Inland Paddler: Lisa Schell on her Falls Lake Adventure

I whine a lot about living inland.   No surf, no current, no ocean chop, no downwinders. Can’t really practice for the “real” paddling and racing that takes place on the coast.  Can’t just run out the front door and be on the water in minutes, can’t even go right to the water from work because I park in a really, really low deck…blah blah blah blah. Can’t can’t. can’t.  I always feel like I am, at best, at a disadvantage and at worst, a SUP poser or waterman wannabe.

July 29th, I had a change of perspective.

A longitude and latitude adjustment if you will.

All this summer, I have been trying to regain fitness lost after a bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Months of intense joint pain did a number on my confidence as well.   Feeling landlocked only added insult to the injury.

I needed something to kick me into gear and get me to get at it.  I picked up my copy of the Riding Bumps training book and thumbed to the sample training plan page. Boom.   The seed was planted.   I bought the $99 training plan using the Distressed Mullet’s coupon code.  Boom again.  The more I worked on the plan, the more I read the blog. I joined the 100/100 SUP support page on Facebook.  More seeds planted.

Well, if I am training for a long distance race, maybe I should really do one.  The idea of the Chattajack 31 in Tennessee creeps into my head. Just train.  You don’t really have to do it. Just pretend.

Then the email came from my buddy Eric Moe, the man responsible for getting me into my first ever race last year, the Cold Stroke Classic. He’s the one who let me stay on the couch in his hotel room with his family just so I could do this year’s Carolina Cup.  He’s the one who made me a really good deal on an inflatable.  We go paddle.  We talk.  “If you’re in for CJ, then I’m in,” he says.   “Let’s do this!”  I can’t ever say no to Eric.

Training continued, the doubt lingered.  More inland whining ensued.  I can’t really train for the current.  I’ll never make the 10 mile/2.5 hour cut off.  Why do I even want to try if I am just going to get pulled off the course?

Then Eric emails. Again.  “I’m thinking of paddling the length of Falls Lake, from the Eno River to the dam.  You in?”

It’s about 25 miles.  The Riding Bumps guys say not to try that kind of distance prematurely if even at all before the race.  Is this really a good idea?

I can’t say no to Eric.  I take a day off work and start thinking.  The Feed Zone cookbooks come off the shelves.  I’m in the kitchen making portable rice cakes and baked eggs.

About this time, Molokai 2 Oahu is about to go off.  This is the Tour De France of our sport.  The lead up to the race is almost as exciting as actual race day.  Of particular note this year is Suzie Cooney, the Maui paddle trainer who via her website site has been a go-to source for my paddling development.  She is doing her first M2O, and she is battling a horrifying disease known as Ciguatera, which comes from eating reef fish.  What she faces daily is about 1,000 times worse than any of the reactive arthritis I felt from the RMSF.  And she’s doing M2O!!!! She had a fantastic race.  Her smiles at the finish line and the days after beam brighter than any sunrise I’ve ever seen on the top of Maui’s Haleakala crater.

But wait, there’s more: Kimberly Sutton, who helped me learn to surf last summer, and her beau Uber Expedition Paddler Ben Frieberg set off to race 1,000 miles down the Yukon River. 10 days of intense paddling against horrific wind, cold temperatures and moose.  Their goal, they said, was to inspire all of us to have our own adventures.

Well, that they did.  The night before Eric and I were to traverse Falls Lake, I stayed up passed 2:00 am to watch Ben and Kim’s SPOT trackers cross the finish line. I was so fired up!!!  I felt like a little kid not able to sleep on Christmas Eve!

photo 1 (5)That morning, I met Eric at the dam to stage our cars for the post paddle shuttle.  By this time, I’m also a member of the Chattajack Back of the Pack Facebook group.  My new friend Julia is admin of both pages, and she’s got folks actually following our adventure via the Follomee free tracker.  It’s not the Yukon, or M2O but we’re getting cheered on nonetheless, and for a lake paddle!  Between Raleigh and Durham. Tobacco Road. That’s the SUP community for you right there.

The Eno Boat Ramp is about four miles from the lake, and it’s a lazy, easy paddle through typically tea colored Piedmont water.  Fishermen in john boats stare at us as we launch, alongside a man with an inflatable kayak with homemade oars.  He’s practicing for a long distance paddle trip somewhere out west.  Cool. We get a little bump from the current and soon are winding our way through the marshy,woody section of a bay known as Knap of Reeds Creek.   Some of the area reminds me a bit of Florida.  We see huge Great Herons and ivory white Snowy Egrets.

Once or twice, we get a little turned around in the confused geography of where river meets lake.  Wind kicks up and we have to paddle into it.  It gets a bit choppy.  Should not have stayed up so late!! Before long, though, we are almost at the I-85 bridge, a significant landmark on our journey.  Cormorants stand sentinel on half sunken trees. More egrets and herons.  Eric tries to talk to me about paddling strategy.  I get distracted by another osprey.

photo (22)

We stop for a snack at a section known as Ledge Rock, where collage students are known for busting their heads jumping into the water.  It’s not so much a natural rock feature as it is an overhang created by the decaying asphalt of a long since replaced earthen berm road over the lake. Despite the graffiti stenciled on the concrete, the area is pretty, lush and green.  Lots of bubbles surround my board and a think about snapping turtles as I wade into the shallow water to get ashore.

The day is overcast and not humid.  We are about a third of the way through the trip.  Down passed the Rolling View Marine, we decide not to stop again.  We try to pick up the pace.  Wind again.  Eric begins to worry that we won’t make it before dark.  He starts talking some talk about calling his wife to pick us up at Barton’s Creek, which would be about a third of the way from finishing.

