Sea Kayaking and Canoeing

By | 2017-01-13T20:43:50+00:00 July 1st, 2007|
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By Janet Zeller
The sand at the base of the boat ramp made a scratchy sound on the bottom of my sea kayak as I pushed away from the shore. It was a warm June day on the New Hampshire coast, with blue sky and a gentle breeze, but my heart was pounding. I felt fear.
I had paddled canoes and kayaks for over 25 years, but this was the first time I had been back to the ocean in my sea kayak since I had become quadriplegic. Would ocean paddling be just like it used to be? Would I be able to manage my sea kayak? How would it feel?

As the first swells passed beneath my boat, I discovered I felt stable, I was in control, I was one with my boat again. Then came that old familiar sense of exhilaration. The fear was gone, I was skimming across the surface of the water, I was free again. No, paddling does not feel the same to my body, but to my spirit it is a gift. It is freedom.

Appropriate adaptations are the key. By making myself one with the boat through adaptations to the seating area, I can remain seated stably while still ensuring my skin is protected. Adaptations also help me hold onto my paddle. All of my adaptations support me, but allow me to immediately fall clear of them in the event of a capsize. Safety must always be the priority for every paddler.

For sure, paddling takes more effort for those of us who have disabilities, not only in getting the boat adapted, but also in getting into and out of the boat. So why paddle?

Nicole Haley, from New Hampshire, came to it naturally. “My family canoed a lot when I was a kid. I also love to swim and be around water, so paddling is a natural extension of that love, and I live about 50 feet from a river,” she says. A couple of years ago she started kayaking. “I went to an American Canoe Association Adaptive Paddling Workshop through Northeast Passage and recently bought kayaks for myself and my 9-year-old son,” she says.

As a T12 paraplegic, Haley says the difficulty is finding enough time around her work schedule and “finding places where I can get into and out of my boat while staying reasonably dry. And having a place to put my wheelchair where I can reach it when I return.” She rented a space on the back of a boat dock near her house this summer, so she didn’t have to load and unload the kayaks to go paddling, and so her wheelchair would be secure. “My son and I have very different approaches to paddling,” she says. “I like to go fast and feel the breeze and go in a specific direction. He likes to wander and look for ‘treasures’ to fill his kayak’s hatches.”

In 1999 Dean Juntman overheard a friend talking about kayaking in Lake Superior on the northern shore of Wisconsin. It sounded like a place he wanted to see. He had done occasional canoeing before the accident that resulted in his T7 complete injury, but what Juntman discovered that day changed his life. “Kayaking is spiritually rejuvenating. I absolutely love getting into the wilderness, and now water is the best way to get there for me,” he says.

He claims he is addicted to kayaking and currently owns six kayaks because, as he says, “you need different types of boats for different types of paddling.” His current goal is to paddle all of the Lake Superior shoreline. To maximize his independence, he uses ski poles to push off from the shore, extend his reach when landing his kayak, and for lots of other uses. Plus they are easy to stow on his kayak’s deck while paddling.

“The best things about paddling are you get out on the water and you can see what is going on just under the surface because you go at your own pace. And canoeing is good for sun tanning, too,” says Beth Shank, who had not paddled before becoming a T12-L1 paraplegic. A few years ago she did some kayaking and last summer began canoeing. The ACA instructors she worked with at the Adaptive Paddling Workshop at Cleveland MetroParks provided a canoe seat with a back and side support. As a team, Shank and the instructors placed closed-cell foams of various densities to provide the support and skin protection Shank needed. Despite flexibility limitations due to the Harrington rods in her back, by lowering the back of the adaptive canoe seat, a bucket effect was created so that as Shank paddled, her body didn’t inch forward and move her out of her seat. The result was a solid base from which she could put her upper body strength into her paddle strokes.

