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SUP, Great Lakes?

Stand up paddleboarding is the latest sports trend to hit the Great Lakes. One pioneering woman is helping it create a ripple effect.

Photography by Warren Won

Robin Pacquing is riding waves this summer, but she’s not heading to the seaside. She’s spending her time in Ontario on the Great Lakes.

Since the early-2000s, the 36-year-old real estate agent has been passionate about a new and growing sport, stand up paddle­boarding (SUP), which has been gaining momentum steadily in the Great Lakes area. She’s surfed the big waves of Hawaii, California and the East Coast but was attracted by serene nature of SUP.

SUP is a combination of surfing and canoeing, where paddlers stand on boards and propel themselves through the water using a paddle. It originated on the beaches of Waikiki in the 1950s as a way for surf instructors to maneuver through the water and keep an eye on their students. Since then it’s been growing in popularity across North America.

“A lot of my friends are paddle boarders and surfers,” says Pacquing. “We’ve all shared our stories and pushed and encouraged each other to do it. It’s non-competitive, unless you’re racing, but a lot of times you’re racing yourself—like, can I beat my last time?”

It’s that self-paced, laid-back approach to exploring the lakes that inspired Pacquing to get involved with SUP almost eight years ago to supplement her love of surfing. She’s paddled on many lakes including Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, though her favourite spot is about five minutes from her childhood home in Long Branch, Toronto.

“When you’re paddling around this one point, you see the entire Toronto skyline,” she says. “It’s weird because I’ll be paddling alone, but I can see the entire city and no one in the city can see me. It’s a fantastic view.”

SUP allows you to observe gorgeous views in a calming way. It’s also a great way to stay in shape. SUP offers a full-body workout and can help to tone and strengthen the arms, legs and core. “You can make it as vigorous as you want and you’re working out your entire body,” says Pacquing.

With benefits like that, the number of women like Pacquing interested in SUP is growing in the Toronto area. To accommodate this increasing demand, many SUP programs have popped up, and Pacquing has sailed along with the trend. She co-­founded Ladies of The Lakes, an initiative to bring together the growing number of women discovering the joy of SUP on the lower Great Lakes; it’s a way to learn, grow and experience the activity in a more communal way.

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“It’s empowering because women are finding their own niche in the sport; they’re training hard or just having fun and they’re doing it in their own way,” says Pacquing. “They’re taking their kids and dogs with them—they’re racing and pushing themselves to go faster and longer distances. With that versatility, women who want to pick up SUP can achieve whatever they want to achieve. It’s really endless.”

Versatility is exactly what Pacquing is incorporating into her life. She is a career-woman, girlfriend and practically a step-mom of two; balancing these aspects of her life is not as stressful as you would think thanks to her live-in-the-moment attitude.

“I don’t know how I do it—I just do,” says Pacquing, laughing. “I don’t have a set schedule. If you ask me what I’m doing next week at 4 o’clock I have no idea—every­thing is kinda on the fly. I train whenever I can. If the surf is up I’ll just go and do it. If I have work to do I’ll go and do it, but I’ll admit some things fall on the wayside when the surf is up. Sometimes I’ll just choose the activity or training over the things that are supposed to make me money.”

According to a 2015 paddlesports report, the number of people participating in SUP has increased every year since 2010 and 2.8 million people in the USA have already jumped on board. With over 100 participants joining her Ladies of the Lakes organization, Pacquing is a pioneer in Ontario’s female SUP world. She says she’s happy to spread the word about SUP, and takes pride in the amount of work she has been putting in over the years. “I’ve had my ups and downs with this sport, physically and mentally, and no matter what I never quit. No matter what I was going through, this was the thing that grounded me.”

If SUP’s popularity stays on the rise, Canadians are going to be seeing a lot more paddle boards out on all kinds of water. It’s an ideal time to try the sport.

“The Great Lakes are the perfect place for it because we have the means, people have the money and people are searching for something to do that is different,” Pacquing says. “I hope that one day it’s not as surpris­ing to be on one. I think eventually it will become as commonplace as canoeing. Maybe not as Canadian as canoeing, but it’ll be just as versatile.”

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Uploaded by Brandon Young