Thanks to their mastery of a sharp left turn through 50 feet of space behind the old Treadwell Mine shaft building, Sunday was the SEARHC team's day in the biennial Gathering of the Canoes at Sandy Beach, and on Gastineau Channel.
Paddling its white canoe, the "Toowu latseen," or "inner strength," SEARHC won the women's, co-ed and men's races.
The men's victory, by almost 20 seconds, ended the Tlingit Warriors' decade-long domination in that event.
One People prevented a SEARHC sweep by winning the youth race by 16 seconds. SEAHRC was second.
"It was awesome today; I loved it," said SEARHC captain, canoe instructor and men's race rudderman Greg Brown. "These guys trained hard, and I knew that was a plus for us. I told them the Tlingit Warriors hadn't been beat in 10 years, and if we could beat them, that would be an upset for people."
The men's course wound straight out from Sandy Beach, took a 90-degree right turn around a buoy, headed to the old Treadwell Mine elevator shaft building, took a sharp, 180-degree turn in a 50-foot space between the shed and some wooden pilings, then headed back to the buoys.
The Warriors led the pack around the first buoy and maintained their advantage to the shed. But all four boats - SEARHC, the Warriors, One People and the Tribal Renegades - collided in the narrow chute. The Warriors found themselves snagged on the posts.
"I knew we had to make the inside turn there, because everyone was neck and neck when we got there," Brown said. "Everybody else hit us in the back. It turned us right around, and we ended shooting right out of it. (The Warriors) ended up on the pilings. That was our luck."
In honor of Kake's Sam Jackson, the four men's boats stopped at the final buoy and paddled to shore together. Jackson, the former grand camp president of Alaska Native Brotherhood, died of throat cancer in late May.
"Sam was a great leader for our people, and we loved him dearly," Brown said. "Leaders like that are few and far between. We'll miss the guy, and this was for him. He must have been watching, because the sun was shining."
One People beat SEAHRC by 16 seconds in the youth race. The short course, straight out to a buoy and back to the beach, started rough. SEARHC and One People collided about 60 feet from shore.
One People fought through and opened up a two-length lead at the halfway point. They drifted wide on the turn. But SEARHC's turn was even wider, and One People cruised comfortably to shore. The Tribal Renegades finished third, and the Tlingit Warriors ended fourth.
Team leader Rachel Gallegos, 16, a home-schooled student from Craig, credited a poem by team member Lorissa Evenson and a song by George Holly for inspiring the victory.
The One People team had practiced about 10 times in the last month. Their boat had 11 paddlers for the race. The other boats had 13.
"We're really happy with our accomplishment," Gallegos said. "We just yelled, 'Ee gu.aa yax'xwan!' We needed guidance from our ancestors and that helped us get back here. With our paddles' help and our spiritual guidance, we made it."
Maori song, dance and drum group Rangimarie, the 2004 Celebration guest artists, made a surprise appearance Sunday in a challenge race. The New Zealanders, eight women and three men, paddled the SEARHC boat against teams assembled by One People and the Tlingit Warriors.
Rangimarie had trouble steering, slanting far right off the start until they were T-boned by One People. The Maori corrected, but overly so, heading far left, completely perpendicular to the intended course. One People caught the Tlingit Warriors after the buoy turn and finished first.
"We just had a slight confusion on the boat, but it was all good fun," said Rangimarie member Mere Clendon. "We're doing this to support the event of the day and our Native brothers and sisters."
The afternoon began with SEARHC's impressive 42-second victory over One People in the women's race.
The race began auspiciously, as One People's start was inadvertently interfered with by a safety boat. But the blue boat recovered, and climbed into second place as the four-boat field made a sharp right around the first buoy.
The Tribal Renegades, the 2002 women's champs, led by a length as the field paddled perpendicular to Sandy Beach and headed for the old Treadwell Mine shaft building. But the Renegades, along with the Tlingit Warriors and One People, carried too much speed into the tight left turn.
"We got slammed into the pilings," Renegades captain Victoria Alix said. "We became the buffer for everybody."
SEARHC managed to slow down enough to make a sharp turn and push through the congestion. The team carried the momentum and suddenly opened a 20-second lead on the field.
"It all happened so fast," SEARHC team member Cheryl Eldemar said. "It's kind of a tight turn, and you've got these pilings and a little building there. We all hit it at the same time, and we were able to nose through and come around. We just happened to be fortunate."
"If you weren't able to turn right away, the wind pushed you into the pilings," Alix said. "You guys (SEARHC) were smart and slowed down so you wouldn't collide with everybody."
"I was surprised at how small the space was when you get three 30-foot canoes in there," Eldemar said. "We practice on Twin Lake with static buoys, and so when we get out there where there's wind and tide and current, in some ways it's a different feel."
SEARHC pulled out a narrow victory over One People in the co-ed race. The two boats appeared to exchange the lead on the return half of the short course. But SEAHRC pulled ahead about 100 yards from shore and won by about six seconds.
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