The story of my kayaking catastrophe all started years ago when we were at the end of winter and quickly approaching summer. In Canada, it sometimes seems like we get 10 months of cold weather and two months of bad sledding. We were all tired of the winter doldrums. My puzzler was puzzlin’ about summertime fun when, as if on cue, the headline of an email from the local spinal cord injury association showed up and grabbed my attention: Disabled Kayaking.

Back in “life number one,” I used to love canoeing. As a child I often took the dog as front-ballast and canoed and fished around the lake wherever we hap­pened to be camping. Kayaks weren’t as popular back then, so the idea of getting a chance to try one in “life number two” was always rolling around in the back of my head.

Many things in life are dangerous, but the gray matter between our ears is there to help keep us safe and mitigate risk. We are born with a gut instinct that lets us know when danger is near, but our “intel­lect” gets in the way sometimes. Based on results — becoming a quadriplegic — in the past I may have been missing the occasional danger cue.

My kayaking adventure was a prime instance. With careful planning, even skydiving from 25 miles up like Felix Baumgartner can be relatively safe. Likewise, ignoring clues can make seem­ingly mundane activities like kayaking turn into life-threatening ordeals.

Disabled Kayaking The Fateful Day

We arrive at the kayaking pond, and promptly get to business ignoring said clues, even as the instructor lays them out in five simple answers.

“Isn’t the kayak a little small?” I ask.

“Oh no, it’s fine,” he replies.

“Where’s the seat?”

“I’m going to install it, it just came.”

“Any outriggers?”

“Nope, haven’t arrived in the mail yet.”

“Is this thing stable enough without outriggers?”

“Sure.”

“You’ve done this before, right?”

“Sure.”

Due diligence complete, I agree to give it a go. The crew performs the 4 ½-person, back-breaking lift to install a quad paddler into a ground-level kayak.

They ask, “Ya want your hands tied to the paddle?” (Which is affixed to the kayak.)

OK, even my Spidey-sense tingles with potential disaster here. He might as well have asked, “Do you want me to remove all possibility of survival in the event of a rollover?”

“No thanks,” I reply.

“Um, ’scuse me,” I say to get instruc­tor’s attention. No response — he must have me on “ignore.”

The kayak starts to move.

“I … uh don’t have a lifejacket on,” I say louder. No reaction — pushers keep pushing.

“I don’t have a lifejacket!” I yell (as loud as a quadriplegic can). Nada … no reaction … kayak is entering the water, and panic is rearing its head.

I yell at my wife, “Hey Terry, I need a LIFEJACKET!”

She lowers her camera and hollers, “Stop, he has no lifejacket!”

Low and behold, it works. There must be something about the pitch of a female voice that can cause grown men to freeze. Soon I am back on shore getting fitted with a life preserver. Safety first!

I feel kind of tippy on the shore, but things will be better in the water … right?

Slowly they push me off the shore and into the water. I grab the paddle and smile for the camera, confident that this will be another successful adven­ture. I remind myself to be careful not to go too fast or far.

Uh oh. I’m starting to lean left … whoops. Dang … I’m going over! I take a deep breath and roll upside down. I hear the water splash and gurgle as it enters my ears. I can feel gravel on my fore­head. I open my eyes to look around. The water is nice and clear, maybe a little cool but refreshing nonetheless. The bottom is covered with pretty round gravel. It must’ve been hauled in special, I suppose. There are tiny aquatic bugs happily zoom­ing around, doing important bug-stuff.

I’m grateful for the big breath I took, allowing me to quietly savor the moment while I await rescue. I hear footsteps splashing in the water. They will set me upright shortly. The kayak moves, starts to twist upright. Apparently, it’s the sec­ond half of the roll that harbours all the trouble, the first half went smooth as silk.

Terry grabs me and drags me ashore. I get set up into the sitting position.

“Are you OK?” Terry asks, “you were under a long time!”

“Yes, seem OK, a little wet,” I reply.

“Do you want to try again?” ask my trusted instructors.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

I get lifted into my chair, wet and unhurt except for pride. We collect our cameras, bags, etc. and head off to get some sun to dry off, leaving the scene of the incident.

Lessons Learned

I came away thinking about how I got myself into such a mess. I came up with a few points:

  1. You know your situation better than anyone else. I let things get out of control by being lulled into a false sense of securi­ty, as the event was set up by a reputable group.
  2. If the helpers are not listening to you, call it off. I should’ve put the brakes on a situation in which good communication is paramount for safety.
  3. Make sure you feel comfortable and have input on the situation.
  4. Trust your gut.

In hindsight, I ignored the many warn­ing flags that went up. I was so excited to try kayaking that I forged ahead with the adventure, even when it became apparent that the instructors didn’t have experience with my situation. I know many quad­riplegics have successfully kayaked and loved it, and I will one day too! We did come away with a funny video, and luckily nobody was hurt.