United States

Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell

Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell

A serendipitous adventure from coast to coast 

At every turn, Bob and Nancy Nell’s stand up paddle journey hinges on some happy accident. A chance encounter, a right place, right time moment. You could say that first serendipitous event took place back in 2010, when Nancy just happened across a massive SUP race, before she had ever set foot on a paddle board. Fourteen years and some hundreds of paddles later, the California couple has traveled the country with their iROCKER boards, all for the love of the adventure. 

Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell


“I had seen pictures of people paddle boarding before,” says Nancy, who hadn’t yet herself picked up a paddle. Driving up the coast to San Clemente with her daughter, the pair happened to spot a sign that said, “Battle of the Paddle Today!” Deciding to see what it was all about, they watched as paddlers of all ages took to the water. “I saw women who looked like me, middle-aged women, who were walking on water, and I said, ‘This is my sport.’” 

Getting her feet wet in the world of stand up paddling, Nancy started out by renting before purchasing a solid board of her own. “I bought a board, I bought a paddle, and then I bought a car because I needed a car for my paddle board,” she laughs. Getting Bob to come along for the ride, she gifted him a hard board for their 35th wedding anniversary. “So, from about 2010 to 2017, we paddle on hard boards,” she explains. But a proposed family trip to Mammoth Lakes would change that. 

While Bob and Nancy had paddled up in Mammoth Lakes in the High Sierras multiple times before, they wanted the entire family to experience the majestic scenery together, necessitating the purchase of two inflatable boards that would fit in the car for the drive. “So, I did some research and I found iROCKER and I bought two inflatable boards,” Nancy says, adding, “And that changed everything. Because after that my husband said, ‘You know, we have a companion pass on Southwest, boards fly for free, you fly for free. Let’s go to Lake Powell and check that out.’” 

Arriving at Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, inflatable boards in tow, the pair discovered they needed leashes before setting out on their SUPs. “So, we went Lake Powell Paddle Board and met the owners at the time,” explains Nancy. “They had all these pictures of all the places they had paddled and one of the owners said, ‘My partner and I have paddled all 50 states.’ And when she said that, Bob and I just looked at each other. He was still doing his corporate gig. I’ve had a consulting practice since 2008. And we said, ‘That’s it.’ And that was the beginning,” says Nancy. 

Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell


And so, the pair began their 50-state paddle boarding journey. “At that point it was like well, we’ve got 3 down, 47 to go,” Bob laughs. “We’ve got it down to a system where we put the boards in these big black duffel bags, and we just check the luggage. It’s so, so easy traveling with these boards.” Flying with their two iROCKER boards and two iROCKER electric pumps, they covered 10+ states each year, with the pandemic halting their progress, but not their passion for paddle boarding.  

In determining where they would paddle in each state, they picked not only places famous for their beauty or historical interest, but also places personally important to them—places where they have family or had themselves lived previously. When asked about their favorites, it’s no surprise they have trouble narrowing it down.  

“So, over 50 states, I think it’s probably a total of 250 places that we’ve paddled,” says Bob. “We’ve paddled in small mountain lakes, southern bayous, cities, coastal waterways, some open ocean, marinas, small lakes, big lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and they’re all different. Every airport looks the same, every hotel looks the same, but I can think back on just about every one of those 250 paddles and I have a vivid memory of it,” he says.  

Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell

In recounting their top 10, they jump all over the map, from New Mexico to Idaho, Hawaii, South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts, and more. They paddled the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, watching as hot air balloons from the famous Balloon Fiesta glided right overhead. They made their way up Idaho’s Snake River all the way to Shoshone Falls, where the pair sat atop their boards under the thunderous falls, the only two out on the water. Paddling two hours up Kauai’s Wailua River, the pair then completed a one-mile hike to Secret Falls, a spectacular 120’ waterfall, before turning around to complete the return trip. And on an evening paddle in Austin’s Ladybird Lake, they were treated to a full moon ride with thousands of other spectators, the moon rising over the Congress Bridge—famous for its bats—just as they arrived.  

When it was time to complete the 50-state tour with their final stop in Alaska, the duo needed to do just one thing first. “We wanted to go back to Lake Powell to the people who suggested we do this,” says Nancy. Traveling back to where it all began, they made their way once again to Lake Powell Paddle Board only to find the original owners had moved on, leaving their son and daughter-in-law to run the shop. But, tracking them down, Bob and Nancy told them of their accomplishment and the inspiration they had provided. “They had told their story about paddling all 50 states to lots of people, but we’re the only ones to ever come back and tell them we did it,” Nancy says.  


Completing the 50-state tour in Alaska at a spot called Nancy Lake of all places, the duo could finally rest, put down their paddles and say they did it. But of course, that wouldn’t be in their nature.  

Along with some 80,000 photos from their multi-year adventure, a huge Rand McNally map of the United States serves as a reminder of all they have seen and done. A wedding anniversary gift from Bob to Nancy, the map features red pins from where the two paddled across the US together, pink pins for where Nancy has paddled solo, and blue pins for where Bob has paddled solo. “And now that we’ve started revisiting some of these states again, we have green pins,” explains Nancy.  

With 5 green pins already on the map and plans to add more, the pair have packed the months ahead with SUP adventure plans. “In May, we're heading to Santa Fe first, then up to Boise and the Sawtooth Mountains. After that, it's northern Wisconsin to spend time with friends and explore the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. Finally, we're going to Spokane to visit Glacier National Park,” Bob rattles off.   

When they aren’t traveling, Nancy takes the MBA students she mentors out on the water around San Diego. “And if it’s a nice glassy day, they wear out before I do,” she laughs. “We have taken people of all ages out on the boards. There’s nothing we like to do more than introduce people to a really fabulous sport,” she says. 

“It's about so much more than just the boards. It’s about traveling the United States, getting out there and meeting people,” says Bob. “There are so many reasons that we have enjoyed this, but the main one is that it’s something we can do together. This has fulfilled our desire to travel, our desire to be active, and most importantly, to do it together. We have met so many people along the way and in hearing our story, they all say they wish they could do something like this with their partner. We hope we’ve maybe inspired some others to go for it, just like we were inspired ourselves.” 


Paddling All 50 States with Bob & Nancy Nell