Hawaii Gung-Ho

The Pacific Rim's most explosive endurance sport combines speed, pain, and ancient tradition

   
 
 
Out in the Kaiwi Channel, which slices between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai, the sea can be disarmingly benign. But when the channel is lashed by the northeast trade winds, the reach transforms into a tide-wracked witch's brew of immense swells and foaming crests. It was through these waters that the islands' first Polynesian settlers steered their outrigger canoes more than 1,200 years ago. And it is along this same stretch of unpredictable currents that a grueling 40-mile race known as the Molokai Challenge serves as the epicenter of an endurance sport whose appeal is rippling far beyond its Pacific Rim origins to places as diverse as Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, Sweden, and Hong Kong. "Outrigger canoe racing is really going around the globe now," says Walter Guild, 43, a leading paddler who races for Oahu's Outrigger Canoe Club. "The basic design of these boats is thousands of years old, and they give people who are used to cold water and to rowing backwards a whole new perspective on paddling."

Although outrigger racing is divided into two phases that call on different skills—a June-to-October six-man season and a January-to-May solo season—elite paddlers tend to move seamlessly between the two categories and race all year long. This month marks the start of the Poa'i Puni Series of nine coastal races leading up to May's solo Molokai Challenge, which will determine the new millennium's first solo outrigger world champion.

A traditional six-man outrigger is a 43-foot dugout canoe fashioned from koa wood and connected to an ama, a V-shaped float with built-in rocker, which greatly increases the craft's stability and its capacity to carry cargo across the open ocean. Guided by star-based navigation, these vessels were instrumental in the dispersal of Polynesian culture throughout the Pacific, as well as a source of entertainment for Hawaiian royalty. The first European explorers in the Pacific encountered outrigger racing everywhere from Tonga to Tahiti, but most of all in Hawaii, where enthusiastic gamblers staked property and possessions on the outcome (a practice that prompted Christian missionaries to ban the sport in 1820). It was not until 1908 that modern six-man racing began in earnest, with the establishment of the Outrigger Canoe Club on Oahu. Organized solo racing is a much more recent development, having been launched only about ten years ago.

Today, outrigger clubs can be found throughout the Pacific: There are 102 in Hawaii and more than 50 in Australia. In Tahiti, the sport is practically a national religion. Inter-island rivalries are fierce, and paddling teams sponsored by local governments or businesses vie for purses in excess of $100,000. On the burgeoning international circuit, teams from as far afield as Hungary and Japan vie against the Pacific's finest paddlers in the Molokai Challenge and Tahiti's Hawaiki Nui Va'a race, in which teams race on three consecutive days, paddling across the 80-mile stretch of ocean from Huahine to Bora Bora. This July, when the world's finest paddlers convene for their sport's debut in Biarritz, France, outrigger proponents are predicting that the sport will spread through Europe.


 
   
Six-man canoes remain outrigger racing's cultural anchor—an aspect of Hawaiian tradition that is refreshingly unsullied by tourism or kitschy commercialization. Most clubs build their rituals around a classic koa dugout that is maintained by club members across generations and blessed with holy water sprinkled from tea leaves whenever it is lowered into the sea. "The outrigger canoe is so beautiful in its natural environment," says Karel Tresnak, a boatbuilder who moved to Hawaii from Czechoslovakia in 1986. "It's got so much of Hawaii and its heritage in its heart." There's nothing subtle or delicate, however, about driving the 43-foot, 400-pound craft through the ocean at speeds of up to ten knots—an enterprise that is so exhausting that teams rotate three substitutes during distance races like the Molokai. Spent paddlers roll over the side as the canoe bears down on rested paddlers who have been positioned in the open ocean by an escort boat. As the canoe sweeps by, the new paddlers seize hold, clamber aboard, and pick up the stroke.

"It's an adrenaline rush, for sure," says Mike Field, who steers for the Waikiki Beach Boys six-man, which struggled to a sixth-place finish in this year's Molokai after Field's paddle disintegrated under the force of his stroke. "You're absolutely cooking and counting the minutes until the escort boat drops fresh paddlers." The speed and skill of a crew's "changeovers" often determine who wins and who loses—except in the case of something called an "iron crossing," in which there are no replacements. "When you're doing it iron, you're pushing your body to its maximum," says Todd Bradley, an Oahu-based racer who has been paddling for 30 years. "It's the traditional way to race—no substitutions."

