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SUP — first calm, then wild

Stand up paddleboarding in Salzburg’s Saalachtal valley

Stand up paddleboarding in Salzburg’s Saalachtal valley can get pretty wild — especially when the pros start hitting the Saalach river’s waves with their boards. But it can also be incredibly calm and relaxing — like when going for some paddleboarding up on the picturesque Almsee lake in Lofer’s mountain pasture region, where you can let your spirit roam free on the breathtaking, silent waters.

During the summer months, Toby Hüther, German vice champion in wild water SUP and ACA instructor, provides courses in stand up paddleboarding in Salzburg’s Saalachtal valley. What’s special about the courses: the first paddle strokes on the voluminous board are practiced high up in Lofer’s mountain pasture world, on a mountain lake amid the beautiful hiking region of Salzburg’s Saalachtal valley. And more experienced paddlers can join Toby on a river tour on the upper Saalach river.

SUP action on the mountain pasture

This unique combination between water sport and mountain experience has peaked my curiosity, and the summer temperatures are calling for some refreshing water fun anyway. So, time for some SUP action at the mountain lake I say. I meet Toby at the valley station of the mountain pasture world of Lofer, where he awaits the participants of the SUP course. I recognise him straight away, because he’s surrounded by big bags and paddles. Until our group is complete, he tells me about his passion for wild waters: “I actually started with the canoe sport and then discovered stand up paddleboarding on whitewater a couple of years later. And that’s also how I got to know the Saalach river, the perfect location for this sport. The river can be extremely demanding — like in the Teufelsschlucht canyon. But then it can also be completely tame, like at its upper part, where we do the beginner’s SUP course.” The last participants have now joined us and together we’re bringing the equipment to the gondolas. After a cosy ride up, we land in the middle of the mountain pasture world of Lofer. “And now for some hiking!”, announces Toby and we start marching away toward the Almsee lake, only a few minutes by foot from the mountain station.

© Salzburger Saalachtal Tourismus – Let’s go

Dry runs on land

Like a blue eye, the idyllic mountain lake lies amid the green mountain pastures and individual spruces surrounding the rocky shore look like eyelashes. The water surface is still as it reflects the gentle mountain slopes. “We’re about to set this calm water into motion,” laughs our guide as we begin to roll out our boards and inflate them with a hand pump. A small fleet of SUP boards is now positioned ready at the shore. But before we hit the lake, we have to master a couple of dry runs. We learn, for example, how to correctly hold the paddle and pull it through the water, how to stand on the board in a balanced way and we also receive some safety tips for our journey on the topic of wind and weather. And then it’s finally time! We pull the boards into the Almsee lake and take up our basic starting positions. As we had previously learned, we start out standing — the knees slightly bent, the upper body straight — in a shoulder-wide position in the centre of the board. What was rather easy on land suddenly got quite a bit more difficult on water. The board wobbles and I have a bit of trouble finding my balance at first. But I quickly manage to stabilise the SUP, stick my paddle into the water just before the tip of the board and pull it past my body. Effortlessly, I glide through the smooth water, and after a couple of paddle strokes I switch sides to prevent moving in a circle.

Everybody is fully engulfed in doing their forward motions, making the activity on the lake completely silent. Only the chirping of the birds and the light dips of the paddles can be heard. Slowly, we get more and more secure and agile with our paddles as we cruise over the water surface. Satisfied with our progress, Toby winks and gives us a new set of instructions. “In order to test your balance, we are now going to make some waves. Use your legs alternately to induce pressure on the sides of your board!” And there the silence promptly came to a halt, because the rhythmic knee movements immediately add momentum to the water surface. The waves create disturbances in the water and throw us SUP beginners out of balance. With a loud splash, we fall into the water, one after another, and dive back up again laughing and puffing. “That’s just a little taste of what’s to come in the whitewater,” Toby says with a grin, adding, “any of you can partake in tomorrow’s tour on the Saalach river, if you’re interested.” The entire group gets excited by the suggestion and so we practice a couple more important manoeuvres for the river tour.

Into the Saalach river’s whitewater

The next day, we meet with Toby on the Saalach river’s upper section. Here, the river shimmers in an emerald green and not one little bit of foam is visible. Thick wetsuits, swimming vests and helmets complete our equipment for this tour. With a sigh of relief, I realise that there doesn’t seem to be too much going on in terms of wild rapids and mighty boulders! Toby laughs and says, “Such wild segments are left to the pros! On the World Cup track in Lofer, for example, things get a little crazier. This year, the Lofer-Rodeo will be taking place on this legendary slalom track between 16 and 17 September. You can join as a spectator and watch the best kayakers and SUP water athletes up close from the river bank of the Saalach river.” We pull our boards into the water and immediately feel the force of the current dragging us. Thanks to our balancing practice on the day before, we feel very secure on our SUP boards and enjoy the ride across the Saalach river. And due to the upright position on the board, you get an amazing view and can look far ahead in the director of the river course.

Half way, we take a break and pull our boards to the shore. It feels pretty good to have solid ground under your feet again, even if just briefly, because the need to constantly balance against the little waves requires strenuous muscle activity. We also take the opportunity to shake out our arms. Even though the current is dragging us along rather gently, countless paddle strokes are necessary to correct the course and to circumnavigate small obstacles.  But in comparison to the dangerously wild segments that the pros go on, our route is but a cosy ride on a rocking horse. I warm myself in the heat of the sun and take a big look across the Saalach river. Everything here is in motion and the current, getting caught by a rock at the bank, makes the water foam like sparkling champagne. “How quiet it was yesterday at the calm mountain lake, and how alive the water is today,” I think to myself, as Toby signals that it’s time to get back to the water again after our quick break. We pull the boards back on the water and let ourselves drift further down the river.

As we continue paddling across the Saalach river to our exit point, I mentally mark the Lofer Rodeo between 16 and 17 September in my calendar. I definitely want to be part of it this year and see the pros show off their SUP skills at the SUP Cross, in single rides or on the long distance rides on the wild waves of the Saalach river.

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