Polynesian Paddling on Flathead Waters

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – You would be hard-pressed to find many similarities between Montana and Hawaii. Sure, they share a country but they sure don’t share weather. Beaches? Nope. Skiing? Nada. Hula? Definitely not.

But there is one group in the Flathead focused on bringing a little more Hawaiian culture to Montana: the Bigfork Outrigger Canoe Club. Started in 2003, the club paddles its two outrigger canoes through the waters surrounding Bigfork and Whitefish. For years, club members believed they were the farthest inland outrigger canoeing organization in North America, until clubs formed in Great Falls and Calgary. Now, the Pacific Northwest Outrigger Canoe Racing Association governs these clubs as the sport grows in popularity.

A vessel originating in the Polynesian and Southeast Asian cultures, outrigger canoes have been used for centuries for transport, fishing and competition. Today, clubs revolving around outrigger canoe racing play an enormous role in the cultural and athletic traditions of Hawaii and other Pacific islands. Races range from short sprints to the epic Molokai Hoe race between Molokai and Oahu, considered the top outrigger canoe racing event in the world. Some of the older organizations are more than 100 years old, like the Hui Nalu Canoe Club, which formed in 1908.

That’s where Jennifer Vilar first started paddling outrigger canoes in 1996. Vilar is the president and co-founder of the Bigfork Outrigger Club, and spends much of her time these days leading the Whitefish branch of the club up the river into Whitefish Lake several times a week.

“I like the team aspect of it, and the social part, as well as the fitness aspect,” Vilar said. “I’m not huge on solo activities – I’d rather hang out and have fun with friends.”

That attitude delineates the Bigfork Outrigger Canoe Club from its more serious counterparts along the West Coast and in Hawaii. Although the club here does race against groups in Oregon and Washington, there’s a deliberate emphasis on fun over competition.

“You don’t have to be in any particular kind of shape; you don’t have to be from Hawaii,” Vilar said. “We also have a lot of people who have never done anything like this before.”

“We just would prefer that you can swim,” she added.

On a recent Thursday evening, seven people showed up at the Kay Beller Memorial Park in Whitefish to join Vilar on a paddle north into Whitefish Lake. The group’s Hawaiian name is Hui Wa’a ‘o I’a Kea, which translates to “Club Canoe of Fish-White,” according to Vilar.

Among those present were George and Roberta Smith, who both paddled in outrigger clubs when they lived in Hawaii. Roberta, who was born and raised there, said “it was fabulous” to find out she didn’t have to give up paddling outriggers just because she moved to the Northern Rockies.

“We were really excited to be able to do it here,” she said. “To be on a boat and see bears and ducks instead of whales and porpoises, it’s unique.”

George Smith, who used to paddle with the Waikoloa Club on the big island of Hawaii, said there is more to the technique of paddling an outrigger canoe than may be evident at first.

“It’s not terribly difficult but there are nuances to it that you learn,” George said. “You learn a lot about coordinating your timing together with the other people in the canoe.”

“You’re paddling with your back, and you’re getting your force through the torque of straightening your body back out,” he added.

The group launched the boat from the yard of Bill Tarr, who has crafted lightweight, balanced custom paddles out of wood for many members of the club. The canoe itself is a six-person fiberglass boat, with an outrigger, or ama in Hawaiian, on the port side connected by two spars. Traditional Hawaiian boats used for racing are crafted from Koa wood.

Vilar, sitting in the rear seat, served as the leader and steered the craft, which is no small task in a boat that long. The front paddler sets the pace and calls out when to switch from one side to the other, and the middle paddlers are typically the strongest and heaviest paddlers.

As the group accelerated north, past gawking tubers, Vilar explained that as a paddling team improves its coordination, the canoe actually lifts out of the water slightly, reducing drag on the boat and increasing its speed.

Paddling on flat water, however, is much easier than the roiling waves of the Pacific Ocean, but as the outrigger canoe entered the area where Whitefish Lake drains into the river, the flow picked up, and the group paddled harder and faster under Vilar’s instruction. The better paddlers, when ordered to switch sides, could transition smoothly without missing a stroke.

Then, once out on the lake, the canoe sped up, the paddlers enjoying the breeze, and the evening sun, and trying to avoid the speedboats and jet skis.

For more info on the club and practice times, check out the news section at http://www.bigforkoutrigger.com.

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