To Jason Thelen, owner of Little Bay Boards, a paddleboard is not just a paddleboard, it’s a connection to things big and small and channels the life force of the big water.
This article is featured in the August 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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A doll lies on the kitchen table, hair messed and tousled to look like dreadlocks. It’s well past dark, the house quiet, children long ago asleep. Jason Thelen shares a beer with his wife. They both look at the toy and each other, knowing something has to change. Soon.
Working crazy hours, Thelen barely comes home to sleep. A carpenter by day, he handcrafts hollow wood paddleboards at night, a “just sort of happened” new business. The boards are built in his dad’s 16-by-25-foot garage turned workshop, which is where Thelen was when his wife, Julie, called to say he needed to come home.
“She pretends it’s you, so you can still tuck her in at night,” Julie whispers, nodding toward their daughter’s doll. It’s late. Exhaustion settles around them like an old quilt. So too does a decision.
A decision full of risk and opportunity. Heart-centered and spirit-guided. Thelen will quit his job—a great gig building energy efficient homes with his father-in-law—to pursue this passion project: paddleboards.
Photos by Erik Olsen
Fast forward a few years. Thelen, now 42, retells the story like it was yesterday. His pale blue eyes tear up when he talks about the memory, his girls. “No father wants to be absent like that,” he says, leaning against a stack of wood being used to build out his new shop. “It was the hardest choice I’ve ever made to give up the security of a job I’ve had for 17 years, a job that was with family. But something had to give. When I started making boards to sell and we had extra money for the first time ever, it got a little intoxicating, you know? I almost forgot what mattered most. What started this whole thing.”
This “thing” is Little Bay Boards, a one-of-a-kind artisan operation crafting wood paddleboards. A business still anchored in family and the freshwater sea.
Thelen, who grew up in Petoskey (and whose roots date way back—he is a direct descendent of Chief Petoskey), discovered paddleboarding less than six years ago in Good Harbor. “We were with my brother-in-law’s family, and I borrowed a board and paddled way out into the lake. The sun was shining. I had a Corona in my hand and silence all around me. Being out there, totally alone, having this experience with the lake … It was soulful.”
By the time Thelen returned to shore, paddleboarding had hooked him.
“When we got home my wife and I started researching boards. I’ve always been a big fan of wood and started studying wood veneer surfboards. I bought a blueprint for a paddleboard and just went for it,” he says. “It was eight feet long, made for my daughter. From the very first time she used it—we were down in Glen Arbor—the board got a ton of attention. It was on the roof of our car, and when we came out of the grocery store there were a bunch of people standing around, and I thought, Great, somebody backed into us.”
It wasn’t an accident that stopped traffic. It was the board, with its spectrum of light and dark hardwoods, a floating piece of art folks were drawn to almost as intensely as the Great Lakes themselves.
“This started happening everywhere we went; people wanted to know about the board. My daughter was nine at the time and even she started giving the pitch. That’s when my wife asked if I ever thought about making another one to sell. Little Bay Boards sort of sprung up organically from there.”
Thelen, who “grew up a hippie” and married into a family of passionate green-certified homebuilders, likes to tinker and work with his hands. He started thinking about what it meant to ride waves on the Great Lakes, about how to get as close to the water as possible without actually swimming. So he reached out to Paul Jensen, the guy who basically invented hollow wooden surfboards in the 1970s. “I pretty much just bugged him into having a conversation, and that conversation turned into a lot of conversations, which turned into a friendship and a mentor relationship,” Thelen says, the corner of his mouth turning up in a smile.
Creating a hollow paddleboard allowed Thelen to utilize local hardwoods without adding excessive weight to the board. Plus, hollow wood and water makes for a dynamic riding experience, vibrations felt right up to the knees. It’s about as Zen as it gets, life force of the lake echoing through each board. Soon, Thelen’s talks with Jensen about paddleboard structure turned scientific, focusing on the difference in freshwater buoyancy and wind-direction waves versus waves built by the tides of the ocean. Calculations for volume control and lake-specific designs soon followed.
“There’s good science for everything, and I wanted to build boards that would allow people to paddle out and surf those freshwater waves we get,” Thelen says, meaning the kind of waves found on warm summer days. “The guys out surfing in November in full dry suits are awesome, but I grew up on Lake Michigan being told it wasn’t a place to surf. I want my children to believe they can ride its waves … and I’m not ready to let them go out on the lake in 34-degree fall swells.”
Jensen gave Thelen a blueprint that he has since “modified a bit here and there.” Jensen also gave Thelen the courage to start putting his work into the world. When a downtown Petoskey store, Lake Affect, offered an exclusive deal to sell Little Bay Boards in the shop, Thelen formed a partnership with Jensen. “That’s really when things started to shift for me,” he says. “It was such a great opportunity.”
As demand for his paddleboards grew, so too did Thelen’s desire to make more boards for more people, at a more affordable price. It required going out on his own, something Thelen says both Lake Affect and Jensen supported. His relationships with these key early believers are still as solid as deep winter ice, which makes a lot of sense. Thelen’s decisions come from unwavering core values: he cares about people and he cares about the planet.
Standing in his shop one day, Thelen says, “There’s something about making boards.” He reaches for a thin strip of pale wood. “It entrances me. It’s like magic.” Painstaking, single-handed, 50–plus–hours–a–board kind of magic, no tricks required (or allowed). Each board Thelen builds is designed for its rider and the kind of paddling they want to do. Yoga? Riding with kids or dogs on the board? Paddle surfing? Slow cruises? He can—and does—make them all. “I tell customers I can build a dock if that’s what they want to paddle on,” he says with a laugh. “And some people want the board more for art than anything else. That’s cool too.”