In contrast, solo outrigger canoeing is all about the freedom to train and race alone, while surfing a 21-foot, 25-pound carbon-fiber torpedo from wave to wave. A moment of carelessness, like getting caught too close to a reef by a breaking wave, can huli, or flip, the canoe—or worse, break it in two. (A top-of-the-line solo craft goes for $3,000.) To win, racers have to develop an almost mystical ability to discern and then ride powerful ocean swells. "It's like a big mogul run and you are trying to connect the bumps and having a blast," explains Dale Hope, a paddling fanatic who is writing a history of the aloha shirt in his spare time. "Spray is in your face, you are dropping into waves almost weightless, hoping your rudder is hanging in there, and wondering if you're going to pull it all off."

Learning to tame the big ocean can take years, and consequently many of the best solo racers are in their thirties and forties. But one of the sport's emerging stars is Karel Tresnak Jr., whose boatbuilder father produces some 200 to 250 high-tech one-man racing canoes a year. For the past two years,Tresnak has been enduring a special weekly training regimen involving 18 hours of paddling, weight lifting, cross-training, and heart-rate and lactate-threshold monitoring designed by his father, who was an Olympic whitewater slalom canoeist for Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Last summer Karel Jr. won the Molokai in four hours and 17 minutes, a full seven minutes ahead of Mark Rigg, his closest competitor, who was reduced to vomiting over the side of his craft. In some ways, Tresnak's trajectory into the limelight seems to mirror that of the sport itself. "We all looked at Karel and wondered how this skinny little kid was hanging in there with us," recalls Walter Guild. "Then last season, he just lit it up."


 

Yep, We Got Cable

A proposed tramway threatens to transform Machu Picchu into yet another mass-market tourist stop

   

In the decades since American historian Hiram Bingham first stumbled upon the Lost City of the Incas in 1911, Machu Picchu has become the most popular archaeological site in South America. It also remains, against all odds, one of the world's premier adventure-travel destinations. If you're not averse to some hard trekking, you turn your nose up at the bus from Aguas Calientes and hike the 25-mile Inca Trail across three passes higher than 12,000 feet, arriving on day four at the 8,202-foot site. Despite a daily influx of some 1,000 tourists, the ruins retain a haunting and powerful sense of spiritual isolation that can instantly transport footweary pilgrims into the distant past. But an incongruous intrusion of modern transportation may soon transform the place: Sometime early this year, a Peruvian company hopes to build a visually intrusive cable car that will zip sightseers up the mountain and directly into the citadel.

The scheme was kicked off in November 1998, when the Peruvian government auctioned off the rights to build the $10 million system to a subsidiary of Peru Hotels Inc., which already controls most tourist concessions around Machu Picchu.Advocates of the plan—who are eager to see tourism assume a greater status within Peru's economy—say the project would enhance convenience and revenue by whisking more visitors to Machu Picchu in less time. But archaeologists, academics, and concerned citizens argue that it would violate the city's status as a UN World Heritage site because construction could destabilize the ruins, which are perched on fault-ridden, landslide-prone slopes. "This cable car would be a crime," says David Ugarte, a director of the National Foundation for the Defense of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. "It's the cultural equivalent of driving stakes into the Wailing Wall."

For now, one of the opponents' best hopes of stopping the scheme lies with UNESCO, which is considering a resolution opposing the project. "We are very worried," says Hernan Crespo, the Ecuadoran subdirector of UNESCO's Natural and Cultural World Heritage Committee. "Machu Picchu was loaned to us by history so that we can preserve it and pass it on to future generations. We cannot allow tourism to threaten it."


   

Last Leap

A protestor becomes the latest casualty in the war over BASE jumping in Yosemite

 
 

On the afternoon of October 22, 1999, Jan Davis, a 58-year-old retired real estate broker and professional stuntwoman, fell 3,400 feet to her death on the floor of Yosemite Valley during a BASE.jump from El Capitan—the latest in a bizarre string of tragedies related to the hotly contested issue of fixed-object diving in national parks. The accident was witnessed by a group of 150 horrified onlookers that included Davis's husband, Tom Sanders, who captured her fall on film.

