Riding the Wave: Little Bay Paddleboards

Amanda Monthei

Paddleboard builder Jason Thelen shuffles over the concrete floor of his small woodshop near Petoskey, recounting the day he fell in love with paddleboarding. His feet are bare and his expression a perpetual smile as he stands amidst the nearly-finished paddleboards in his shop recalling the moment—standing on a borrowed paddleboard far off a beach he didn’t bother to name, with a Corona at his feet, the sun at his back, and the waves lapping at the base of the board.

“I was just sitting there and realizing that nobody knows anything about what is happening here, except me,” he said, moving about the shop. “And it sparked interest at that moment, that I could do this every morning—like if I could just have that little bit of a time out, everyday stressors would be like ‘eh, not a big deal, I’ll just go out on the paddleboard later.’”

A brief moment of synergy with the water beneath his feet was all it took. That was the feeling, the feeling he continues to pursue, the feeling that inspired his first board and the same one that continues to influence his paddle-able art.

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In the months after making his first board, Jason found that others liked that feeling too. Soon, strangers were gathering at his car outside the grocery store, waiting to ask him where he had gotten this beautiful wood board. Before long, people were honking at him at stoplights to ask where he got the board that was strapped to the top of his car. His paddleboards began getting attention, and so—in truly serendipitous fashion—Jason Thelen became a paddleboard maker in the “craziest, goofiest way possible.”

The opportunity to build paddleboards is, in Jason’s book, another wave to ride: the swell of a lifetime when your true love is water. And he intends to ride this one out as long as possible.

***

It was Ernest Hemingway who said the sea was the last free place on earth. In our case, it’s the inland seas that surround us, invoking those familiar feelings of mystery, fear and awe, feelings more often associated with the vast expanse of an open ocean. These emotions are difficult to conjure by motorized means; speedboats just don’t carry the same inherent connection to the water beneath us as paddling, sailing or swimming does. By self-propelled means, we are at the mercy of our environment, able then—and only then—to feel the undeniable power of the waves and the visceral significance of a strong west wind. 

In his workshop, Jason opts for bare feet, acknowledging that he doesn’t worry about stepping on something because he doesn’t use nails or sharp objects in the building of his boards (“and when I have bare feet, I’ll know when the floor needs cleaning”). The woodshop itself is fluorescently lit and covered on every surface by the mysterious dusts that accumulate in spaces like this.

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The workshop was originally Jason’s father’s, and remnants of his father’s presence are still scattered about. A refrigerator masked in political bumper stickers sits in the corner, and ‘80s era posters, their edges tattered and faded, dot the walls. The tools that line the workbenches are darkened with age, and the air inside the shop is crisp and cool—the result of a rainy August day—contributing to the sharp scent of freshly sanded cedar.

The skeleton of a half-finished board sits on one table. Another table is occupied by Jason’s very first board, beaten and bruised since its humble creation, having been used as a “slide, table and dance floor” while also logging some serious hours on Lake Michigan under the feet of his young daughters. After all that use, “it’s just in need of a little shine.” Jason’s hollow-wood boards are built to withstand much more than what his two daughters could possible put it through, and this particular board, after a little shine, is nowhere close to retirement. Because his boards are made for not only exploration and enjoyment but also admiration for their aesthetic beauty, Jason said there is no straightforward use for them. A dance floor, a picnic table, a paddleboard or a wall decoration—no matter the medium, these boards perform and endure.

Natural materials and virtually indestructible products aside, Jason aims to take Hemingway’s philosophy a step further, albeit inadvertently. We may be most free when at sea, but what’s the point of experiencing our water—this beautiful substance by which we can attribute our existence—from an unnatural or gas powered vessel? 

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***

It’s hard for Jason to define the feeling that riders often associate with his boards, but it’s a feeling unparalleled in the paddleboard industry—and without the experience to speak for itself, it’s nearly impossible to define. But we can try.

At a certain speed, riders begin to feel the vibrations of the water, of the waves meeting the board’s base. They can feel the reverberation in their feet, knees, mind, almost like the board is echoing the rhythm of the heart. This ethereal calmness offers a glimpse at Jason’s obsession, the foundation of which is hardly questionable given his background and personal experiences as a child grown on the edge of freshwater seas.

Like most who call Petoskey or the Great Lakes home, Jason—a direct descendant of Chief Petoskey and still known by many locals as ‘Chief’s Son’—has a deep connection to the lakes that have defined him since a young age. He speaks of their bays and beaches from a point of intense familiarity, sometimes calling them not by their given names but by their existence relative to their surroundings. As an example, Little Traverse Bay is referred instead as The Little Bay—the namesake of his paddleboard business, inscribed in children’s foam letters on a small wooden plank on the outside of the woodshop. A few days after I speak with him in his shop, I’m offered the opportunity to explore and paddleboard along Walloon Lake’s shoreline with him. He later observed that the tree line in certain bays, uninterrupted by cottages and docks, still reflects into the clear waters of Walloon. The guy has a knack for the natural. 

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And Petoskey’s influence on Jason doesn’t end at adventures on the lake. Every element of what he does is inspired by the freshwater he grew up on, where he now watches his children grow.

