Behold bellyaking, a new river-borne sport that begs the question: why hang ten when you can hang twenty? By Clare Menzel.
Jamie MacLeod is not worried about smashing her face into rocks. You’d think she would be, given that she runs rapids head-first on a bellyak, which is essentially the hull of a kayak that’s been retooled with a padded ergonomic deck, making it comfortable and secure for lying on top of and hand-paddling down white water. “I got more hurt in my kayak than I ever have in a bellyak,” says MacLeod, a former river guide. “I don’t think I’ve been on a bellyak without giggling the whole way down.…It’s so fun. As opposed to being in a kayak, you’re in the wave, you’re in the water. You’re submerged, basically.”
If you meet her on a river in northwest Montana, where she lives, she’ll wave her hand, encased in a webbed glove, cheerily answer questions about her bright-pink bellyak, and produce a waterproof business card from her lifejacket. After working for five years in North Carolina with Adam Masters, the creator of this craft and founder of the company Bellyak, MacLeod moved to Whitefish in 2018 to spread the good word. She went to trade shows and courted retailers but soon realized her real strength is grassroots proselytizing: showing off how easily the bellyak can surf and roll.
Since Bellyak’s 2012 founding, overall sales have seen an average yearly growth of 18 per cent. The watercraft is popular in the American southeast and Europeans have enthusiastically embraced it, MacLeod says, but she’s a rare bellyaker in Rocky Mountain waters. “White-water kayaking is a niche, and this a niche within a niche,” she says, adding, “I love it. I hardly ever kayak anymore.”