“Is that a surfboard?” a young boy sitting on the bank of Lake Manawa wonders aloud.
He's dangling his feet in the water and watching Alma Royster show a couple how to stand on two 10-foot-6-inch boards floating just offshore.
But they're not learning to ride the waves, not in Council Bluffs. They're learning to stand up paddle.
Royster is helping introduce the outdoor activity to the Omaha metro area through Meander SUP, her small Bellevue-based business. SUP, which stands for stand up paddling, requires participants to stand on a buoyant board and use one paddle to propel themselves through the water. It's a sport for some, a workout for others and a hobby for many.
Royster designs and sells the boards and teaches people how to use them.
She founded Meander SUP last summer. To save costs, the business doesn't have a storefront, but Royster plans to open one next year. For now, customers can find her through the company's website.
She speaks with customers on the phone, through email or the company's Facebook page and then meets them at a waterfront in or close to Omaha with several boards to test in tow.
Last year, she focused exclusively on board production. Meander SUP carries a yoga board, a hybrid paddle board that Royster designed called the Meander Woodie, and an inflatable board.
The yoga board is the most stable, but it's also more difficult to turn in the water. The Meander Woodie is less stable but is lighter, faster and easier to maneuver. It's the business's most popular item. The inflatable is easier to transport and better for those who take their boards over rougher waters, like rivers.
Don't confuse it for a pool toy, Royster says. The boards range from $650 to $950 each. They're manufactured overseas and stored locally. Royster said sales are up 60 percent since May.
She does not offer rentals at this point, but the boards are available to rent at other businesses in Omaha, including Wake N Skate Boardhouse and the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Outdoor Venture Center.
Royster, 29, credits SUP demonstrations for her spike in sales. This summer, Royster kicked off the season, which typically runs May through September, by bringing boards to outdoor events for people to take on the water. “I think once they try it, they fall in love and want to buy one,” she said.
It's more common to see people with paddle boards at the lakes around town now than ever before.
SUP's popularity is growing locally and across the U.S. More people tried stand up paddling for the first time in 2012 than in any year previously, and more than half of those people tried it for the first time, according to an Outdoor Industry Association report.
Royster started paddle boarding recreationally a few years ago when she lived in Florida. As a water sport, it naturally gained traction on the coasts first.
When Royster and her husband moved to Nebraska three years ago, they couldn't find a SUP shop in the area. Instead, they traveled to Des Moines to sample different boards. The need is here, though, Royster said, so “ultimately, we decided why not us?” And Meander SUP was born.
Since moving to Bellevue, Royster has found the closed, calmer waters at local lakes are actually better suited for paddle boarding than choppy ocean waters. Her favorite places to paddle in the metro are Cunningham Lake, Wehrspann Lake, Zorinsky Lake and Lake Manawa.
The only thing Jason and Lisa Stiefer had to worry about during their lesson with Royster at Lake Manawa was the occasional wake from a distant boat.
She showed the Bellevue couple, like all her students, how to adjust the paddle to their height, turn the board, mount the board and get back on it in case they lost their balance and toppled into the water — not uncommon for first-timers. Anyone who paddle boards must wear a life jacket or flotation belt, and she recommends they bring a towel and a change of clothes, just in case.
Luckily, the Stiefers didn't fall in. It wasn't their first time paddling, though. The couple was introduced to SUP a couple of years ago during a weeklong vacation in Hawaii. There, they rented a board every day.
After their outing with Royster, they bought one.
“It was nice,” Jason Stiefer said of their lesson. “I'd like to stay out there for two more hours.”
During the lesson, students start on the more stable yoga board before transitioning to the hybrid paddle board. Once Royster finishes instructing her students, they spend about two hours on the water.
A three-hour lesson is $65 per person.
Royster relies on Google searches, free demonstrations and word-of-mouth recommendations to draw more customers.
She's not ready to hire — she prefers to meet with students and customers herself — but might bring on additional staff next year to help process orders and haul equipment to and from lessons.
To further grow the business, Royster is also considering bringing in an investor. She hopes to eventually offer tours of area rivers and host races, too.
“Right now we're letting the market tell us what it wants,” Royster said.