“You’re never more than six miles away from paddle-able water [in Petoskey],” he says. “It’s always around, I see the big lakes and rivers every single day of my life and I’ve spent countless hours on the water around here.”

His commitment to creation using only natural, salvaged materials is an enormous part of what Jason does. He tries to work solely with wood material that can be salvaged from local mills, knotted or crooked pieces that can’t be used for anything else and are then picked up for placement in the ‘skin’ of his boards. While not necessarily commonplace, some of his hollow boards are made of 99 percent reclaimed wood if materials are available. If a piece doesn’t work now, it will work down the road. Nothing is wasted.

Jason handles a piece of African mahogany from the table next to him, describing how he found it at the bottom of a bin at a local mill and that it will be used as an accent in a small board he is creating for his daughter. Even at a young age, both of his daughters are avid paddleboarders. Jason went on to describe the first wave his oldest daughter caught on one of his paddleboards—“she was the happiest little kid I’ve ever seen, and I was stoked out of my mind. It was like, my daughter is actually surfing a wave! You don’t see that in Michigan very often.”

The excitement of seeing his child catch a wave alludes to perhaps the biggest influence in what Jason does—above all else, Jason gives his greatest thanks to his family, emphasizing the importance of having an understanding, patient wife to share the responsibilities of working long hours while chasing a passion and raising their two girls. To put it simply, “[My wife] puts more in than I could ever put into the boards, and she hardly ever touches them!”

And having two daughters who share in his passions certainly doesn’t hurt. Just days after speaking with him, Jason posts a photo to Facebook of his oldest daughter building a miniature paddleboard for one of her dolls.

“It may only be a board for a little doll, but [it’s] probably the most important board I've ever helped with,” the caption read.

***

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My conversation with Jason wouldn’t have been complete without a little bit of tech-talk, mostly regarding the types of boards he builds and where the inspiration for his boards came from.

While he is the first to remind those that admire his work that he is not the first nor the last person to build wooden paddleboards (...“all over the world people are building wood boards, and they’ve been around since the turn of the century”), Jason’s craft is special, if only because of the hands-on, frustrating nature of committing 50-60 hours to one piece of work. Humility aside, Jason walks the talk—long nights, early mornings and lots of mistakes included.

“They may be pretty and they do look perfect at the end, but man they don’t go like that sometimes,” Jason says. “Some days are just awful, something snaps or you lose a whole rail system. There’s so much tension that I apply to these that sometimes the whole thing will peel off. Then you have to tear it all off, sand it all down, get it re-glued and get (the skin) back on there.”

While describing such a day, Jason gasps as if the frustration was right there, right in front of him. It’s obvious that he is familiar with the kind feelings that come only from trial and error, and is accustomed to the sorts of overwhelming disappointment that would drive most people crazy.

“I have days where I just want to thrown in the towel and I get frustrated and I’m like, ‘Why do I do this? Why do I do this?’” he says. “But then there are days where everything clicks. At the end of those days, no matter how tired you are, you’re like, ‘I got so much done today!’”

However, with direct influence coming from West Coast board maker Paul Jensen, it’s no wonder Jason has the perspective he does when it comes to building boards. He quotes Paul frequently when talking about how he was first inspired to make boards, and obviously emanates admiration for the guy who ‘perfected the hollow wood paddleboards.’ Most of Jason’s own boards are modeled after Paul’s, though all of them are redesigned for freshwater rather than the marked difference in buoyancy of saltwater. And Jason is the only person making boards like these in Michigan, if not the Midwest.

Surf inspired, hand-built and each one as distinct as the wood that goes into them, Jason’s boards are built for those who value their freshwater roots as much as he does.

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***

While exploring Walloon Lake, Jason allows a handful of people to try out one of his boards. Everyone emphasizes how unique the ride is. The vibration and way it rides, they say, is unlike anything they’ve ever felt. 

Between humble, proud smiles—though still unable to dissect the feeling his boards give their riders—Jason simplifies the feeling of the board to a phrase that is innately familiar to those who reside in Petoskey: it’s the lake effect, he says — the lake’s natural effect on the board beneath our feet.

Lake Affect: the residual feelings of awe and mystery that keep us so absolutely immersed in the lifestyle of our lakes. The Lake Affect is the excitement that can only be contained by long paddleboard rides or kayak tours or a day spent sailing; days that remind us of what is truly at play in the wind and the waves and weather of Petoskey, our home. It’s the welcoming of each new season, of each storm and snowfall, because we all know Lake Michigan will do what it damn well wants—and one of the many quirks of living here is in the uncertainty of what the lake will bring next. It’s what inevitably brings people back to their freshwater roots, regardless of time spent elsewhere—a sort of ‘return to sender’ mentality. It’s the influence of something big and beyond our comprehension: mountains, oceans, our Great Lakes. 

But the lake affect philosophy may be most easily summarized by an expression of Jason’s making, emphasizing that whether all is wrong or right in the world at this very moment, all we can do is ride it out. 

Big or little, epic or average, life comes in waves. Why not ride them?

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