On July 19, at the gracious invitation of the Hood River Outrigger Canoe Club, I took a metaphorical toe-dip into the pool of outrigger canoeing by participating in the club’s Tips and Techniques session offered every Friday from 5-6:15 p.m. From preparation to launch, from paddle techniques to call outs, five strangers and I journeyed together along a narrow channel of the Columbia, circling the waters with unity and grace. We became an outrigger team, rowing for the high seas amidst a gale storm that threatened us with seismic swells...

In reality, we rowed slow circles in Nichols Boat Basin while performing a variety of exercises intended to condition proper paddle technique and boat coordination; a little imagination never hurt anyone though.

The experience began at 5 p.m. when I arrived at the Hood River Event Site and proceeded to North First Street, or the eastern beach. As with most summer days, the sun was basking the river and shoreline this evening and the wind was a blessed billow that brushed the harsh rays of heat away; it was a perfect day to take to the water. I and about two dozen other adults — some newcomers like myself and some long-standing members of the club — mingled about, awaiting instruction. As we gathered, a sight caught my eye: From the south, gliding along the sidewalk on a teetering pair of fat rubber wheels came the canoes. Long, sleek boats with narrow seating and a large outrigger extending from the left side.

An outrigger canoe is a type of boat featuring one or more lateral support floats known as outriggers, which are fastened to one or both sides of the main hull. They vary in size and offer greater stability while not deterring speed, allowing well-designed canoes to be capable of both high speeds and handling rough waters. The paddle for an outrigger canoe differs from a standard paddle used in rowing or kayaking; instead of a double-sided straight paddle, the outrigger paddle is single-sided and used with a particular grip to ensure maximum productivity. The design and history of outrigger boats dates back to 3000 BC and is an important part of the Austronesian heritage and culture.

With the boats on the beach and the outrigger crowd gathered, we were separated into groups of six, which included at least one experienced club member. Ours was Todd Clay, a man deserving of the title “enthusiast” if there ever was one; Todd’s passion for the sport was evident in his pre-launch instruction alone. His voice dripped with excitement and anticipation, yet his steadfast leadership took control as he instructed us through a demonstration of proper paddle grip and stroke technique while still safely on the shore. As the boats were wheeled to the water, I gazed at my group. We held our paddles with taught anxiety, fingers curling around the wood like it were a lifeline. We were, quite truly, venturing into the depths of the unknown. What the waters of the Columbia held in store were a mystery, a well of uncertainty that was equal parts intriguing and intimidating. I knew, as they all did, that turning back was no longer viable; to leave, to curb our curiosity would be an act against the human spirit, and so we launched the boats and leapt inside, paddles poised to power our vessel with vigor into the void.

To begin, Todd had us row on the same side; an exercise in boat unity and coordination. In attempted unison, we leaned forward and stabbed our paddles on the left side, trimming just off the hull. Recalling our instruction from 15 minutes prior, we pushed our bodies back and twisted, bringing the paddle towards us without pulling with our arms. Well, we tried to do that. My arms immediately cried out in protest and my back had a few words to say about the activity, but I chalked that up to nerves and a few kinks in my technique. Our canoe had lurched forward and now began to drift from the shallows. Despite our haphazard attempts to power it, our boat glided across the surface like scissors along a strip of wrapping paper, the narrow tip knifing the water into thin ribbons. With constant reminders and encouragement from Todd, who had the sixth seat in the back to better influence steering, we managed to fall into sync.

Amidst the waters of the basin, we were one. A sole entity of paddling power, a unit brimming with aquatic ambition, destined not for the shoreline, but the horizon. The waves of the Columbia smashed against our hull in a vain attempt of the great river to reclaim its sovereignty over us. Our paddles thwarted its efforts at every turn; the water was foreign land but the canoe was our domain. We commanded its progression and direction as desired, never once submitting to the tributary tyrant that threatened our endeavor. As the spray of swells fell upon our faces, a lone command carried from the front of the boat: Hut! The call to switch sides, a moment of pure tension for newcomers. Yet, awash in our unity we completed the transition effortlessly, our paddles rising from the blue, shifting across the boat and returning to the water. In the echo of the hut came a new cry, one of jubilation that erupted from Todd; our progress was immeasurable.

The hour of canoeing was dotted with moments like that above, though perhaps the stakes were not as drastic. Our team continued to practice our paddle techniques and switched seats to share in the different responsibilities assigned throughout the boat. As time passed, our collective strength waned; without technique mastery, our shoulders and arms grew sore with each stroke. The adventure came to a close and we back-paddled our way to the shore, propped the boats back on their rubber wheels and once more found ourselves in the sand. The canoes were taken back to their storage cage, where they were swiftly and efficiently swept clean and towel-dried. The evening came to a close with the Hood River Outrigger Canoe Club members sharing beer and wine with the attendants and the entirety socializing for a bit along the shore. It was a quiet, content conclusion to my experience, wherein I turned, not towards the setting sun, but to the shore, the countdown to my return already ticking.

I’d like to extend my thanks to the Hood River Outrigger Canoe Club for their assistance in specific information in this article and granting me an opportunity to experience outrigger canoeing. The club offers programs for adults and kids alike of all experience levels and welcomes newcomers to their weekly Tips and Techniques sessions on Fridays at 5 p.m. Visit hoodriveroutrigger.com for more information.

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