At first, the silhouette looked familiar — a person in a pointed hat with a long robe holding a broom-shaped object. But the setting felt out of place.
What would a witch be doing on water, of all places, let alone with an entire coven?
Every October, hundreds of witches appear on bodies of water across the United States, floating on lakes and bays, ponds and harbors. Instead of brooms, they glide on stand-up paddle boards. And while these events are known as witch paddles and number in the dozens, the participants are not on the water to menace. Some of the witches are paddling for charities, and some are just having fun.
“Four hundred people dressed as witches launching at the same time is wild to see,” said Anna Marie Madai, a co-founder of a witch paddle in Littleton, Colo.
Witch paddles tend to come about in a similar way: A few friends see one and want to imitate it. They get together to have a laugh, and then more people start showing up, seeking camaraderie and entertainment.
Such was the case with Ms. Madai, who had seen witch paddles and wanted to start her own with a friend three years ago. The next thing they knew, 80 people had shown up to Chatfield State Park. This month, more than 400 witches and warlocks mounted their paddle boards and left the banks of the reservoir en masse, crossing the water together for two hours.
Ms. Madai does not consider herself to be a big fan of Halloween, but she is a big fan of witches.
“Being called a witch, in general, is something that can be taken so negatively,” Ms. Madai said. “But, to me, it signifies embracing your own inner power and inner strength and being who you truly are without remorse.”
For Christine Irons, an organizer of a witch paddle near Tampa, Fla., the event combines two of her passions: paddling and Halloween.
“To see it done on the water in this region,” she said, “is a really special setting.”
Paddlers from all over Florida come for the two-day event on the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs and the Pithlachascotee River in New Port Richey, meandering through the narrow, busy commercial stretches of the rivers, past Spanish moss and mangroves and waterfront restaurants.
Even on decorated boards, including a double board with a billowing smoke machine, Ms. Irons carries a megaphone to alert witches if a boat is coming through.
Before the witch paddle in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Tara Scheller, the owner of Rivertowns SUP and Yoga, and other experienced paddlers scout the Hudson River and make sure the currents and winds are in their favor. Safety is a priority, she said, to make sure the cauldrons, black cats, witches and warlocks are safe and sound on their boards.
Maybe the magic comes from the location, the setting for Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or maybe it’s “something in you and tapping into that,” Ms. Scheller said. But at the witch paddle, and during Halloween in general, she said, “you can be something more.”
“For me, it’s very surreal being on the water and looking out at everyone,” she said. “It’s so much positive energy and good vibes. Everyone feels good.”
There is a similar energy at the Morro Bay paddle along California’s central coast. It started a decade ago, and organizers believe it to be one of the first witch paddles in the country. The paddle began as a way to celebrate friends who had birthdays around Halloween. Now hundreds of paddlers show up at the end of every October.
As paddlers traverse the bay, onlookers cheer them on.
“You’re a celebrity going up and down the coast,” Annette Ausseresses, one of the organizers, said. “We’ll start cackling at them — they love that. We get this little banter going back and forth.”
Some paddlers will learn how to paddle-board just for the occasion. A few inevitably end up in the water, Ms. Ausseresses said, but it’s all in good fun.
“It’s amazing when you do something for fun and it spreads,” she said.