While Little Bay Boards was first created with the waters of Lake Michigan in mind, Thelen says he loves knowing his work is now finding homes around the globe. He’s shipped boards to Texas, to Switzerland, and has even had inquiries from far-flung places like Malaysia.
“It’s kind of wild, growing up here and now being able to make a living this way,” he says over the high-pitched whine of an electric screwdriver. A friend of Thelen’s is standing on a ladder nearby, working on some wiring as the new Little Bay Boards shop comes together inside a cabinet company warehouse along the Bear River. “The internet has made it possible to be a homegrown artist in Petoskey with global reach. That’s pretty cool.”
Being part of the local economy matters to Thelen. He likes the idea of collaborating with other hardworking folks within his community, and his whole business model is geared toward lowering his environmental impact. Pointing to stacks of wood he’s salvaged from Northern Michigan Hardwoods lumber company, Thelen says part of the beauty of his boards comes from feeling connected to the trees that find new life on the water. He’s extra excited about sourcing sustainably harvested white cedar from a mill in Boyne City—Thelen personally visited the operation to see how the cedar stands are managed—because this wood will soon allow him to start constructing a less expensive line of boards.
Careful about his carbon footprint, Thelen makes it clear he’ll never be importing materials from China (no thank you, too much carbon emissions, he says). He’ll never use toxic chemicals or foams in board construction. He glasses boards together without mechanical tools and with low VOC resin, using as much salvaged wood as possible. “Providing ways for people to be in nature, it’s why I started making boards. Nothing here breaks down or leaves some chemical behind in the lake. It’s important for me to be able to look at my daughters and tell them we are a company that cares for the environment, not just with words but with how we do business.”
While Thelen talks, his new partner and old friend, 41-year-old Jason Septic, stands alongside him, adding bits and pieces of his own story and how he, too, was drawn in by simple ideals: family time, connection to this place, a chance to be part of something special.
“I was working a ton and feeling pretty burnt out when I saw Jason mention on Facebook he was looking for a business partner to take Little Bay Boards to the next level. It caught my eye, but I didn’t really do anything about it. And then one day, I cam home from a really long stretch of hours, my wife, Abbey, was holding her phone up with the same Facebook message on the screen. She told me I needed to reach out and have a conversation. So I did.”
Septic says he isn’t quitting his day job yet, but the idea of helping build this company has sparked his life with new energy. “It’s going to continue to grow organically. Jason’s never really done any marketing outside of social media; people either see the boards and fall in love or hear about them from customers. But having this [new shop] space is going to be huge in terms of what we’re able to do in the future.”
The new shop is at least quadruple the space of Thelen’s dad’s garage, where three boards at a time felt cumbersome. Now, Thelen—still the only craftsman building Little Bay Boards—has room to triple his production. This new spot doesn’t feel too sterile or big though, probably because 95 percent of it was built from repurposed materials. A pair of garage-sale doors lead to the glassing room, reused windows line the hall, blemished cabinets found homes here, a corner wall built from reclaimed barn wood will serve as a backdrop for finished board photos in the near future. Every inch of the shop already has a story.
What Thelen wants more than anything, it seems, is for his boards to be conduits connecting the land and the water and the craftsman, too. Talking again about his mentor, Paul Jensen, Thelen gets wistful. Jensen runs hollow surfboard building classes in Japan that are so eco-friendly participants harvest their own wood (with handsaws). “I keep telling Paul if he ever needs backup, I’d be happy to come help,” he says, before shaking his head and adding, “I’ve got it pretty good right here.”
Walking out of the shop to a dirt parking alley perched above the Bear River, it’s easy to see what he means about good right here. A bout of rain has the water flowing fast, bubbling against the banks and half-sunken logs on its way to Little Traverse Bay. Thelen’s work taps into the same raw, pure beauty. Authentic to the place he calls home, open to the waves both life, and lake, will bring.
Paddleboarding is the great on-water equalizer. There’s no real age range or skill level required. Adrenaline junkies, yogis, people who don’t want to workout or just chill can take advantage of this lake life hobby. Here are some ways to get started:
Paddleboarding requires three things: a board, paddle and life preserver. With the sport’s popularity, loads of area shops now carry a wide range of necessities. Rent first to find the perfect fit.
Here are a few spots with longtime SUP gurus to help outfit you short or long term:
- The Outfitter // Harbor Springs
- Paddle Guys //Torch Lake (literally, look for the pontoon near the south end of the sand bar)
- Crystal Lake Adventure Sport // Beulah
- Irish Boat Shop // Charlevoix
- Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak // Empire
Whether you want to take your skills to the next level or just socialize with a crew, there are lots of Up North options for lessons and group paddles.
The original Women’s SUP club in the Traverse City area: Thursday SUP nights are free and open to all, only requirements are gear and good vibes. Find weekly locations via Facebook: Womens SUP Nights (@womenssup). Not near TC? Google local meetups on lakes of your choice; new and loosely organized events spring up every summer.
Kate Bassett is news director at the Harbor Light newspaper. Her first novel, Words and Their Meanings, is available in bookstores and on the web. [email protected] // Erik Olsen photographs editorial and commercial projects focused on active outdoor lifestyle.