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The undiscovered majesty of freestyle canoe

By in Features/Sports & Health

NICK UBELS
The Cascade (University of the Fraser Valley)

ABBOTSFORD (CUP) — On placid lakes and untamed streams across North America, a small but impassioned group of flat-water aficionados are dedicated to mastering the art of obedience lessons for the canoe. Practitioners learn moves like the Axle, Sideslip, Christie and Wedge before putting it all together and setting it to music. It’s the dance sensation that’s sweeping the nation.

Like many other lesser-known sports, there doesn’t seem to be a hint of irony among those who take part in freestyle canoe. In fact, there is a quiet seriousness and fervency among the sport’s enthusiasts that belies their otherwise affable manner. Everyone associated with the sport thatThe Cascade spoke with was incredibly eager to go into detail, held back only by certain social mores and rigors of politeness.

This sudden switch from small town Mid-Western warmth and charm to near-professional levels of determination on the part of the performer and rapt attention from the audience is best illustrated by the opening 60 seconds of 59-year-old Marc Ornstein’s silver medal performance at the 2007 championship in Ohio.

In the YouTube clip entitled “Mid-West Freestyle Canoe 2007 – Marc Ornstein,” Ornstein paddles out from the shoreline where about 60, mostly middle-aged spectators sporting practical, decade-defying fashion sit in an uneven row of deck chairs while the announcer fumbles over the pronunciation of the competitor’s hometown:

“Alright, our next paddler is going to be Marc Ornstein of … There’s no way I can pronounce this, but I think it’s Honey-O Falls?”

“Honoeye Falls,” someone says off-camera.

“Honoeye Falls, New York,” he repeats, chuckling. “That’s okay. Marc, I’ll never get it right.”

The crowd murmurs and titters in gentle approval of his mistake. After the announcer finishes describing the paddler’s equipment, Ornstein steadies his canoe at the centre of the lake. He stares ahead in breathtaking silence — broken only by the timid fauna and quietly rippling water — and waits. The unmistakeable drum and synthesizer wash of Chris DeBurgh’s 1986 sex ballad “Lady in Red,” roars over the speakers and is met with what appears to be a perfectly executed reverse gimbal, spinning the boat 360 degrees in time to the music with one simple, fluid motion.

The thing is, no one at the event is laughing. They’re applauding. And why not? After overcoming the initial shock of the seeming strangeness of the routine, it starts to seem downright majestic. And graceful. And athletic. The skill required to possess such control over a canoe becomes vividly apparent when your correspondent remembers his waterlogged attempt to merely paddle a canoe in a straight line on a family trip to Frontierland more than ten years ago. The competitors easily tip the canoe sideways within inches of taking on water, yet they never bat an eye, or seem to suffer so much as a splash.

Inside the ACA

Newly certified instructor Laura Liebel told The Cascade that she was first drawn to the sport after witnessing Elaine Mravetz perform at an American Canoe Association event in 2004. “Watching Elaine paddle brought tears to my eyes and took my breath away,” she said. “I was so moved by what she could do. It was so graceful and elegant.”

Reigning national champion and three-time gold medal winner Marc Ornstein describes the sport as freeing in a way. “You’re floating in the boat, but you’re not thinking about how to get over there,” he explained. “The boat is a part of you and it takes you there.”

Ornstein first took an interest in water sports as a child, spending his summers at his family’s vacation home on the Delaware River. It wasn’t until after college that the New York native began taking canoe seriously. A carpenter by trade, Ornstein also operates a small custom canoe and paddle building business called Dog Paddle Canoe Works. He first took an interest in freestyle in the mid-to-late ’90s.

“I had read something about it in Canoe Sport Journal, it’s a magazine that doesn’t exist any longer,” Ornstein told The Cascade. “It took me a few years to locate some people who were involved in freestyle canoeing and I started going to some symposiums where you can get immersed in it.”

The roots of the modern incarnation of freestyle canoe stretch back to the 1960s when a Canadian by the name of Omer Stringer first began experimenting with flat water canoe control techniques. Canadian-style tandem canoeing was adopted and tinkered with by many other important historical figures in North American canoeing including Charlie Wilson, Mike Galt and Harry Roberts until it found its home in a smattering of large yearly gatherings.

The three annual American Canoe Association-endorsed symposia — Florida, Adirondack, and Midwest — do a fairly good job of summing up the geographical proximity of the freestyle community: the Eastern seaboard. But pockets of enthusiasts do exist elsewhere across the United States and in Europe, where Germany’s Kringelfieber is the best-attended international gathering of freestyle canoeists.

