Donner Lake shimmers like black oil in the predawn light as a team
of paddlers roll their outrigger canoe down the grassy slope and slide it into
With the balance of a tightrope walker, each member of the team steps forward
in the narrow boat to a pre-assigned seat before the last of the six
the steering person or steersman pushes off,
sending the 40-foot canoe gliding silently over the dark, still surface.
Then the rhythm begins: a synchronized stretch of arms and twist of upper
bodies as the team alternating with three working on one side and three
on the other reach their paddles out, piercing the water, and pull the
Ive been doing team sports all my life, but this is different
somehow, says 39-year-old Leigh Fitzpatrick of Reno, who began paddling
with the Truckee Outrigger Canoe Club in 2001 and plans to introduce his wife,
Rorie, to the sport this summer. When youre paddling really hard,
you really become connected with the other people in the boat you have
moments when everything is clicking. The body gets transcended and you feel
the energy of the other people. Its a cool sensation. Twice each
week through the summer about a dozen outrigger enthusiasts from Reno, Truckee,
and as far away as Auburn, Calif., rise before dawn and meet at the alpine lake
for a 5:45 a.m. training session led by the clubs coach and founder Daphne
With their focus on a list of races held at Lake Tahoe, in the Bay Area, and
Hawaii, two teams of six work their muscles, ticking off intervals, squeezing
out more speed, and striving to make their 400-pound fiberglass boats hydroplane
across the surface.
Speed comes through efficiency the precise paddling strokes of six
individuals moving in unison, says Hougard, a 42-year-old professional photographer
based in Truckee, who began her paddling career in 1981.
Its quiet in the boat; the only voice is the steers person,
Hougard says. Youre feeling everyones movements. Initially
its by eyesight, but soon you do it by feel. The more you do it, the more
you feel the canoe. The bodies flow like rows of seaweed swaying in the
ocean, says team member Jane Delaney of Truckee, who has been paddling with
the group for about four years.
Its a fluid, aggressive power, she says.
These special boats, narrow steep-sided canoes made of wood or fiberglass,
achieve their stability through the outrigger a float, attached to one
side of the canoe by two sturdy wooden arms. This framework helps keep the outrigger
canoe balanced through choppy ocean waters and while riding swells and waves.
The outrigger, commonly seen in photos of Hawaii, likely originated at least
3,000 years ago when Polynesians began venturing around the Pacific Islands,
according to a group called Kanu Culture, which strives to promote ocean paddling
These canoes have been around as long as people have been tripping around
the planet, Dulaney says.
Team member Kelly Case of Reno, who paddled outriggers while in high school
in Hawaii, says it was like coming home when she joined the Truckee club.
In Hawaii theres a concept of Ohana, or family, that is so important,
says Case, a 36-year-old mother of twins. A paddling club in Hawaii is
an extension of your family. You can spend the whole day out on the beach, having
pot lucks. Its a real feeling of community. The outrigger club here has
brought Hawaii to Nevada, she says.
For Dulaney, part of the sports allure is the cultural experience it
offers. On her many visits to the Hawaiian Islands, Dulaney says, she has been
embraced by the people involved in paddling taken in by their loving
arms. People are eager to teach how the boats are built, how theyre
used, where they came from, she says. They share their reverence of the canoe,
and show how to be mindful, respectful of the outrigger, as well as press the
importance of not cussing in the boat, she says.
The paddlers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, she says, including women
reaching into their 70s and 80s.
You hug the old ladies there and theyre all solid, not squishy,
Another draw, especially for those ocean lovers living in the mountains, is
the special experience of gliding across a chilly alpine lake and seeing the
natural world yawn and stretch to life.
In the still summer mornings, paddlers arrive bundled up in fleece, gloves,
and booties as insects dance on the waters surface. Once out on the water,
the team enters another realm.
We get to watch osprey crash right in front of the boat and grab a fish,
she recalls. And the team has witnessed a fuzzy immature bald eagle, as he squawked
from a tree branch to his parents nearby.
Sometimes the lake carries a top layer of heavy fog, Dulaney says, and the
paddlers travel like early explorers through spires of white as the shoreline
disappears behind them.
When paddling, theres a real sense of order to nature that isnt
present in our day-to-day living, Dulaney says. And the teams who paddle
together develop close bonds through their efforts to achieve a pulse that propels
the outrigger efficiently along.
You become one with the people in the boat, she says. Through
paddling, Ive made relationships that will last through my life.
Martha Bellisle, a legal affairs reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal,
is an outdoor enthusiast who used to paddle sea kayaks in Juneau, Alaska,
before moving to Truckee, Calif. She has written for magazines on skiing, hang
gliding, climbing, hiking, and other mountain sports since the late-1980s.
For more information about the club, call jane Dulaney at (530)587-7504 or