Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Still Me Voyage ~ A journey from paraplegia.

Above: Greg Allen relaxes along the Mackenzie River NWT.
Greg paddled the "Mac" solo 3-time and is paraplegic!

"The pain gets so bad I have to take extra methadone to sleep. I hope I have enough to last", says Greg Allen after several days on a long 1300 mile journey down the Mackenzie River in Canada. The pain creeps in each day often to the point of taking over his body, but he seems to disregard it as if it were an annoying black fly caught inside his headnet. Only a handful paddle the remote Canadian River; none that are paraplegic-except Allen. I remember it well the day it happened he says. Being thrown from a mule, "It sounded like a branch breaking on a cold winters day". Cervical cord trauma to 5 of his vertebrates Greg Allen's life changed instantly. Diagnosis-paraplegia. Weeks passed in a bed at the University of Albuquerque Hospital. Allen was finally released on October 10, 1999 five years to the day that Superman actor Christopher Reeves would die.

Above: Gregs canoe set-up including small kayak in which he catamarand with the canoe for extra stability.

"Being crippled you don't necessarily have to give up the things you love. You just need a different perspective." Greg Allen

Above: Greg with Japaneese paddler he met along the way.

Depression would finally overtake Allen's waking hours. "It’s the physical suffering, not being able to do the things you're use to and watching your dreams disappear in a flash". Allen lay in bed feeling sorry for himself. One faithful day his wife Linda gave him a tape entitled "Still Me" by Chris Reeves. Allen would play the tape over and over until his own world changed from within. In the five years since his injury Allen has gained some use of his legs. "I can walk again, but I fall down a lot". Awkward and no control of balance he seems like an infant child who is beginning to learn to walk for the first time. With the help of a wheelchair and cane Allen began to gain sight of many of his long lost dreams.
"What I learned and want to pass on to others is that you cannot give up – ever –on anything you want to do. Things I used to take for granted like walking, driving, even going to the bathroom are new challenges. Being crippled you do not necessarily have to give up the things you love. You just need a different prospective." Allen's positive outlook and attitude can be compared to Winston Churchill's quote; "Never ever give up". I'm sure his mental attitude has something to do with overcoming his physical challenges. Allen has always been fascinated by the Arctic as well as canoeing. In his younger days he acted as a guide in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. One day Allen decided to canoe the longest river in Canada. People thought he was "nuts". "I'm crippled, I'm not disabled" Allen would say to them. He tried to get friends to join him but all seemed to have a world of excuses. After gaining close to 60lbs after rehab, lying around the house and watching TV, feeling sorry for himself, the urge to head out solo took control of him. He didn't know how he would do it, but he knew he would.

Solo Down the Mighty Mac:
The fear of being alone in the wilds is more than many of us can handle. What if something goes wrong? "The funny thing about being alone in the wilds is that you are no longer disabled. Being disabled is a relative term." Allen's wife Linda insisted on driving him north to Ft. Simpson at the head of the Mackenzie River not too far from where the mighty river leaves Great Slave Lake. Allen says he was a poor driver and couldn't figure out why people were so insistent on driving on one particular side of the road. The day finally came when all the planning and talk had to be put into action. Hesitant and reluctant to depart, Allen knew it was now or never. As the sun shone brightly on the wide river, Allen shoved off into the current.

His mode of transportation seems to bring back memories of hillbilly Jed Clampet's heavy-laden truck on their way to Beverlyhills. Allen paddled a 16-ft Chipewyan style fiberglass canoe with a 10-ft Old Town Otter kayak - pontooned together. He also took a Nissan 3.5 horsepower kicker and a sail for those frequent windy days the Mackenzie is known for. "It was stable, unsinkable and as comfortable as anything you could imagine", says Allen. All of his equipment was donated by friends and corporations including a full bodied dry suit supplied by Kokatat. Allen needed all the help he could get especially when it came to survival gear. Had he fallen overboard in the cold waters, his inability to swim may have caused his demise.

His initial days were very difficult taking as long as 4 hours to set up camp and three hours to tear it down the next morning. Allen's struggles to maintain proper footing in the mud was only part of the slow pace. At times he would fall over in the mud while hauling gear to shore only to struggle for his life to extract himself from the slimy hold. He knew that being crippled he must be without errors. As the days went by so did his efficiency. Faced with constant dangers of getting hurt he proceeded on. The lazy meandering current would take him through the land of the Dog Rib Indians and Inuits who consider the Mackenzie their major travel route. From a distance Allen appeared like anyone traveling down a river. Very few would ever know the physical struggles he has overcome. The river was once well traveled by the courier du bois from the Hudson Bay Company and the NorWestern. Alexander Mackenzie would become the first white to explore this region in 1789. Even though these stories are centuries old, they seem like today for Allen. He feels one with the land, as if he has traveled though here before. Many river travelers often talk about the sense of timelessness or a drifting back into the past.

In a land with no darkness Allen had all the time he needed to complete the 1000-mile journey.
"You can't run out of daylight. This allows you take all the time in the world to go safely. Because of that, being solo and crippled becomes a matter of time not physical ability. Psychically I felt I could do anything a well person could."
His most challenging aspect of the entire journey was his "own stupidity". He didn’t feel there were any other challenges. It became a fulfillment of his dreams.
"I felt like I was in Heaven. When your physical life becomes what your imagination envisions a strange feeling comes over you. It's a timelessness, a real sense of other worldliness."

"Well, not only can I walk but apparently I can run!"