JR Wynne had done some canoeing before and after the 1986 accident that resulted in his C5-7 incomplete injury. In 2003 Wynne took up kayaking at an ACA Adaptive Paddling Workshop at Bay Cliff Health Camp, in Michigan. In 2004, he volunteered as an assistant instructor for its adult camp program. He became certified as an ACA intro level kayak instructor in 2005. He works for an independent living center in Wisconsin and has organized introductory kayaking programs there.
Tammy Wilber, of Seattle, had canoed a few times before discovering kayaking in the early 1990s. As a T5-6 para, she says she likes the independence she has in a sea kayak. It takes relatively little to adapt the seating to meet her needs, and there are a number of great places to paddle in the Seattle area. Wilber says that lakes where there are boat-launching ramps are good kayaking locations because the ramps make getting in and out of her kayak easy. On the ramp, with the wheelchair on the same level as her kayak, no one has to lift her in and out of the kayak. She just wheels up next to the kayak, transfers over into the seat, then her paddling partner stows her chair in the car and they are both ready to paddle. Because of this ease of access, Wilber and her mother, also a kayaker who just moved to the area, are looking forward to paddling together.
Her favorite paddling places in Seattle include Lake Union, where you can glide in and out between the village of houseboats — including the one in the movie Sleepless in Seattle — and Lake Washington, where on summer evenings she likes to paddle from the boat ramp along the lakeshore to Alki Beach. You get great views of the Seattle skyline, the mountains, the islands in Puget Sound, plus a beautiful sunset sky, she says.
Wilber sums up her love of kayaking with one word: freedom. “It’s leaving your wheelchair behind and recreating with your family and friends.” She finds many wheelchair sports are limited to only people who have disabilities, but says, “Kayaking is equally open to everyone, and on the water we are all just paddlers. My disability doesn’t make me different than any other paddler, except perhaps for the advantage I have with my stronger upper body.”

Leaving Your Chair Behind
“I don’t take enough time-outs from work to enjoy the outdoors,” says Jeff Schiemann. Although he’d never paddled before the 2002 accident that resulted in his T10 paralysis, a few years ago he tried canoeing when he heard about an ACA workshop in his area. “I can honestly say that paddling workshop got me to take a time-out and reinstated my interest in outdoor activities,” he says. In 2006 he took up kayaking, and says, “I really enjoy the kayak and am contemplating buying a couple for my children and me this summer.”

Tracy Pavlichek grew up fishing, boating and swimming. She’s been an L2-L3 paraplegic since a car accident when she was 8, but that has never slowed her down. As a teenager she learned to kayak. Now she shares her enthusiasm for outdoor recreation working with the Courage Center’s winter ski programs and summer kids camps. For Pavlichek, kayaking means being really close to the water, and that feels right to her. She says, “I also love being able to leave my wheelchair on the beach along with all aspects of looking like I have a disability.” Pavlichek finds that she needs very little adaptation to the kayak, just some seat padding at her hips to ensure she fits well into the boat and a bulkhead in front of her feet. With her feet positioned against the bulkhead and her knees slightly bent, she has a solid base and can put her strong upper body into her paddle stroke. Pavlichek says, “The first time that my paddling partner pushed our kayak into the waves of Lake Superior was an unbelievable experience for me. The gentle waves crashed over the front of the boat, and at that moment I had never felt more a part of nature.”

Al Khuns, a Texan who loves to fish and hunt, began canoeing as an 8-year-old. Now almost 60 years later, he is still paddling. An accidental shooting when he was 12 resulted in his paraplegia. He made adjustments to his canoe seating set-up and kept right on paddling. Khuns and his wife, Sandy, were both teachers who spent their summers paddling in favorite places in the U.S. and Canada. He says, “I like that when I go canoeing I can leave my chair in my pick-up truck, get out on the water and be as able as anyone else in a canoe.”

One of their favorite paddling and fishing places is the West Thumb Bay of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming. “One day my wife caught seven cutthroat trout before I finally got the canoe anchored and got my gear out. We had a great day.” Near his home in San Antonio, Kuhns says the best canoeing is in the brushy coves on Canyon Lake, where there’s lots of wildlife to observe and the headlands protect the lake from the wind. Though he lost Sandy last year, he is determined to keep on paddling.

As a child in Girl Scouts, Sue Bartels began canoeing. After an accident, as a C6-7 quadriplegic, she and her husband Chad began to look for a sport they could enjoy together. They attended an ACA Adaptive Paddling Workshop, received instruction in adaptation development and paddling and decided kayaking was the sport for them. Bartels advocates renting or borrowing boats for a while until you find a boat that works for you, and says, “Deal with a business that has a place to try out the boats.” As a quad, she found that paddling a singles kayak was tough, because she had to provide all the power to move her boat, and stability was a constant issue.  They decided a tandem kayak is a good choice for them, with Sue managing the steering and taking breaks as needed and Chad providing the power to keep them moving. She urges all paddlers to practice a wet exit, that is, to tip over and learn how to get back in the boat before going out on open water, as the ACA teaches. “Though you always hope to stay dry when paddling,” she says, “if the worst happens and you tip over, you’ll be ready to handle it.” She also likes leaving her wheelchair behind and becoming just another one of the paddlers. “Kayaking makes you even with everyone else who’s paddling. You’re not different because you have a disability.”

