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Mr. Crayfish and I

While working out with aquatic exercise, under the guidance of the instructor, Robyn Ericksen I learned that there was a kayak group for limited access paddlers, training at night in the pool. These injured veterans were striving to overcome or adapt to their individual injuries. The healing quality of water has long been known and the independence required to control a kayak increases self assurance, besides being a lot of fun. For me a win-win situation I get to learn to paddle a kayak and have a chance to help my fellow vets. So, I went down and joined in. We worked on strokes, low braces and high braces and of course, exiting the kayak when you capsize… notice I said when not if.

After a few weeks, Ralph Marche, head of volunteer services and leader of our group, announced we had been invited by Still River Outfitters of Vermont, to participate in a training trip down the White river. The reason given was they wanted to say thank you to our vets. We of course were very excited and all of us who could, immediately signed up for the trip. The group originally consisted of about a dozen participants along with an equal number of volunteer assistants a couple of them were great looking women, actually therapy technicians at the VA and volunteers for this event, but to me they were 50/50s. To fit in socially I would have to lose fifty pounds and fifty years. Oh well I can dream.

Early Saturday morning, a few of us met and carpooled up to Windsor, VT where we met with the rest of the group and were greeted warmly by Craig Carmody and David Cudmore, the owners of Still River Outfitters Inc. In addition they had enlisted the help of about a dozen kayaking experts with years of experience and some of them champions in varied areas of competition. They all had teaching certifications or were working on their certifications. They were anxious to work with real adaptive paddlers to see how much they could do and the spirit they displayed. We spanned the range from quadriplegic, to multiple amputees, to able-bodied. Craig and one of his crew gave us a briefing on what to expect and used poster sized pictures to demonstrate the safety points they were covering. Then we went into the store area where we outfitted with a farmer John wetsuit a spray jacket and a pfd. We then loaded up a mountain of kayaks and we were off to the river several miles away. Then reality set in.

The seemingly 50 ft river banks were straight up and down, and I swear more than 90 degrees - and no elevators. In fact almost everything in Vermont is straight up and down. Mike Guilbault said, "Just aim my wheel chair so I don't hit a rock and turn me loose."

All kidding aside, the banks were very high and very steep and Mike did say it. With the assistance of four strong guys and Michelle, they wrestled Mike in his wheelchair down a path a mountain goat would hesitate going down. Finally, after the rest of the wheel chairs were taken down, we all gathered on this huge rock and the first thing we had to do was demonstrate our ability to exit the kayak underwater. I hate cold water!! I have had a number of unhappy adventures involving cold water, but after a lot of moaning and groaning, I volunteered to be first to try my luck. The water must have been a lot warmer than they claimed because it felt just fine.

Now the trip started. Each of us inexperienced paddlers was paired up with an instructor whom I began to think of as my guardian angel. Mine was named Damon Burguard. He was a representative for the Jackson Kayak Co. He and I paddled down the river and we came to a disturbance in the water and explained it was an eddy line and I was to hit it at an angle and paddle hard. I hit it at an angle and paddled hard but half way through I lost control of the bow and I spun round and promptly rolled over.

That's when I met Mr. Crayfish. He tipped his hat gave me a high- five and said, "Best you get out of that thing before they miss you." So I grabbed the ejection seat handle and bailed out.

As my head broke the water several people were screaming "nose and toes". Now I remembered Craig had mentioned that during the briefing. So I made sure they all could see my toes. I was perfectly willing to cooperate with these nice people but I didn't understand why. Along came my guardian angel and explained to me that in swift water it is easy to trap a foot in the rocks and the force of the water can knock you down and drown you even in shallow water. Speaking of rocks, every rock seemed to have a layer of algae making them slicker than greased________(fill in your own word).

The next obstacle, was a large rock, with a whole lot of water flowing around and down. I got half way down and away went my bow and away went me.

"Nice to see you again," said Mr. Crayfish.

And of course everyone got to admire my toes again. After each event Damon would explain what went wrong and how I could do better. On the next drop by some miracle and a lot of muscle I managed to get through on top and got a lot of encouragement. As I bowed to the applause I stopped paying attention, ran into some rocks in the shallows, and Mr. Crayfish gave me another hi-five.

For the rest of the trip things were pretty much the same except now Mr. Crayfish was massaging my butt with coconut sized rocks and I was working so hard I was steaming. It was fogging up my glasses and soon I was flying blind. Every so often Damon would shout out, "Watch out for that rock!" and I would avoid a visit to Mr. Crayfish.

Finally we gathered in an eddy pool for the approach to the last obstacle. I was very weary, Damon suggested I ride the raft for the rest of the way but I said I would finish it. But when I got to the gathering place, I looked over and saw a small water fall and thought it was the next obstacle. My heart sank. I said, "Show me to the raft."

The idea of imitating a salmon was just more than I was willing to attempt, as weary as I was. It wasn't until I was settled in the raft that I learned I had psyched myself out and this was not the last obstacle. Oh well, I got to meet three cute little girls the oldest eleven, Craig's daughters. The older daughter was very knowledgeable about the river and acted as our guide and part of the propulsion team. Mike and a young guy completed the crew. We finally reached the take out spot and now came the task of moving our gear up another steep slope. Eventually we got everything organized and loaded up on the trucks.

When we got back to the outfitters area to our surprise Craig's wife had started a barbeque. Even if we had not spent the last 5 hours on the river it would have been delicious but to us it was like "manna from heaven". Craig built a fire and we sat around with the kids making "smores". Ed Dusic (jokingly called special Ed) introduced us to the wonders of Everglo (an interesting liquor). We sat around the fire as it died out, no one wanting to leave. Finally, a thunderstorm drove us out and we went to our motel, tired but happy.

Written by: John Young - Abington, MA

For more great stories: See the Archive!

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