Fastened at the end of a long shaft, I dip the SUP paddle blade in the icy waters of Big Eddy rapid on the Deschutes River, just south of Bend. Feathering and dragging it as a directional rudder, I struggle to maintain a line and simultaneously smile casually for the cameras. Tailing out parallel to the paparazzi on the borrowed Aquaglide Black Foot inflatable SUP I was meant to model, a familiar scene unfolded. I ate shit, hitting a barely submerged lava rock, which ripped a chunk out of the Black Foot fin. Carnage.
Alas, the perils of whitewater paddle boarding. Luckily the Aquaglide team was cool about it. Due to their lighthearted, fun-loving, outdoor industry team vibe, my one-off modeling opportunity was a blast.
Product development was a recurring topic during the shoot. "How does this volume feel? Are you sitting low in the water? Is this a good shape? What about the decking?" Jackson Esselman, global director of marketing, continually inquired us paddle posers about a number of features.
Aquaglide designs and manufactures aquaparks, inflatable kayaks, standup paddle boards and towables for watersports enthusiasts and outdoor recreationalists. The company moved to Bend last October, after being acquired by Kent Watersports. Its offices are located on NW Wall and Portland, near downtown Bend.
Jeff Cunningham, who took the helm as general manager for Aquaglide in August 2018, following the acquisition, explains, "Before Aquaglide was headquartered in Bend, outdoor was already in our DNA. Having our base of operations in Central Oregon has solidified our team's access to research and development mediums like rivers and lakes. We can walk the walk, surrounded by so much water."
People may know Aquaglide for the 25 unique models and numerous accessories it manufactures. The company's inflatables can be seen navigating the urban Deschutes River corridor, Elk Lake and a myriad of other Central Oregon waterways.
What's so great about inflatables? Cunningham and Esselman say the ease of transportation and storage is a key factor. "You can roll incognito," said Cunningham, with a cheeky grin. "You may live in an apartment or ride a motorcycle. Aquaglide has a paddle solution for that. Inflatables make accessing the water so much easier for everyone."
Single and tandem paddle crafts are just the tip of the iceberg for Aquaglide. Internationally renowned for its innovative and one-of-a kind, water-based inflatable aqua parks, these mini water parks are blowing minds in over 80 countries. Picture a super forgiving ninja warrior gauntlet crossed with an obstacle course playground.
Cunningham shares, "Look for track-system aqua parks next year in local pool facilities. And summer 2020 could hold the unveiling of a fully functional aqua park at an outside venue, as well."
Coming from management positions with companies including K2, Mastercraft Boat Company, Mammut and the North Face, Cunningham got to know Bend in college, on rock climbing and mountain biking sojourns. His willingness to lead the operation after its acquisition was dependent on the company being located here in Central Oregon.
"It's hard to put a price on proximity poised for product development and quality of life for my workforce," Cunningham explains.
Esselman adds, "If we don't have an authentic love for watersports then it won't be conveyed to the consumer through our products in an authentic way. It would be so much harder for our staff to get out and enjoy the water if we weren't located in Bend."
Navigating toward the horizon, Esselman is stoked to build Aquaglide's community presence through local events, including river cleanups. Cunningham looks forward to being ingrained in "the fabric of the community, the way brands like Hydroflask and Ruffwear are. A local staple."