The freestyle community is a subset of the larger serious canoeing subculture. The group is mostly made up of people who are, in the words of Marc Ornstein, “attuned to the aesthetics of the outdoors and to some extent environmental issues.” In other words, freestyle canoe is much like scouting for adults. It is another response to the urbanization of the nation, another way to reconnect with the golden ideal of frontier life deeply embedded in the American mythos. Despite the little attention the sport generates outside of its admittedly tight circle of a few hundred adherents nationwide, the events themselves are well-organized and important quarterly milestones for the inner circle. Both Ornstein and Liebel likened the gatherings to family reunions.

“It’s better than a family reunion because there’s probably nobody in the room that you’re not looking forward to seeing,” Ornstein said. “You can’t pick your relatives, you know.”
Even at the competition level, Ornstein told The Cascade that he often finds himself coaching the people he will be competing against mere hours later. “It’s just like that,” he explained. “We’re thrilled for each other; it’s not a cut-throat competition.”

The Art of the Paddle

Music and clothing selection are both vital elements to any high-calibre performance. Ornstein often selects highly emotional, dramatic pieces. In addition to his famous “Lady in Red” routine, Ornstein has also covered Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”

In his first public performance — an impromptu rendition of “What a Wonderful World” at the Louisiana symposium six years ago in order to fill the minimum number of competitors — Ornstein wore a Hawaiian shirt, a small Greek fisherman’s hat and a pair of chinos. He described the adoption of his signature white shirt, black bow-tie and black vest as an important rite of passage in his immersion in the freestyle community.

“My friend Bob Moravitz and Roy Ivey, they were wearing the bow tie and white shirt kind of thing and I was always in awe of those guys,” Ornstein said. “At some point, I suddenly realized that I was paddling at the same level … and so at one point, one of them actually walked up to me one day and something like, ‘I think you’re ready to join the shirt and bow-tie crowd.’”

Ornstein told The Cascade he took to the attire because he sees interpretive freestyle as a fundamentally classy activity. And because he’s not all that into fancy costumes, this seems to be the best fit.

When asked whether he considers himself more of an athlete or a performer, Ornstein emphatically places himself in the former category. He’s never seen himself as much of a performer, but also says that he loves the sport precisely because it does not require superhuman strength. Just a little agility and a lot of discipline.

Wherefore art thou, “Colbert bump”?

Some readers may recognize Ornstein’s 2007 performance of “Lady In Red” as the already viral classic that found its way onto the The Colbert Report last June in a segment where mock TV pundit Stephen Colbert suggested canoe dancing as an alternative for Americans looking for a new Monday night past time to make up for the impending NBA lockout.

Despite the skyrocketing Youtube view counts (over 400,000 at time of publication), Stephen Colbert’s coverage has not resulted in much of an attendance bump at the symposia. Newcomers are trickling in, but Ornstein says that the sport has yet to reach critical mass.

Ornstein recalls receiving a call from a friend of his one day who told him that his clip had suddenly attracted over 100,000 views. He thought it was a joke and carried on with his work. When he returned home, he checked online and saw that it was up to 200,000 views. “Obviously, somebody posted it someplace where it got attention and… I don’t know how the Internet works,” Ornstein said, laughing. “It’s cropping up in places and people are starting to see it for the first time in 30 years, 40 years.”

Ornstein said that he actually quite enjoyed Colbert’s lampoon of the sport: “I found out the following morning when I got a flurry of emails from people I haven’t seen in years. I didn’t know who Colbert was. I mean, I’d heard his name but I didn’t know anything about him. In short order I found out what he is and what he does and so forth so anything he does is going to be some sort of a spoof.

“I thought he did an impeccable job on his research for somebody who is otherwise unconnected with the sport. He was factually almost 100 per cent correct on everything,” he said. “I thought what he did was tasteful. Yeah it was funny, but he was really trying to poke fun at the whole basketball thing. He needed something outside of the norm, that was a little, kind of an esoteric sport … and he or one of his producers stumbled upon this and it fit the niche. I was thrilled.”

Only one person attached to the sport that Ornstein spoke to was offended by Colbert’s coverage, and even this was fairly mild indignation. The communitywent so far as to issue Stephen Colbert a formal invitation to attend the upcoming Adirondack Freestyle Symposium which he never responded to.

“If he showed up, I think he would be treated as an honoured guest,” Ornstein said. “I think if he showed up to an event, everyone would say, ‘Hey! Thanks for the publicity and if you come out into a boat, we can show you what it’s really all about.” The gauntlet has been thrown. The Cascade can only hope that Colbert will take up Ornstein on his offer to wet his paddle, as it were.

In the meantime, Marc Ornstein can likely be found perfecting his latest routine on a stream somewhere near his western New York home, posting canoe-cam practice videos to his Youtube channel, or teaching his 17-year-old daughter the finer points of interpretive freestyle, when she’s not too busy with other teenage pursuits.

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