Paralyzed kayakers tackle two-month trip

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003

JUNEAU Like any group of kayakers who reach a destination after two months of travel, nine paddlers from Great Britain who arrived in Juneau from Vancouver, British Columbia, one recent evening were happy to have some of life's comforts.

But along with a home-cooked meal, a dry bed and a chance to talk with loved ones, two of the British paddlers had an unexpected longing.

''I missed my wheelchair,'' said Karen Paul, a kayaker, monoskier, swimmer and handcycler who is paralyzed from the chest down.

Paul and Adrian Disney, also paralyzed, spent the last two months with seven ''able-bodied'' people paddling up the Inside Passage. The trip, which began on June 12, was organized by Interventure, a nonprofit organization Paul started two years ago to help disabled people access the outdoors.

The group's trip from Vancouver to Juneau was the organization's first international trip, said Suresh Paul, Karen's husband.

A portion of the trip was funded by the Neville Schulman Challenge Award, which is administered by Britain's Royal Geographic Society. The paddlers raised money and used their own money to pay for the trip, which cost about $32,000.

The logistics of a multi-month trip in the wilderness with two disabled travelers are tricky, said Karen Paul.

Because they spent most of their days in kayaks and away from any sort of pavement, the two paralyzed paddlers had little need for wheelchairs.

''In the wild, we had these transit seats,'' Paul said.

The seven able-bodied kayakers would use the canvas transit seats to carry Paul and Disney to each night's campsite. While the others set up tents and prepared camp, the paralyzed athletes cooked the night's meal.

While kayaking, Paul and Disney had to sit on modified seats that supported their backs and protected them from pressure sores. The disabled paddlers couldn't feel when their skin was chafing from sitting in the same position, Paul said. Disney was forced to sit out two weeks due to a pressure sore he acquired early in the trip.

Paul, whose balance is greatly hindered by her paralysis, paddled in a double kayak. Disney paddled solo.

In Vancouver, the group made arrangements for the two wheelchairs to be delivered to Port Hardy. Three weeks later, when the kayakers arrived in the Canadian town, the wheelchairs weren't there, Paul said.

Eventually, the chairs and the group were reunited in Sheerwater, British Columbia.

The Canadian ferry system transported the wheelchairs for free after that mishap, Paul said. In Alaska, though, the group had to rely on float planes and fishing boats to transport the chairs. The Alaska Marine Highway System can't take unaccompanied baggage on ferries.

''We ended up just getting lucky with people with float planes,'' said Paul.

Plane and boat owners treated the group kindly during their journey, she said. When the group arrived in Juneau at about 9 p.m. Aug. 14 cold, wet and tired from a long paddle Mark Halsted, who was working on a boat in the harbor, offered to let the group sleep in his heated garage.

''With the two of them in wheelchairs, they were really at a loss for what they were going to do,'' Halsted said. ''We were just trying to help them out.''

Friday, members of the group contacted Sierra Kaden with Southeast Alaska Independent Living. SAIL helped the kayakers transport the group's kayaks and acquired space in St. Paul Catholic Church in the Mendenhall Valley for the group to sort and organize its gear.

Though the trip was at times difficult, it was worth the effort, Paul said.

''For me, life without being able to get into nature would be really difficult,'' she said. ''I get something powerful from being in the wilderness. It feeds my soul.''

Christine Schmid is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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