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Sousa: Staying current

"You've got experience, jump in!" Charlie MacArthur says, "I'll be back in 30."

Experience? I haven't surfed since August, I've ridden a stand-up paddleboard at a beach in Maine twice, and I've never rallied freezing, brackish river rapids. But I wave adios, push off into the Colorado River and cautiously paddle away. A train coasts through the hills above, and a few flakes of snow flit languidly down from sunny peaks, but I suspiciously eye the rough water ahead, not missing the fact that Charlie referred to the raging whitecaps as "baby rapids."

Turning onto Highway 82 an hour before, Charlie said it matter-of-factly; he'd obviously rather be discussing other things: how he and some friends single-handedly created the Rocky Mountain Surf Festival or that there's a dynamic difference between paddling river and ocean. "Yeah, I guess I was the first guy to ever ride SUP down a river."

We've learned downstream turns, upstream turns, "ferrying" — skating over the current — and quick directional changes. "Ready for some rapids," Charlie says. It is not a question. "We'll ride these on our knees."

Even without standing it's intimidating. The water sucks at the board, we dodge boulders, and I wield my oar like a weapon. We stand for the next section, and I bend my knees and wobble into warp speed, narrowly avoiding a huge rock with a flick of my panicked paddle. "Great move!" Charlie shouts.

How did Charlie become one of the valley's top watermen? "Paddleboarding is an upward trend," he grinned as we drove; he's been riding this swell for years. It began organically: What does a landlocked surfer, who grew up charging top swells in California and Hawaii, do in the summer? Charlie and his friends surfed rivers on old surfboards and windsurfers, and one thing led to another. In 2007, when his buddy posted a clip of Charlie ripping down the rapids on YouTube, it shocked the water-world. A few days later, he was helping shape boards for stand-up paddleboard Pioneers C4 Waterman in Hawaii.

"That wave's got your name on it, man," Charlie says. I've already eaten it in every way imaginable — from my knees and feet, backward and forward. I'm also having the most adrenaline-soaked fun I've had in a while. My whitened knuckles clench my paddle, and I slide my board into the rushing fountain of water and leap into my surf stance. I'm doing it!

As we pulled on our wetsuits, Charlie's sentences flowed from his mouth like the waves he loves: rolling and ever-changing. My pen and ears couldn't keep up, but the stories resonated. Teaching the Hawaiian Coast Guard stand-up paddleboard lessons. Paddling through grainy Warren Miller films in the '80s. Being part of the movement to get Ajax to allow snowboarders. Competing in competitive stand-up paddleboard events all over the world.

"Brian! Get back on your board!" I'm zooming down the river on my back, Charlie's voice booming, my empty board escaping me, the clutch of icy water squeezing around my neck. I don't even remember falling — wait, isn't that a waterfall ahead?

Frantically, I clamber onto my stomach and try to steer. Charlie dispenses sage advice: "If you're trying to walk or run across the bottom, don't. Your foot can get stuck." I watch as he bends his board effortlessly through waves. "Look where you want to turn; use your legs," Charlie calls as he executes maneuvers I can't fathom, dipping the tail as if snowboarding powder.

A half-hour later, my legs are sore and I'm wondering if some parts of my body even exist anymore. This makes surfing Maine in December seem like a trip to the sauna. Charlie's still ripping tricks, but I'm just trying to survive at this point. The pep talk I often have with myself when I'm caught inside surfing resurfaces but with a pathetic twist. "Stay loose," I say aloud, bending low and wondering if the river can hear me. "Don't fall."

I make it to shore and find the simple things I desire exist in a steamy universe far, far away: a scalding shower, warm clothes, bourbon. Yet I also wish I could keep going. Adrenaline addiction has got me, per usual, and I want another crack at that standing wave. In the car, Charlie cranks the heat and reveals that someone with no experience would normally practice for six hours before shooting rapids, which makes me feel a bit better.

On the ride back to Aspen, I wonder: What is it about the spike of fear that hooks some of us so deeply? I replay the stretch of river where I narrowly missed a rock crash: I wasn't thinking — I was reacting. Maybe all of us could use a little more "reacting" and a bit less squinting at multiple screens. Adrenaline, maybe, helps to put some things into perspective. And it helped this writer to pour some more bourbon, put my feet up and purchase a C4 Waterman stand-up paddleboard online.

Schedule lessons with Charlie MacArthur and the rest of the Aspen Kayak and SUP Academy at 970-925-4433, or visit http://www.aspenkayakacademy.com.

Brian Sousa appears every other Sunday in The Aspen Times. Reach him at sousabr@ gmail.com.