The jump was undertaken as a protest against the National Park Service's ban on BASE.jumping, and as a memorial to Frank Gambalie III, who successfully completed a BASE jump from El Capitan last June, only to drown in the Merced River while fleeing from park rangers. Gambalie had been a friend of Dan Osman, the pioneering "rope jumper,".and had been speaking by cell phone with Osman on November 23, 1998, during Osman's fatal leap from Yosemite's Leaning Tower.

Anticipating that she would be arrested, Davis jumped wearing a black-and-white-striped prison suit and a borrowed pack containing a parachute that, for reasons that are still unclear, she was unable to deploy. (She avoided using her own gear because park rangers typically confiscate jumpers' equipment.) In the wake of the accident, Yosemite's sixth BASE-jumping related death since 1982, park officials insist that the sport is inappropriate in areas under their jurisdiction. "We don't condemn BASE jumping in and of itself, but Yosemite is not the place for it,".says park spokesman Scott Gediman. Meanwhile, BASE.jumpers continue to argue that theirs is a legitimate form of recreation. "It's dangerous—that's a given," says Avery Badenhop, leader of the demonstration. "But we should still have a right to do it."


 

Talk Dirty to Me

Alison Dunlap's mud-splattered affair with the sport of cyclocross

   
 
 
There was a time when activities involving women, mud, and hooting crowds were less likely to be athletics than "adult entertainment." But that was before Alison Dunlap chose to push as hard in cyclocross as she has in the far more prominent realm of mountain-biking. "I thought, ŒDamn, this isn't so easy after all,'".she says about her first race, which took place in Colorado and ended in a sideways collision with a hay bale. "I just lay there laughing."

One of America's top mountain-bike racers, Dunlap, 30, burst into cyclocross by winning the women's national championship in 1997 and 1998, becoming the sport's most successful female racer in the last decade. It's an admittedly obscure.distinction in an undeniably oddball sport. And given that cyclocross is dominated by European men, her stature will have special significance when she competes on January 20 at the first Women's World Cyclocross Championships in Saint Michelgestel, Holland.

To picture cyclocross, think the WWF meets Breaking Away—a steeplechase conducted on hybrid road bikes outfitted with knobby tires, cantilever brakes, and drop handlebars. The sport, which was invented around the turn of the century by French soldiers who used bikes to keep up with mounted officers during wintertime hunts, is conducted during road and mountain-bike racing's off-season, October to February, on mile-long, closed-loop courses studded with hay bales and wooden fences that force riders off their rigs and into wobbly, bike-shouldering scrambles. With the ground often snow-laden, soupy, or sleet-drenched, sprints tend to culminate in Three-Stoogian falls as yelping racers glissade into safety netting, spectators, and one another. Which may help explain 'cross's appeal in Europe, where it is among the most popular of wintertime sports.

Although Dunlap capped her spectacular 1999 mountain-bike season with a national title, the cyclocross Worlds are her focus now. Which offers a potential milestone because she embodies the best hope for a U.S. medal in the elite division:.If Dunlap wins this month, she could be the first American to crack a vaunted European tradition. "But so what?" she says. "We'll start our own .tradition."


   

Leaving a Trace

Paul Petzoldt, wilderness giant, left behind an indelible legacy

   

In 1924, when Paul Petzoldt was 16 years old, he and a friend set out to ascend Wyoming's 13,766-foot Grand Teton wearing cowboy boots and carrying a few cans of beans, two patchwork quilts, and a pocket-knife, which they used to cut steps into an ice chute. The climb was, by Petzoldt's own admission, a foolish escapade, though a fateful one; upon descending from the summit he vowed never again to venture into the backcountry ill-prepared. By the time he died, on October 6, 1999, at the age of 91, Petzoldt had made good on that pledge by repeating his climb of the Grand more than 300 times, always with proper gear. Along the way, he helped to introduce a nation of wilderness enthusiasts to a concept of low-impact camping that emphasized good judgment and respect for the terrain.

From a boyhood spent hunting and climbing in southern Idaho, Petzoldt grew into a bearish man with enormous flat feet and eyebrows of legendary bushiness. At 21, he started the first mountaineering guide business in a national park—which eventually became Exum Mountain Guides—and in 1938 he set a no-oxygen ascent record at 27,000 feet on the face of K2. From 1943 to 1945, he prepared the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops for combat in World War II. His accomplishments as an educator, however, will be his most distinct legacy..In 1964 he founded the Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School, one of the most respected wilderness-education programs in the country. And in 1974 he wrote.The Wilderness Handbook, a compendium of backcountry wisdom that stood for many years as a premier how-to guide on the subject. "Paul had one purpose in life," says Jay Johnson, president of the Wilderness Education Association, an outdoor leadership-training group based on Petzoldt's ideas. "He was an advocate for the outdoors."

