SUP Cup racers navigate Clark Fork’s riffles and rapids in fourth annual race

Ashley Nelson, of Harrison, runs toward the finish line during the fourth annual Windermere SUP Cup on the Clark Fork River in Missoula on Sunday. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Nearly 60 competitors grabbed their stand-up paddleboards Sunday and charged into the chilly waters of the Clark Fork River, testing their speed and endurance on a scenic course through Hellgate Canyon into downtown Missoula.

The fourth annual Windermere SUP Cup drew competitors from across the region. It also saw its share of spills as racers navigated riffles and rapids on the 4.2 mile course.

“I fell in love with SUPing two years ago,” said Montana Marsh, who owns the Wa-SUP Shack in Eureka. “Those of us in love with fitness keep finding the next outlet. This is one of them. I want to bring it to Eureka.”

Marsh took a spill the night before while testing the river’s flow. The water ran higher this July than it did during last year’s race, though low-hanging fins still caught on the occasional gravel bar when a racer chose an ill-advised route.

“You’ve got to read the river, know the river and the ripples and how they flow, and stay centered,” said Marsh. “We don’t have races up in Eureka yet. I’m tying to learn what I can and how to raise for our own charities around there.”

Ashley Nelson also came from afar to compete. The Harrison resident has become familiar paddling Ennis Lake, though the Clark Fork River proved more challenging and exhilarating.

“Where I paddleboard, there’s no one else doing it,” said Nelson. “The river was beautiful. The color – you just want to jump in, but you’ve got to stay focused. I live in the boonies, so this is a big social event for me.”

While the course allowed competitors to test their skill and speed, the race itself served as a charity event for a number of local causes, including the Missoula Food Bank’s EmPower Pack Program, which provides weekend meals to children in need.

The race also raised funding for the Watershed Education Network.

“We lead 3,000 kids onto the river every year,” said Deb Fassnacht, the organization’s executive director. “We’re teaching the next generation about healthy rivers and a healthy river ecosystem. It’s our strong belief that all kids growing up in Montana need to have that river experience.”

As racers charged up the riverbank and crossed the finish line with paddle in hand, children fished for aquatic insects at a booth set up by the Watershed Education Network.

Races make their way to the finish line on Sunday. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

While the tiny invertebrates often go unseen by most river users, Fassnacht described them as a measure of the river’s health. Funding raised by Sunday’s event will allow the organization to bring more classrooms to the water.

“This Windermere event really brings to us a serious sponsorship in our adopt-a-class campaign,” said Fassnacht. “Our job is to go out and recruit teachers, classrooms and students who haven’t had a river field trip. This (funding) will probably take three to five new groups of kids out to the river.”

Several adaptive racers also competed Sunday, running the course on paddleboards equipped to accommodate their needs. While many went for speed, Sherene Ricci took the morning to enjoy the water and warm July sun on her adaptive board.

“It’s a special day when you get to do it,” said Ricci. “It’s so much more important to be on the river and have fun with my fiends. Being part of a community event is also fun, and showing people what’s possible. It’s important to us be visible about that as well.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at