OC1 Essay Contest Entry - Melissa Ulrich

The following submission was made as an entry to win a OC1 from an amazingly generous donor, who wanted to see the canoe truly enjoyed, rather than turn a profit. Entrants were asked to submit an essay answering the following:

  • Part 1: “Describe how paddling has changed your life.”
  • Part 2: “How do you plan to use this canoe, and perhaps someday pass it along?”

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Melissa Ulrich, California

Looking back on my life, I was very quiet and introspective. Although I wasn't outwardly expressive, it was all deeply internal and came out in my art and writing. I never felt that brave or that strong, and I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I grew up on a farm in Missouri, and I spent my childhood exploring the woods and the pastures and the little creeks around our house, writing stories, drawing, daydreaming, sitting in trees reading books, and snuggling the animals on the farm. I had two favorite places, and both allowed me to be in the midst of life, but not visible: the hayloft in the barn and the tree-house on the wide, rolling lawn facing the pond. Nestled in the arms of the branches, all around me millions of shades of green, my place in the tree was perfect peace.

When we sold the farm and moved to California right after I graduated from high school, I knew I had to keep moving forward. I opened myself to new adventures and did everything that was just scary enough to grow my courage muscles: I joined a swim team my first year in college and later won the California Female Pepsi Scholar Athlete of the Year Award (which only one female junior college athlete can win in California). I then finished my last two years of college at UCLA. I loved the literature courses of my major and graduated with highest honors. The world seemed to open up wider and wider: I studied abroad in Ireland, explored Scotland, England, and Wales, moved to Taiwan and taught English to children for one year, and later moved to Australia for graduate school for two years. Throughout all of this change, I was still searching for where I belonged. Deep down, I longed for a place that was home.

After all of that traveling and school, I ended up in Monterey in 2013. I had my dream job writing and editing educational materials for National Geographic Learning. I spent each Saturday walking along the Rec Trail by the ocean to the library to get my books for the week. One day, I saw it - a beautiful, white canoe gliding out to sea. I immediately felt drawn to it. It was calling to my soul. I went to the next recreational paddle, and I knew that I finally found the sport that thrilled me and woke up parts of me I never knew I had. I joined the Ke Kai O'Uhane Outrigger Canoeing Club and went to every practice and race. Uncle Les taught me how to paddle as one, and how to trust myself and how to trust others; this vulnerability was a good lesson to learn. Coach Dale taught me how to paddle OC1 and encouraged me to keep being brave. Because of that support and training, I won the 2015 OC1 NorCal Sprint Championship. Those first two years as a novice paddler was a magical time of growth for me and it has shaped how I have approached other challenges in my life.

Canoeing helped me bloom in ways I never imagined. I found my voice, my courage, my passion, and my strength out on the water. The same feeling I had as a kid, sitting in the tree while watching storm clouds pile up, running as fast as I could down pasture hills in the warm, spring rain, and watching life from the warmth of the barn -- that same peace of belonging and peace of my true nature -- I finally found again when I would paddle out on the ocean, sit on my SUP or watercraft, and just be. There is a strange wildness in my heart that paddling on the ocean has brought out, or maybe that wildness and savage courage was always there, and was just too shy to come forth. I feel my Viking ancestors in my blood when I paddle down steep waves, chase the horizon, and feel the push and pull of the wind, tangling my hair into knots even as it untangles the knots in my soul.

The anchor that has kept me in Monterey the past five years, throughout various jobs and living situations, has been the ocean and the Ohana I found because of the ocean. Being able to go out on the ocean has been such a blessing. This Ohana is true family and true belonging. Being out on the water is my home. This is how canoeing has changed my life. If I were to win this very generous canoe, I could continue to grow and find my strength out on the water, and I could not think of anything more beautiful than to be able to pass this gift along to someone else who loves and needs the ocean. If I ever won the lottery, or even got a book published so that I could bless someone else with the freedom to get out on the water, I would love to buy my club an Unlimited. :-) The one thing that is always there is the ocean, and this sport draws in people of depth, generosity, and passion. It takes a strong heart to paddle on the ocean.


Melissa Ulrich grew up on a farm in Missouri, but found her true home when she first stepped into an outrigger canoe 5 years ago. She has raced surfski, SUP, OC1, and OC6. In her spare time, she likes to be creative by composing music, writing poetry, and painting. Someday, she hopes to get her children's books published.


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