High-altitude paddlers start season with wins

Dan Savickas

While most outrigger canoe enthusiasts spend their time training at sea level, the Truckee Outrigger Canoe Club logs their hours paddling at high elevations on alpine lakes.

“It builds character,” joked Daphne Hougard, founder of the Truckee club. “It’s unique to practice away from the ocean, not only on lakes, but lakes with altitude.”

Although the group practices in lakes, they race traditional six-person Hawaiian outrigger canoes in the sea.

“We’re like fish out of water,” said club-member Candra Canning. “It’s a warm water ocean sport, and here we are practicing on Donner Lake.

“We are at a disadvantage because while most teams started practicing in March, we were sitting up here in snowstorms. But at the same time we have an advantage training at high altitudes and racing down at sea level. We have a short season, but big lungs.”

Last weekend the club competed in a race down in Monterey, where they won both the 12-mile coed race in the masters division, and the three-mile novice race.

“We hope that we can make up in timing what other teams make up in ocean practice,” said Canning. “We get a lot of opportunities to work on our timing in Donner Lake.”

Outrigger canoeing is based on timing; the goal is to have everyone’s paddle enter the water at the exact same time.

I realized this is a concept that is much easier said than done when I went out with the group for a paddle.

As I began to paddle Hougard gave the commands from the back of the boat where she steered. “Stay together, keep the paddle blade perpendicular to the boat. Keep your head inside the boat.”

With a chant from the front of the boat, “Hut hike ho” the paddlers switch sides swiftly and continue paddling.

I was amazed at the precision with which the group switched hands and keeps right in sink. After a few times I started to get the hang of it, but I still had some problems fumbling my hands around the paddle as I struggled to keep up.

But one thing was sure; I was having a blast. The boat cuts through the water so gracefully and with such speed.

The stroke is short and deep while keeping the paddle close to the boat at all times. We practice a few race starts, four slow deep strokes that quickly merge back into a quick rhythm.

“In Monterey this got us out to an early lead which is a huge psychological advantage,” Hougard said.

“It was really awesome, we pulled out and front and then just took off,” Canning said.

Although the Truckee group has nearly 30 members, the morning practices at this point are nearly all women.

On this particular morning 10 women showed up. “It’s great, we’re getting more and more people interested in paddling,” Hougard said.

The outrigger on their canoe is reinforced with rubber straps and it is instantly apparent to me why they are trying to raise $10,000 dollars to buy a new boat and trailer.

“It’s our beater loaner boat,” Hougard said. “But we’re going to fix her up and give her a name.”

The group gets so excited with talk of their new boat.

Since their boat is not prime for racing, the Truckee club does not bring theirs to competitions. Last weekend they borrowed the style of boat they hope to purchase later on this summer. The results speak for themselves, two wins.

Canning says the sport revolves around the aloha spirit of paddling. “Since we’re such an anomaly, everyone is always trying to help out the Truckee team. People let us use their boat to compete. Everyone helps each other out – it’s like a big family.”

In fact the sport revolves around kokua; which is the Hawaiian term for the spirit of helping. The entire outrigger community belongs to one big ohana, which means family.

Besides another group in Bend Oregon, the Truckee Outrigger Canoe Club is the only group to bring the traditional Polynesian sport to the mountains.

“Last weekend a guy took some of our photos back to Hawaii to show people the snow in the background,” Canning said.

The team hopes to compete in six to eight more paddling competitions this summer. On top of that, the group is trying to raise money by selling t-shirts and holding fundraisers to buy its new boat.

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