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Polynesian Culture hits Truckee shores

Photo by Colin FisherMore than 20 canoe teams competed at the Outrigger race in Carnelian Bay last weekend.
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I didn’t expect to actually practice with them, but before I knew it, I had paddled probably two miles into Donner Lake.

We started on the east shore and made it all the way around the buoys on the west shore. I was struggling to keep in rhythm with the other oarsmen, and I think I pulled off the task, but still, it was an outrigger canoe, a sport born in Hawaii, and I grew up in Wyoming and Arizona – landlocked states. In other words, I’m not a paddler.

The water on the back of the guy in front of me wasn’t from sweat as much as it was from the wake of five paddles smashing the water.



“Have you ever done much paddling?” someone asked.

“| taught canoeing and rowing merit badges when I was 15,” I said. During my stint as a Boy Scout summer camp staffer in Arizona, we worked in the sludge pond we called a lake.



“Ha. Well, you’ll be okay,” the same random person said as if I’m embarking on a death-defying task with a blindfold.

Outrigger canoes come from Hawaii but it’s making a splash all the way here in Truckee with a small group of local paddlers. Outrigger canoeing is a sport growing on its own with its own Truckee club, the Truckee Outriggers, and races, such as the one two weeks ago at Carnelian Bay.

There are several different categories for outrigger racing.

There is fixed man, a race typically under 10 miles, long courses, more than 10 miles, OC1, or one-man outriggers, and OC2, two-man outriggers. The categories get divided up between open, novice (first-year paddlers), masters (35 and up) and senior masters (45 and up). Teams can be all male, all female or coed. Some longer races switch paddlers in the middle of the race. A motor boat will drop off fresh paddlers in the water and the have to enter the boat as the beginning paddlers jump out the other side.

Truckee resident Sharon Cross started paddling in1972 with a club while a student at the University of Hawaii. She has continued with the sport for 30 years now, taking it from Hawaii to the California coast and now to Truckee. For Cross, the best things about outrigger canoes are the camaraderie and “ohana,” or sense of family between the athletes.

“It’s a challenging sport, pushing yourself to the limit,” Cross said. “And I love being on the water. It’s beautiful.”

Many outriggers tend to be exceptionally athletic. Cross also skis, snowshoes and surfskis (similar to kayaking). Paul Laudenschlager races downhill and nordic skis, mountain bikes, kayaks and picked up outrigging at the beginning of the summer.

“The kayak paddling fits right in,” Laudenschlager said.

“I’ve been in the best shape of my life when I’m paddling,” Cross said.

Over the summer, the crew trained three or four times a week on Donner Lake, almost an hour for every training session of straight paddling. Judging by everyone’s large shoulders, it’s obvious they train frequently.

Hawaii isn’t the only island group that claims outrigger canoeing. The centuries-old sport also has roots in Polynesia, Tahiti and many other Pacific and Indian oceans islands. But the current revival of the sport is happening worldwide.

Clubs hail from all over North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and several places in between. That’s worldwide.

Rowing must be done in rhythm. If you are out of rhythm, you are jerked around until you find the rhythm of your fellow rowers. A rower rows on one side while the person behind him or her rows on the other, so that all rowers alternate.

After several strokes, the stoker, or the person sitting in the front setting the pace, calls a change by yelling “hut,” on one stroke, “hike,” on the second and then “ho” on the third, signaling everyone to switch sides.

The rowers are supposed to echo her to help keep in the precious rhythm. This evens the work for both shoulders, as opposed to using just one.

The Truckee Outriggers started up last summer and have been training on a “malia” canoe, borrowed from the Sacramento outrigger club and stored on borrowed beach right next to the Tahoe Donner clubhouse on Donner Lake State Park territory.

But with the winter months coming, they had to move it, and these canoes are not light. They are big, weigh 400 lbs., awkward and semi-delicate (don’t ever let the bottom scrape the ground, Hawaiian legend says it’s bad for the boat’s spirit).

So, what are the goals of the club?

“Buy our own equipment. We need canoes, paddles, trailers,” Cross said. “A sponsorship would help with that.”

The expense of everything has led the group to put on fund-raisers. At the Carnelian Bay race last weekend, they sold T-shirts for $15 and genuine hand-made leis for $5. They raised less than $900, one fourth of the way to buying a used outrigger canoe, one eighth away from a brand new one.

So the newly-formed Truckee Outriggers are going to keep punching away at becoming established in Truckee, and bringing a piece of Polynesian culture to our mountain hamlet.


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