“Whatever you think is best.  It’s your call.”  Secretly inside I am screaming HELL NO WE ARE NOT QUITTING.  All of the 100/100 peeps cannot see us quit.   All of my REI coworkers watching us cannot see us quit.  BEN AND KIM DIDN’T QUIT.  SUZIE FREAKIN COONEY DIDN’T QUIT.

See, I have learned a few lessons paddling with Katie.  I am no stranger to ad-ven-cha. I have brought lights, LOTS of lights.  And FOOD.  LOTS OF FOOD.

We are slogging against the wind toward the Highway 50 bridge. On the other side is the state recreation area boat ramp.  With running water, which is good ‘cause my Camelbak is dry.  It takes an eternity of boat wake wash and painful  paddle strokes to reach the dock.  When I get off my board, my legs feel like threads of capellini. I don’t bother putting my flip flops on to walk across the pavement to the bathroom…I don’t need them.  I don’t feel anything.  My feet are so numb.

We sit on the dock eating the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ever.  The sky is getting darker.  Eric worries about rain.  Only way I am quitting is if I hear thunder.  I won’t paddle in a thunderstorm with lightning. If we have to stop at Barton’s because of weather, then I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.

I check Facebook.  I see cheers.  I check my phone and see texts.  More cheers. More encouragement.

“We have to pick up our pace, “ he says.  Eric doesn’t want to quit either.  In the silence of eating the PB&J, we look at each other and know we are going to the dam.  Eric calls his wife and says he won’t be home for dinner.  I tell him about the 3 (2)

We estimated about six miles to Barton’s Creek, the next landmark.  This has to be the prettiest part of Falls Lake.  The water is a deep emerald color, And glassy.  The wind is gone.  The light of the late afternoon plays on the trees and rock outcroppings as the cloud cover breaks.  We pass the Shinleaf and B.W. Wells campgrounds.  If I weren’t trying to paddle tempo, this would be really lovely.

This is the section where we encountered the most boat traffic.  It’s also the section where the fatigue really started to set in.  It’s also the section where Time Stood Still.  My Garmin ticks off the miles.  Four, three, two, one..where is Barton’s Creek?  Where the heck is is????  Turns out we missed the distance estimate by about two miles. Maybe more.  My arms are throbbing.  Think of Kim and Ben, think of Kim and Ben.  It is my mantra.  I imagine them in their dry suits, on their inflatables, paddling against stinging wind and rain IN THE YUKON.  I am watching around every curve in this river-esque section of the lake for the Highway 98 Bridge.  When I see that, I know from my Dawn Patrol paddles out of Barton’s that the osprey nest that marks the entrance of the creek is just a few paddle strokes ahead.

Round the next bend.

No bridge.

Round the next bend.

No bridge.

We have to hug the shore line because of the boaters.  The lake narrows and trees downed by a recent storm warrant our attention.  Eric is watching the biggest tree hanging into the water and doesn’t see the submerged one under his board.  In slow motion, I see him fall forward, almost catch himself, then faceplant right into the water. Lisa Schell Falls Lake Dam

After helping him get back on the board, I realize just how tired we are and just how careful we’ve got to be.

In the distance, the roar of cars.  It’s the bridge!!!  Passing the osprey nest, I look back at Eric.

“You still good?”

“Are you kidding?  We have to do it now!”

The boat traffic has me worn out, but Eric starts talking about how we will know we have almost made it when we see the odd weir near the dam.    We will come around a corner and we’ll see it.

We pick up the pace.  The adrenaline is flowing again.  The good thing about our estimate from Highway 70 to Barton’s Creek being off is that it means the distance from Barton’s to the dam will be shorter than we thought.  In no time at all, we round that bend and the weir rises up out the water almost like a big castle.

Lisa Schell Falls Lake DamThe smile on my face had to be just as big.

It’s getting dark.  In a less time than you can say Dave Kalama, the dam rises before us.

We both let out  “whoo hoos” that echo of the concrete monolith.  Fist pumps, paddle slaps. High fives.  And a bad joke.

“What did the fish say when it hit the wall?


Damn we did it!! To the best of our knowledge, we may just be the very first people to paddle Falls Lake end to end via standup paddleboard.  It took all day. It was hard.  It was not fast.  But we did it!!

And it was awesome.

Lisa Schell Falls Lake Dam

Carrying the gear and board up and over the dam to the car in the dark, however, was not.  Driving back to get Eric’s car and the Eno boat ramp in pouring rain, however, was not.  Next time, someone shuttles us.

The confidence that day on the water gave me, the sense of adventure and accomplishment, and the support I felt from the wonderful SUP community is still with me every time I pick up the paddle.  It led me to commit to three races, including the Chattajack.  So what if I get pulled from the course ‘cause I am not fast enough.  That’s not the point.  Adventure is.

And you can find adventure wherever you are.  I want to paddle across Lake Jordan, next. Or down the Neuse, or the Haw, or maybe from the Jordan Dam to Fayetteville.  I have outfitted the inflatable with a quick release leash and I bought a white water paddle.

The ocean is always my first love, my home.  But all waters flow to the sea.  I CAN be an inland waterman.  All I have to do is just get out there and paddle.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Related Articles


    1. Would LOVE to!! One correction, Dottie B. Hodges is the person responsible for the Chattajack BOP Facebook page, which has just been fantastic for me!!

  1. This is great! Who cares if you get pulled from the course at Chattajack? Most people won’t even sign up for something like that, never mind actually get out there on race day and give it their all. Have fun and good luck!

    btw-LOVE the part where you brought copious amounts of lights and snacks.