Kyle Ellison may have the longest commute in Asheville. At one end—roughly 4,500 miles from the Land of the Sky—is the Hawaiian island of Maui, his original home, where he works as a travel writer and competes on the professional stand up paddleboarding (SUP) circuit. At the other is Wai Mauna Asheville SUP Tours, the business he founded in 2015 to share his passion for the watersport with visitors to the French Broad River.
“When I first came to Asheville, it felt like Hawaii did twelve years ago. You could go down by the river and find people who had never seen a stand up paddleboard before,” recounts Ellison, who lived in Asheville for two years before relocating back to Maui—where he still flies from every six weeks during Asheville’s summer paddling season.. “People had been tubing for years and were looking for something new, so it seemed to me that SUP was ready to take off here—and they always say to do what you love!”
SUP’s roots actually trail back to 1960s Hawaii, when the surf instructors, or “beach boys,” of Waikiki would stand on their surfboards and paddle into the ocean to take souvenir photographs of their students. The practice became popular on the islands again in the early 2000s among surfers looking for a way to train when the waves were uncooperative, and SUP soon grew into a full-fledged watersport of its own.
Ellison, who has also worked professionally as a scuba diver, sea kayaker and catamaran sailor, says he fell in love with SUP’s unique perspective on the water. “There’s this kind of magic carpet ride feeling: you’re literally standing on top of water without getting wet and cruising along,” he explains. “And because you’re in a standing position, you can see both down into the water and 360 degrees around you.”
That extra visibility is key for the guided tours Wai Mauna features as its signature offering. The company’s instructors lead private trips down the French Broad through the River Arts District and Biltmore Estate, sharing insights into local stories, wildlife and geography along the way. Ellison, a self-described “closet history buff,” says much of the knowledge he teaches his guides came from attending meetings of the nonprofit conservation group RiverLink.
“We tell people that the history of the river parallels the history of Asheville itself,” he says. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Asheville was pretty depressed economically, the local saying about the French Broad was that ‘it’s too thick to drink and too thin to plow.’” But as local organizations began to pay more attention to the state of the river and led restoration efforts, Asheville experienced a surge of vitality through increased tourism and new residents.
Wai Mauna continually supports the French Broad through its sustainability program: portions of proceeds from every paddler are directly donated to RiverLink, and the company’s staff regularly pitch in on cleanups. Even the paddleboards themselves play a role. “They’re great craft for river cleanup — I’ve anchored a board in the middle of the river and stacked five tires on it that we’ve pried off the bottom,” says Ellison.
In addition to guided tours, Wai Mauna offers personalized lessons, board rentals and a six-person, 17-foot inflatable SUP raft. The company even hand-delivers boards, complete with a complimentary intro lesson, to renters within 50 miles of Asheville. “We’re like a paddleboarding food truck!” Ellison laughs.
All of these services come with a healthy dose of what Ellison calls “aloha spirit,” a sense of casual welcoming drawn from his Hawaiian home. “We treat every customer like a friend from out of town we’re taking out on the river,” he says. “We want you to feel like you’re on a vacation, like you’re somewhere you can really tap out and relax.”
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