He was also an endearingly tetchy coot whose prejudices, passions, and irascibility remained uncompromised over time. Well into old age, Petzoldt continued to wear wool, drink his tea from a baking soda can, and delight in telling "anec-doties" about the idiocy of neophyte hikers. In early .November, a group of friends carried a canister with his ashes into the Tetons and .scattered them into the wind, over the mountains he cherished. 



The Incredible Edible…Mess Kit?

News from the frontier of nutritious biodegradable gear

   

Illinois businessman Roy Taylor readily admits he won't be making the cover of Bon Appètit with his latest product, an edible soybean-based polymer invented in the labs of Iowa State University. "Theoretically, it won't hurt you if you eat it, beyond maybe some indigestion," says Taylor, who holds an exclusive license to "commercialize" the innovation. But this doesn't deter the entrepreneur from raving about his biodegradable plastic, which breaks down and assimilates back into the environment in roughly 90 days. Although the brown, glue-like base material doesn't yet have a name (our vote: "Tastigear"), researchers have discovered that it can be molded into useful items such as forks, dishes, and knives—which are being tested this spring by the Department of Defense, presumably in hopes that Navy sailors may soon be able to fling their eating utensils over the side of aircraft carriers with a clear conscience. Taylor's Soy Works Corporation is also considering prototypes for future beanware: biodegradable camping equipment, such as cups, tent pegs, and ground sheets.

It's an idea that seems to be garnering preliminary approval from outdoor professionals who must log time picking up after careless campers. "Sounds great, because people always forget tent stakes," declares Kevin McGowan, an outfitting manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming. The snackable innovation also suggests another potential use: fending off starvation. Taylor's researchers are now working on edible cutlery to be used in "survival rations" in the military's MREs ("meals ready to eat"). But ordinary campers wouldn't want to nosh on a soup spoon merely because they run out of Powerbars, says Jaylin Jane, the Iowa State biochemist who developed the polymer after ten years of research. She finds the stuff to be only marginally less appealing than the average dog's rawhide bone. "It doesn't taste bad—like popcorn," Jane explains. "But it does take a long while to chew."


 

Sorta Like Stonehenge–With Pumpy Crux Moves

A Salt Lake City rock climber crusades for America's first urban bouldering park

   
 
 
"It was horrible," moans Scott Lazar. "They were envisioning children falling off boulders screaming, ŒOoohhh! I'm gonna sue the city.'" Lazar, a Utah rock climber, is talking about the reaction he provoked in February 1998 when he approached Salt Lake City Council members with a proposal to build the first artificial bouldering park in the U.S. Inspired by climbing structures in France and Germany, Lazar, 33, reasoned that a series of boulders placed in Salt Lake's Liberty Park could function both as public art and downtown diversion for young people without access to cars or expensive climbing gear.

Lazar's proposal took shape during early 1998 over a series of conversations with fellow climber Ian Powell, a self-proclaimed "art nouveau" sculptor. Together, the pair drafted plans for a 6,000-square-foot rock garden studded with 11-foot-tall monoliths of rebar-fortified concrete sporting sculpted holds. Each boulder would be surrounded by fall-cushioning sand and would boast hundreds of climbing problems ranging from beginner to expert.

Though council members were initially appalled at liability concerns, by the summer of '99 they had warmed to the idea—partly in response to a petition signed by more than 2,000 supporters, including local mothers who thought the recreational rock garden.might keep their angst-ridden teens out of trouble. With the help of $8,000 in privately raised funds, a $4,000 charge on Lazar's credit card,.and some donated concrete, the first of ten faux boulders is scheduled to be unveiled this month.

As word percolates through the climbing community, Lazar and Powell have already lined up at least one business prospect: a Colorado architecture firm that says it wants to incorporate climbing boulders into its shopping-mall designs. Meanwhile the project seems to have provoked some bemused commentary among art connoisseurs. "It's a cross between sculpture and playground equipment," says Dean Petaja, a metal sculptor in Salt Lake City. "But is it art? Well, it's an interpretation of a rock. It's art about rocks."


   
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