By Dianna Stampfler
Just like his customers, Jason Thelen’s hand-crafted stand-up paddle boards are one-of-a-kind. Utilizing years of experience as a furniture maker, he launched Little Bay Boards in 2014 to introduce others to artistically-designed hollow wooden boards that are stronger, lighter and last longer than traditional foam boards.
Thelen, a direct descendent (great, great, great grandson) of Chief Petoskey—the 19th-century French-Ottawa merchant and fur trader for whom the city of Petoskey and the official state stone are named—is the only person making boards such as this in Michigan, perhaps even in the Midwest.
“Though my boards cost $2,600 to start, we are working very hard to build a more affordable line,” Thelen says. “The wood board industry is priced from $1,800 to $5,000 and I’ve placed my boards in the middle of that price point. Even though they are far more artistically-designed than any other board for sale out there.”
Well before the art of designing a wood board can begin, Thelen spends time getting to know the person who will ride it. Will they paddle a lake or a river? Will they take to freshwater or salt water? Will they carry gear like backpacks and tents, or even small children or pets? Will they fish from their SUP? The answers to these questions, along with the rider’s age, height, weight and paddling experience, create the formula that Thelen builds on.
Inside a small studio attached to the house he grew up in just north of Petoskey, Thelen puts as many as 60 hours into each board and its companion paddle. The process is time-consuming, meaning he only produces about 30 boards a year—sending them as far as Florida, California, Texas and even Switzerland.
Utilizing salvaged woods found both locally and from exotic locales—like African mahogany and Colorado aspen—he pieces the board together like a giant puzzle, even using knotted or crooked pieces to create intricate design patterns. No nails, foams or chemicals are used in the build, just glue and low VOC (volatile organic compound) resins, making the boards eco-friendly as well.
“The first time I saw stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Charlevoix, I knew I in my heart it was a sport I would someday indulge in,” says Nancy Jaye Kowaleski, who grew up near the water in Ontario, Canada and today works a 12-hour midnight shift as a critical care hospital nurse in northern Michigan.
“Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Little Bay Boards and some of Jason’s work. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy of creative design using repurposed wood and I experienced the joy and energy he commits to each of his creations. We worked together that fall of 2014 picking woods and designing a personal SUP unique to me.”
Nancy has traveled extensively with her one-of-a-kind board, from Myrtle Beach and the salt flats on the Atlantic Ocean, to Florida where she says a baby manatee playfully pushed on her fin while SUPing, to the crystal-clear waters of Georgian Bay in Canada and Lake Superior, where she paddled from Munising to Grand Island. Locally, she regularly paddles on Crooked Lake, Pickerel Lake and Little Traverse Bay.
While a custom-built wooden board admittedly costs more and takes a month or longer to build, the quality and longevity make it worth the investment of time and money. And although Thelen’s boards haven’t been in the marketplace for very long, he says he hopes they’ll become family heirlooms that will be passed on and enjoyed for generations.
(Reprinted from the Summer 2017 issue of Michigan BLUE Magazine)