In the middle of the mighty Columbia River, from the last of six seats on a 40 foot long outrigger canoe, Val Stepanchuk tells us to stop paddling. We take in the spectacular views, notice the great blue herons, a Native American fishing platform, burn scars on ridges to the south. Eventually we talk technique. One thing Val emphasizes is the catch phase of the paddling stroke. Our paddle blades must connect well with the water for maximum efficiency and power. Val mentions nuances of the proper form for the paddling stroke and lets it sink in. Knowledge imparted, we return to paddling. Time to practice, to connect with the water.
Stepanchuk is the glue, the ginger-bearded hub around which local paddlers orbit. I first met Val because he lived nearby and had done work on our house. Early on, we knew he was interested in starting a non-profit, perhaps a club or a camp– something connected with the water. My wife and I started seeing him regularly head to the river with a one or two person outrigger canoe on his roof. We also saw him at a local restaurant, usually with a large grin and an easy way of talking for someone who didn’t emigrate to the U.S. until he was a teen. At some point late in the spring, we started heading to the pebbly beach multiple times a week to canoe. He invited us to join him, and in the six person outrigger canoe, we learned to paddle a Tahitian style canoe. Val is the paddle captain, a coach become our friend.
The laughter and splashing surrounding the giant yellow floating island at an informal waterfront picnic offer a clue to Dave Lipps’ generosity and community spirit. Seemingly every time there was a riverside community gathering last summer, the Thunder Island Brewing founder towed a trailer with a huge yellow foam roll like a gym mat alongside a paddle boat, perhaps a kayak. Anyone was welcome to play with them. And anyone means everyone, from the local fire chief, a city council member, the captain of the Sternwheeler, even a friendly rival brewer. Dave frequently hoists his twin boys in the crook of each arm, talking to everyone. People bring food and meet their neighbors. They try a kayak or paddleboard. Some try the six man outrigger canoe. Lipps seems to watch it all. Soon it became clear that generosity on the part of the Lipps helped drive the creation of the club. The kids jumping on the floating island? That’s just a smile-inducing side effect.
Rob Peterson moved to the Gorge a few years ago and already seems more aware of all the goings on than anyone I know. The straight-faced dynamo is constantly finding ways to get involved in the community. We actually met on a trash clean up day at a popular local hiking area one gray February day. I started noticing his name on a community social media group, frequently sharing information and ideas. Rob rowed when he attended college in California, so getting involved in the canoe club was no stretch, and he seems always to be thinking of ways to do more. The club is just one great way to have fun and get involved with the Gorge community in a different way.
The paddling community as a whole seems extraordinarily friendly and willing to be helpful. Joey Alvarez, director of ARE Outrigger World, has been a big help to the club since it has begun. So far, Gorge Canoe Club has grown organically with curious locals learning from Stepanchuk and other experienced paddlers from the Gorge and beyond. As Justin Feesago of the Castaways club said, different things drew each of the club members to the Columbia River Gorge, so we are already rooted here. The club has come to seem like a natural development in an amazing place to live, the classic icing on the cake. The only question is German chocolate, red velvet, or carrot cake? See you on the river.
~ Josh Baker