Outrigger canoe club brings Hawaiian traditions to Northwest

Columbia River Outrigger Canoe Club has family feel

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer

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I was off-rhythm, paddling in a foreign vessel with a wooden paddle that looked like a decoration. My lower back, out of shape and not used to this movement, was tight. But, oh, that mid-summer sunset on the Columbia River.

We were in a six-seated outrigger canoe called “Weird Eddie.”

“We consider the wa’a, or the boat, one of the crew,” said Doug Keeney, a Camas resident and president of the Columbia River Outrigger Canoe Club (CROCC). “She is there to protect us along the water and we’re there to move her forward.”

Her sister canoes, “Po’Anuenue” and “‘Iwalani,” are also part of the CROCC family — the Ohana. Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family and on this summer evening, I’m a part of it.

Outrigger canoeing, particularly in the United States, has its roots in Hawaiian history.

Many of the settlers who came to the islands arrived from distant Polynesian islands via outrigger canoes that had as many as 80 seats.

Part of the CROCC mission has always been to remember and respect those roots. Some club members have taken Hawaiian language classes, and all commands on the boat are given in Hawaiian language.

After years of rugby wore on his body and seasonal dragon boating for the Portland Rose Festival was too inconsistent for his liking, Keeney discovered outrigger canoeing thanks to a Facebook post.

He quickly became hooked on a sport that merged his interest in cultures of native peoples and his desire to be fit.

“I instantly felt at home,” Keeney said. “In typical Hawaiian tradition, it’s the true feeling of Aloha, of being part of the Ohana or the family.”

After his introductory recreational paddle on the Columbia, Keeney immediately called to purchase his own paddle.

“For me it was hook, line and sinker,” Keeney said.

The sense of being involved in something bigger than just the sport keeps many CROCC members around, Keeney said — even those who don’t want to race.

“All of a sudden, I gained a team of people that are there to support me,” he said. “And if I have problems, I’ll call them. You do find that in a lot of sports. But it does seem a lot more energized in CROCC and in the paddling community.”

Success in races requires weeks of practice so that the six paddlers and their boat to work as one.

“Once all six people and the boat sink into one unison, one heartbeat, and you start tearing through the water and you start catching waves, there’s an exhilaration that happens,” Keeney said.

Being the beginner, I learned how much trouble the slightest timing mistake can make. Near perfection is needed. It was hard to imagine those ancient, 80-seat canoes crossing the Pacific from Polynesia to Hawaii.

Since its founding in 1992, the Columbia River Outrigger Canoe Club has seen its membership ebb and flow. Kenney said the CROCC aspires to add a program for teenagers, and a para-paddling program with modified boats for challenged athletes. Those goals reflect the inclusive spirit of the club.

“Knowing the history of the club itself, it’s gone from being a large club of a lot of people down to a small club of few people,” Keeney said. “But in essence, the heart of CROCC will always stay.”