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Monday, June 7, 2010

Canoe and Kayak Screw Up--Sortof

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

It is kayak season. I try and get out on the water on a weekly basis. I am not always successful but really do my best. Paddling is great for my sometime cranky shoulders that are showing wear and tear after 30 years of pushing a wheelchair. I also like to paddle because it makes me very happy. I feel free when I am on the water and at peace with the world. I enjoy gazing at aquatic life both above and below the water. I am not fast by any means but I can go a long way--miles and miles, a fact that puts a smile on my face. While I return to certain paddle spots because I like them I also return to some places because I know help is present. Getting a 14 foot kayak on and off my car is not easy. I can do it independently but it takes a long time and is very tiring. Hence I like to paddle with my son (I exploit his height, strength, and bipedal ability) or put my boat in where assistance is readily available. New places to put in however always intrigue me. Luckily I live near the Hudson River Estuary and there are many places I can easily access the water within an hour of my home. As part of my never ending search for new places to put in I subscribe to Canoe and Kayak. I read about new boats, technology, gear and exotic as well as ordinary places to paddle. It also helps that the American Canoe Association has a major commitment to adaptive paddling. They hold workshops for certified instructors every summer--and this is exactly how I got started.

Given the above I was delighted and then annoyed to read in the current issue of Canoe and Kayak "Behind the Scenes of Birthright". Look at the short five minute film for yourself embedded above. What annoyed me was the tone of the Canoe and Kayak story about the film and the sole character Michael Mitchell, 49 who has been paralyzed thirty years. In the estimation of Canoe and Kayak the film Birthright is about "one man's extraordinary struggle" and "never has a paddling film evoked such eye-watering emotion". The camera focuses on "Mitchell's excruciating effort to drag himself and his wave ski to the waters edge". The filmmaker sets up the viewer for a "rush of emotion when Mitchell finally catches a wave and accelerates down the face. For that fleeting moment he's completely free". Oh please spare me the tear jerking hyper emotional crap. Is it a struggle for a paralyzed person to get a boat in the water independently? You bet it is. So what. That so called struggle does not make me or Mitchell extraordinary. What we share to borrow the title of the film is the breathtaking feeling once we are on the water. If anything is fleeting it is the social equality our boats empower us with. Such freedom is not present on land due to social barriers and prejudice.

This is what I wish Canoe and Kayak would write about: the real struggle involved for people with disabilities to get a boat on the water. This struggle takes place well before one sees the water. Adaptive paddling clinics despite the ACA's major commitment to inclusion are few and far between. This is problematic for two reasons: there are not enough trained instructors and one might need to drive many hours to attend a clinic (I drove over four hours to Vermont to attend a two day clinic). For most paralyzed people some sort of modification must be made in order to paddle a boat. These modifications need not be complex: for me it involved removing the existing seat and making a custom seat out of dry cell foam using lots and lots of duct tape. Adaptive clinics are in my estimation are the best way to learn in large part because water safety is of paramount importance and can never ever be dismissed. If one is lucky enough to take a adaptive paddling class the next problem is simply getting to the water--the film highlights this quite well. Virtually all paddling books are worthless--access is never mentioned. Many paddling organizations and their publications are of no help as well. For instance, the Hudson River Watertrail Association has published six editions of The Hudson River Water Trail Guide. There is no mention of wheelchair access in any edition. When I contacted the organization about this omission I was informed access information was too much work to include and no one was sure exactly what the term meant. So much for help. Another major problem is finding a paddle shop. Some shops I went to when I was looking to buy a boat were point blank rude to me--paralyzed people I was told more than once were an insurance liability. When I expressed an interest in a tour one paddle shop owner told me I was welcome but would be charged double because I represented a safety risk. Finally, boat companies and those businesses affiliated with the industry do little or nothing to promote adaptive paddling. I see many boats and gear specifically designed and marketed to women. Why not do the same for adaptive paddling? For instance I use a Hull-a-Vator made by Thule. This is a great rack for the car that makes independent loading of a boat possible. Many of Thule's ads for this rack are targeted to women. I would imagine a comparable ad with a paralyzed guy would not only sell but inspire others--others meaning other paralyzed people interested in paddling.

I suppose my criticism of Canoe and Kayak is naive--they will not sell magazines nor will they promote a knee jerk emotional response. But they would empower more people with a disability to get out and onto the water. In terms of adaptive sports paddling is a bargain. A boat can be purchased for well under $1,000 and the season in New York lasts from about April to mid October. Contrast that with adaptive skiing--a new rig costs at least $2,500 and upwards. The ski season is a mere three to four months long. I enjoy both sports but do not own a ski rig--they are just too expensive and I got more bang for my buck purchasing a boat. If you really want to know why I love to paddle watch the film Birthright. Do not think of the struggle to get to the water but rather the freedom the water offers. This sensation is universal to all paddlers.


Claire said...

"I suppose my criticism of Canoe and Kayak is naive--they will not sell magazines nor will they promote a knee jerk emotional response."

In all honesty, I am not entirely certain why there is a need to elicit the emotional response. Is that what non-crips need? A friend of ours dropped by once and was all excited to show us this "inspiring" disability story (yes, it was the marathon guy) on you-tube...and it just made me want to barf, actually...but he cried all the way through it. Didn't get it, still don't. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

william Peace said...

Claire, There are few times in my life I want to utter profanities much less voice them to a person I do not know. BUT I swear if one more person says how "inspiring" I am I am going to punch them in the nose. I just don't get it. I despise being used and dehumanized in this manner. What is not being said is "your life sucks and I feel better about myself knowing this". Well, I have news for the ignorant masses that fall prey to this thoughtlessness: my life has just as much value as a person that can walk or has no disability.
As far as the marathoner dudes are concerned, almost all of the stories about these gifted athletes are terrible. The focus is never on their athletic ability or social barriers to sport but an effort to elicit an emotional response--exactly what the Canoe and Kayak story did. The film by itself was good in my estimation.