As parents of two young daughters with a third on the way, life is very busy for Sue and Chad, and so it is harder to find paddling time. But the payoff is worth it. “There is nothing like the peace of paddling anywhere with my husband on a nice sunny day,” says Sue, “enjoying our sport along with other friends, with our girls happy at home with a baby sitter until they are old enough to paddle with us.”

Paul Van Winkel did some rowing growing up in Belgium. In recent years he’d canoed among the alligators in the Florida Everglades. Last summer Courage Duluth offered an opportunity to sea kayak in the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Van Winkel, who uses a wheelchair due to polio when he was a child, says, “The kayak is great to get to places you never dreamed you would be able to go, like to the sea caves in the Apostle Islands. In the kayak you get up close to everything inside the caves, and everyone is at the same level. It doesn’t matter that you have a disability.” Van Winkel sums up his paddling experiences with “Go paddling. Life is short, don’t keep putting it off until later, because later may never come.”

As paddlers, we each participate for our own reasons, but the common bond between all paddlers, regardless of ability, is the love of the sport and its freedom.

Adapted Hand/Paddle Grip
Loosely fasten two plastic cable ties around the shaft of the paddle where the paddler places her hand to grasp the paddle. Place a 10-inch piece of used mountain bike inner tube through the ties. Tighten the cable tie on one side of the paddler’s hand. Stretch the inner tube over the back of the paddler’s hand and hold it in place near the second cable tie. Adjust the tension on the inner tube to ensure the paddler can pull her hand out of the grip, then tighten the second cable tie. Using cable ties that have a release tab permits easy adjustment of the adaptation once on the water.

Getting Started
If you have a disability or you want to encourage a person who has a disability to get involved in paddling, here are some things to keep in mind. There are many opportunities and programs of varying quality around the country. Here are the essential questions to ask:
• What training and experience has the organization had working with people with disabilities?
• What experience does it have working with disabilities similar to that of the individual who is considering paddling?
• What are the safety practices for all participants?
• Are life-jackets worn by all participants, including the instructors?
• If someone needs seating or paddle adaptations, how will those adaptations be provided? The person should be able to quickly and easily become free of those adaptations during a wet exit and should be able to do so without help.
• Do not participate if hands will be taped to paddles or individuals are strapped to seats by any mechanism. Safety is the key for all paddlers.

Opportunities for Paddlers with Disabilities:
• Challenge Alaska: canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, 888/430-2738;
• Cleveland Metroparks Institute of the Great Outdoors, Ohio: kayaking, canoeing, handcycling, personal outdoor skills, 216/635-3200;
• Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoors Group, Idaho: kayaking and rafting,
• Courage Duluth, Minnesota: Sea kayaking on the south shore of Lake Superior and Apostle Islands, 218/726-4762;
• Nantahala Outdoor Center, North Carolina: canoeing, kayaking, rafting, 888/905-7238;
• Northeast Passage, New Hampshire: sea kayaking and a full range of integrated outdoor recreation opportunities, 603/862-0070;
• Outdoor Adventures, Washington: sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands, 425/883-9039;,
• Paddlesport Center of Atlantic Kayak Tours, New York: sea kayaking, 845/246-2187;,
• S’PLORE, Utah: canoeing and sea kayaking, 801/484-4128;
• Wilderness Inquiry, nationwide: canoeing, sea kayaking, rafting, 800/728-0719;

Canoeing and Kayaking for Persons with Disabilities, by A. Webre and J. Zeller, is published by the American Canoe Association. Available through the ACA online store at Select “Books,” or call the American Canoe Association at 703/451-0141.

Want to learn more about adaptive paddling? Visit for articles, resources, ACA Adaptive Paddling Workshop listings and information contacts that will put you directly in touch with specialists in adaptive paddling equipment and instruction for canoeing and kayaking.

Got a question about paddling? Get information on canoeing and kayaking at, or ask paddling questions by contacting the ACA through