Petoskey paddleboards find fans at home, abroad

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Petoskey — Wood and water always have been part of Jason Thelen’s life.

Born and raised in Petoskey, the great-great-great grandson of Chief Petoskey, a local Odawa chief with whom both the stone and the city are named, Thelen worked as a carpenter but always found time to be around the sparkling waters of Little Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan.

When his daughter, Shawni, was 9, she asked if she could have a stand-up paddleboard. Thelen was short on cash, so he researched hollow boards, found a surfboard kit online and attempted to build a board.

Marley Yetter, left, and Lois Hugg ride a new paddleboard, made by Thelen, this month on Little Traverse Bay in Harbor Springs.

He discovered not only could he construct a better board but the final product was unique. So he built another. Interest built every time he took it to the beach. So he sold that second board, and then he sold another. He built more and sold them all as part of a company he named Little Bay Boards.

“I had so many people say I couldn’t make a living doing this,” said Thelen, 43. “I didn’t listen to them. I had to give up just about everything, but my family supported me, and it’s a risk I have taken, and it is slowly taking off.”

With his supportive wife, Julie, he began building boards in his garage. He moved to a larger space in his parents’ garage for three years. A year ago, he moved into an industrial building that provides great space to produce boards.

Five years later and having sold more than 100 boards, Thelen works each week producing works of art that float.

“Our boards are all made from local, high-density cedar,” he said. “ A mill in Boyne Falls works with me for the best wood. The cedar is beautiful, coming in shades from almost blonde to a deep brown.”

He also uses western cedar for its dark brown color.

He works with Mary Beth McWatters, an artist who shares space in the same building, and Thelen’s boards can feature images that are unique to each order.

The light-density boards with the hollow interior allow the board to float high in the water and respond to a paddler’s action with little effort. They weigh between 28 pounds and 32 pounds and average 10 feet in length with a width of up to 36 inches.

Thelen’s boards start at $1,500 and go up to $2,600 depending on customization.

“An average build is around 40 hours, but I created one Ohio State University custom board that took 110 hours to complete,” Thelen said. He also builds custom 10-foot cedar strip paddles with a curved blade for $200.

“A lot of boards today are made of foam core, which breaks down fairly quickly, and come from China,” Thelen said. “Each shipment leaves 72 tons of carbon emission in the atmosphere from the freighter that delivers them. Why not ride a board made from local renewable resources and will last a lifetime?”

Wave action while standing on a wooden board transmits up through the riders’ legs.

“I have a different shape to the rockers for the Great Lakes,” Thelen said. “That’s the curved sides of the board. It gives my board a special feel. We create boards that ride entirely unlike any other boards.”

Jennifer Jerky of Rockford was given a board for Christmas a year ago. Her husband surprised her, and it has changed the way she views her time on the water.

“It’s my happy place when I am on my board,” she said. “I remember reading all this about the amazing feeling of the board on water. And, wow. It’s so different than a regular board. It’s more of an experience, looking down and seeing the board and feeling the water under you. It’s so peaceful and calming.”

In the winter, Jerky’s board comes inside and is hung on a wall for viewing. It’s a lighter cedar with five stripes of red cedar.

“When I see the board, I feel so happy. I’m going to be a pro bono sales rep for Little Bay Boards,” she joked.

The history of watercraft for one person standing goes back centuries, with Peruvian fishermen using reed boats to paddle out to catch fish then ride the boats into shore on waves. Hawaiians used wooden boards for surfing, and the art of building a good board grew.

Leading the way in recent years was Paul Jensen, a west coast boarder who had perfected the art of building hollow, wooden surfboards and became an early proponent of stand-up paddleboarding. The popularity of stand up paddleboards has grown exponentially in the past decade.

Phones calls and hours of discussion with Jensen about buoyancy on freshwater versus saltwater, wave action on the Great Lakes and construction techniques of a hollow board all lead to the present board that Thelen builds.

“Jason is committed to building most beautiful, durable, lightweight and eco-friendly boards in the world,” Jensen said. “His passion to do it right on so many levels is amazing.

“... He understands that being on the water on a handmade wood board is one of life’s ultimate pleasures.”

Three boards were in the water recently on Little Traverse Bay. A photo session with local photographer Phil Huggestson, who works with Little Bay Boards, had boards on the cold water for an hour of shooting.

“These boards are special,” said Taylor Jetsen, an apprentice with Little Bay Board. “They ride so nicely.“

Little Bay Boards have been sold to customers in Australia, Switzerland and all over the United States.

“I want to build a beautiful board and great customer service, and have a lot of happy customers,” Thelen said.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer in Traverse City.