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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

One Foot in the Grave

"What's a Joint Like This Doing in a Girl Like You?"
— Tales From the Gimpy Knee Club

By Tamia Nelson

April 10, 2007

Buckle up! That's good advice, even on a ski slope. And if I'd heeded it, I'd have avoided a world of hurt. But I didn't. And now? I pay the price. Whenever I kneel in a canoe, carry a heavy pack up — or worse yet, down — a steep slope, or slip on a muddy trail, my knee won't let me forget my youthful folly. It's a high tariff to pay for one bad decision. But that's life, right? Anyway, here's the story. It was February. I was young and cocky, and I planned to be a downhill racer. A friend from high school and I were squaring off at the top of a Diamond trail for our last run. I didn't intend to come in second, and I certainly wasn't going to waste precious minutes of daylight tightening the buckles on my ski boots. So off we went. The trail was a sheet of ice, but I wasn't worried. I knew I was in control.

And then, suddenly, I wasn't. My feet twisted fruitlessly in my loose boots. A large maple loomed up in front of me, black against the twilight gray sky. The impact shattered my lower leg. I even heard the bones snap, and a singularly unpleasant sound it was, too. Then my head slammed into the maple and I didn't hear anything else. I wasn't unconscious for very long, however — I can remember every jar and jolt of the sled as it took me down off the mountain. After that, I hobbled around in a full-leg cast for five months. When the plaster finally came off, I had to learn to walk all over again. It wasn't easy. My formerly hard muscles had atrophied, and my left knee had all the directional stability of a rubber band.

Physical therapy wasn't an option. My parents had no insurance. Luckily, the solution to my problem was as close as the barn behind our house: my bike. It bore my weight while I pedaled up and down the local hills. Gradually my shrunken leg filled out again. In a few months it was (almost) as good as new. But my knee took longer. Squatting was agony, and the joint sometimes simply gave way, letting me down without warning. My grandfather tut-tutted sympathetically. As a boy, he'd played ball in the streets of Brooklyn, dodging cars and taking his lumps with the other immigrant kids. His knees still carried the scars, and whenever I complained too loudly he'd just pull up his trouser legs to show them off. He always said the same thing, too:

"Welcome to the Gimpy Knee Club"

His point was well taken. I wasn't alone then, and I'm certainly not alone now. In fact, the clubhouse is getting more crowded all the time. If you're active, your name will probably be added to the membership roll sooner or later — even if you never ski into a tree! If nothing else, the passing years will take their toll. The upshot? Few of us can count on making it to fifty without getting our membership card. What about you? Have you just joined? If so, you'll want to see a doc first. The success of my do-it-yourself rehabilitation was a product of luck and desperation. Sensible folks with decent insurance head for a pro at the first sign of trouble. That's a good thing, too. Modern medicine really can do wonders — if you give it half a chance, that is. Then, once your knee gets the go-ahead to return to duty, the ball's in your court again. And if you're a canoeist or kayaker, you'll probably be wondering if you can still paddle.

The answer? Yes. You can. Just don't try to do too much too fast. Once you join the Gimpy Knee Club, you're a member for life, and the most important rule in the members' handbook is…

Primum Non Nocere

First, do no harm. You don't want to break what your doc's fixed, do you? Of course not. But paddlers' knees don't get many holidays. We're always putting them in harm's way. Here are a few of the usual suspects:

  • Getting into and out of kayaks
  • Bracing
  • Kneeling
  • Lifting boats and packs
  • Portaging
  • Scouting
  • Lining, tracking, and wading

OK. Avoiding all the activities that put our knees at risk isn't possible. So what's the next best thing? That's easy. Start slowly and proceed carefully. Learn your limits, then test them cautiously. And most important of all,

If something hurts, don't do it!

Or change the way you do it. Let's take a closer look.…

Getting into and out of kayaks.   Remember deep knee bends? If you're old enough, you probably did them in school PE class. This is now history, however. Since a full squat loads the kneecap with a pressure of more than seven times your total body weight, deep knee bends are no longer part of the PE curriculum. But kayakers who use the paddle-bridge technique to enter or leave their boats — it was the most popular method when I was starting out, and it's going strong even today — are still doing deep knee bends every time they launch or recover. Members of the Gimpy Knee Club will want to find another way. Try the squat-and-scoot method, instead. Or use a modified paddle bridge, bracing your paddle shaft across the bow deck rather than the stern, and keeping you butt high while you slide into a sitting position. This also caters to bad backs, as does squat-and-scoot. Still no go? If gymnastic exercises aren't your thing, consider trading up to a boat with a larger cockpit, or give a sit-on-top a try.

Bracing.   Locking your knees against the bow deck just forward of your kayak's coaming helps you keep control in whitewater and surf, but that doesn't make the pain any easier to bear, does it? Sculpted foam pads take some of the pressure off, though. And be sure to stretch your legs whenever you get the chance. Your knees will thank you.

Kneeling.   Canoes are simpler to enter (and exit) than kayaks, but that's not the end of the story. Kneeling for hours at a time is asking for trouble, no matter how young your joints. The remedy? Sit when you can — many paddlers would rather sit than kneel, anyway, even easy-to-moderate whitewater — or adopt the flatwater racer's high kneel, stretching your offside leg forward and bracing it against a thwart, pack, or the turn of the bilge. Strategically placed foam pads help here, too, as do the extra-stable, low-slung seats in some pack canoes and other tender craft.

Lifting.   There aren't many porters in the backcountry, and skyhooks are in short supply everywhere. As a result, paddlers do a lot of lifting. Boats have to be moved from storage cradle to cartop rack or trailer, carried from car to put-in, and hauled out at day's end. Packs also make beasts of burden of us all, and the longer our journey, the bulkier and heavier our packs. Members of the Gimpy Knee Club would be wise to share their burdens with their partners, and they'll want to avoid locked knees, deep squats, and sudden movements, as well.

Portaging.   The lifting doesn't end when we leave the put-in behind. Portaging is part of paddling, and shouldering the load is only the beginning. Mud holes, mossy rocks, and wind-toppled trees make even easy trails challenging, while steep slopes and beaver dams can bring any paddler to her knees in a hurry. So don't twist and shout. Instead, move slowly and deliberately, placing each foot with care. Share the load, double-carrying your canoe or kayak when necessary. Better yet, where regulations permit, use a cart. And don't forget your walking stick.

Scouting.   Think of scouting as portaging without a load — and often without a trail. The same precautions apply. Don't lumber about aimlessly. Watch where you put your feet. Make haste slowly.

Lining, tracking, and wading.   More of the same, but tracking and lining go portaging and scouting one better by adding the challenge of moving water. Take a leaf from the book of rough-water anglers and use your walking stick as a wading staff whenever you can.


Whew! Being a member in good standing of the Gimpy Knee Club sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? But you'd be surprised. Before long, all these precautions will become second nature. Just don't think you can drop your guard when you get home. It's as easy to reinjure a knee climbing a ladder or lifting a bag of groceries out of the trunk as it is to slip and fall on a portage trail. Easier, maybe. There are no safe havens. A gimpy knee is forever. Remember that and you'll be fine.

Sooner or later, most people trash a knee. Or two. And if you're approaching the half-century mark, chances are that "sooner or later" is now. But you don't have to give up paddling. No way! Join the club, instead. With a dash of caution and a healthy portion of common sense, there's no reason why you, too, can't keep on keeping on. The geese are flying. The water's singing. Spring is coming to Canoe Country. The La-Z-Boy® can wait.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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