for different paddling situations. The SUP he chose for Pend Oreille is 14 feet long and a skinny 24 inches wide.

“Everybody says it looks cool,” he said, “but most people can’t stay on the thing for more than a few seconds. It’s almost like being on a slackline. The muscles in your legs are always working to balance. It really cuts through the water, but you can’t relax if you stop like you can on a regular board. A racing board wants to move. Stability comes with forward motion.”

Standing up has an advantage over kayakers who sit closer to water level – you can see down into the water.

“I saw some big water movements from very large fish,” he said, recounting his wildlife sightings on Pend Oreille. “Above that, the moonlight behind my back was epic! The blazing orange, smoky sunrise, too.”

Boat traffic was virtually nil until the last stretch near Sandpoint and most of the boaters kept their distance, he said.

“Early morning is so quiet and absolutely peaceful being in the middle of that big lake in the dark and moving along with human power.”

Since he first paddled the 20-mile length of Priest Lake in 2017, he’s repeated the trip “a bunch of times,” he said. He’s also paddled 100 miles of the Pend Oreille River from Sandpoint to Boundary Dam in segments.

“I think my next big trip will be over 30 miles on Priest Lake from Coolin to the north end of Upper Priest Lake,” he said. “And I have my eye on paddling the length of Lake Coeur d’Alene, although avoiding boat traffic may be harder there than on the other big lakes. Boat waves don’t knock me off, but you have to wait for them on a narrow, tippy racing board.”

Hershey proudly notes that his solo journeys are fueled without eating meat, dairy and poultry.

“My daily life and all of my athletic endeavors have been powered by plants,” he said. “That’s given me an edge, for sure.”