by Marc Schollett

wood paddle board

(WPBN/WGTU) — Balancing work and family can be a challenge. Some careers make it harder than others to earn a paycheck and at the same time find enough time with those we love and care for.

A Northern Michigan man made a dramatic change in his life to find that balance, and in the process has earned worldwide recognition for his incredible creations.

If you walk through the door of Jason Thelen’s garage just outside of Petoskey, past the sign his daughter made, you find yourself on the production floor of Little Bay Boards. Inside, you’ll not only find the birthplace of some of the most sought after wooden stand up paddle boards in the world, but if you ask for it, you might also get a dose of life philosophy, stand up style.

When asked what advice Jason would give a younger version of himself, he says, “Let it ride the way it’s supposed to ride. Be patient keep the things that are important and the things that aren’t not.”

Jason has ridden the ride of life. Four years ago he was working full time in home construction but missing out on those special moments with his kids. He says he felt like he wasn’t getting the chance to see them as often as he would like. One day, his daughter came to him and said she wanted to try stand up paddle boarding. He saw it as an opportunity to share an experience with her, but in his words, “I couldn’t afford to buy one so my option was to build one.”

Good with his hands, Jason “googled” how to build a board, and then using the tools in his workshop, he got to work. Jason says “that first board was just a personal triumph of something to do with your hands, to build something that someone could enjoy.” He hoped she would enjoy it, but he had no idea she wouldn’t be the only one. He remembers the attention his board would get wherever his daughter would take it. Jason says “We go into Glen Arbor and have 5 people standing around your car and you’re like oh great someone hit my car, it turns out they all wanted to know where the board came from.”

And that sparked a life changing moment. Jason says one day his wife suggested he make a board and see if he could sell it. He decided to give it a try.

That second board he made sold. A friend suggested he post his work on Facebook, the interest poured in, more and more customers started asking Jason to build one for them. Jason worked long days at his job, and then long nights in the workshop creating his boards.

As it grew, Jason’s side gig of board making took more and more time and finally, it reached a career decision point. He couldn’t go both anymore. He had to pick one or the other. Jason says “It was frightening beyond frightening, there were key points, family was the biggest key point. I have three small daughters.”

Spending time with them become the most important thing to Jason. With his family in mind, Jason left his secure job and created a new career. It was a risk, but as Jason says “it was enough to pay the bills in a responsible manner and be home when I needed to be.”

In the past four years, the demand for Jason’s handmade, custom wooden paddle boards has organically grown beyond his wildest dreams. Jason says “I have made probably 60 boards, I stopped counting after a while, I have gone as far as Australia and Switzerland with shipments.” He prides himself on being eco-friendly, using locally harvested wood not foam from China and leaving as little of a footprint as possible. At the same time, he takes great joy in giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else. Jason says “We build a board exactly how you want it. How you want it to ride, how you want it to feel, what you want it to look like, we incorporate all these ideas in to it.”

Looking back, Jason Thelen has in his words, let it ride. He found his priorities, took a gamble, chased a dream and probably never imagined how doing something to make his daughter happy would lead to something that makes him so happy. Jason says “it was a hobby it was a pass time I was doing in a little shop just enjoying myself, I had no idea I would be able to advance it that well.”

Jason’s taking a huge step at the end of this month. After 4 years in his garage workshop, at the end of April, he is moving to a new workshop in downtown Petoskey which is five times bigger than his current space. It should allow him to increase production but still allow him to be at home for his wife and daughter. 

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