Near Disaster: As Allen approached the famed Ramparts of the Mackenzie his journey nearly ended. The Ramparts is an 8- mile long stretch of high limestone cliffs that pinch the river from nearly a mile wide to a few hundred yards wide. Alexander Mackenzie was told by the Indians of impending doom if he ventured there. Once Mackenzie reached the Ramparts he actually thought the river came to an abrupt end due to the sudden decline in width. While setting up his camp above the Ramparts he happened to look back and see his canoe and kayak floating away. He jumped into the river but realized the current was too strong and he could not catch them. The slippery rocks became a challenge for him to reach shore, which he finally did after a long struggle.
"It was surreal. There I was, alone in the middle of a 1000 mile canoe journey through one of Canada's greatest wilderness areas, a cripple who could just barely walk and my boats were floating away."
Allen hadn't seen anyone in days and knew that just downstream were the rapids of the Ramparts. He was hoping his boats would end up in an eddy so he hurriedly headed down along the shore in search of them. He knew he had to run.
"I don't know how but I did. As I realized what was happening I felt like Forest Gump and the shackles of my disability seemed to fly off my legs with each step I took."
After a half a mile when the boats turned a corner and disappeared he stopped.
" The boats were gone but I could run!"
He had his camp and provisions on shore and knew that someone would eventually pass by on the river. As he was walking back to his camp the distant drone of a motor brought him to his senses. Two natives from Ft. Good Hope were towing his boats toward shore. Joyous at another prayer answered he met them at the shore. They asked him what had happed and his only reply was "stupid white man". After a moment of laughter the two men departed as if transported to another dimension. Allen secured his boats to shore more thoroughly. A lesson well learned. He thought about the doctors who told him he would never walk again, "well, not only can I walk but apparently I can run!" Allen made it through the Ramparts and on to Ft. Good Hope the following day and reported in with the local RCMP, which is required of all river travelers.

Simple twist of fate: Another day on the Mackenzie found Allen near Tuleta when a sudden storm blew in. The waves increased to size forcing Allen to shore where the pounding surf swamped his boats causing the pontoon pole to break. Some of his gear began to float away hurried by the wind. A large barge, which was hauling supplies upstream pulled to shore but Allen, waved them off figuring he could handle the situation. The barge pulled to shore anyway and the men came downstream to aid in his dilemma. They helped salvage most of his wet gear, took him aboard and served him some hot coffee to warm his cold wet bones. Allen asked them why they stopped even after waving them off and they said they never saw him. "Now, for a guy who has been crippled for five years and has had nothing but bad luck, that's a sign."

The miles turned into weeks, the weeks into a fulfillment of a dream. Allen felt he had done this journey many times before. Every paddle stroke seemed to be as fluid as a voyageur, one who is familiar with the route. That route whether it is the journey of a river or the destiny of ones own soul lies buried deep within those who experience such awakenings. For we never know why we really seek such adventure but that never stops those that believe they walk away from it a better person. Allen reached the imaginary global line known as the Arctic Circle while smoke from distant forest fires shrouded the day like an old dream. Allen realized that his determination and commitment despite his physical challenges was the secret to his success. As he drifted along bend after bend he knew he would come back someday to this primitive land. Allen's motivation now is to help others with paraplegia to experience the joys of paddling. "When you're on the water, it's as if you no longer are a cripple".

Allen has since formed Kripples in Kayaks, an organization that helps encourage others with similar challenges by getting "cripples" out paddling. He has since paddled the Mackenzie two more times.
I'm sad to report that Greg Allen died in February 2008. He will be missed by family, friends, and those he inspired. I'm sure he's paddling on some great river right now, and most likely still running.

Friday, August 24, 2007

In 2001 I interviewed Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell about their historic record paddle journey by canoe. It was the 30th anniversary of this endeavor; which to me is one of the most incredible canoeing accomplishments ever. The story below I compiled from that interview in hopes of getting it published in a canoeing magazine. I had been a friend of Verlens since 1997 when one day I just descided to call him on the phone and talk adventure. This is just one of our many conversations. Sadly Verlen passed away in August of 2004 after a long bout with cancer.

Dared to go Beyond
Thirty Years of Reflection

By:Norman W. Miller

It was October 10, 1971 and the cold wind bit at their grizzled and chapped faces, their hands, stiff and numb from paddling 7,000 miles, pushed the ice-encased canoe onto the shores of the Bering Sea. This ended a six-month trek across North America from Montreal for two modern-day voyageurs—Clint Waddell and Verlen Kruger. No one had done this before.
"I just wanted to get to some place warm, with warm food and cloths" says Waddell, recalling the icy waters of the Bering Sea 30 years ago.
Coined the Cross Continent Canoe Safari (CCCS), the journey was one of longstanding dreams and ambitions and not intended as a stunt to set any record. But set records they did, which still stand today. It was the early seventies—flashback to the Viet Nam War, the hit song Jeremiah was a Bullfrog and the Sonny and Cher Show—when Kruger and Waddell became the first ever to paddle across North America in six months.
For Kruger, who has racked up close to 100,000 miles in his lifetime of paddling, the Cross Continent Canoe Safari remains etched in his mind forever. "It will always be special--that first big effort. A person has lots of dreams and ideas and they get playing with your mind. You begin to wonder if it can be done…finally came the day when it did come true," recalls Kruger.
Slipping their 140-pound homemade sitka spruce canoe into the ice-choked waters of the St. Lawrence on April 1971, Kruger and Waddell had no idea that the entire next week would be nothing but shear torture. The river was so clogged with ice they had to portage 44 miles around it. "We were too psyched up and too stupid," recalls Kruger. It would have been more rational for them to start in open water than to try and break through the ice with the canoe. The strain of carrying the canoe and gear caused their muscles to tighten up in knots; Kruger remembers it took several minutes of lying in the tent before his butt and shoulders would touch the ground at the same time.
For weeks on end, sometimes paddling 36 hours a stretch, Waddell and Kruger inched there way through Ontario, around the North shore of Lake Superior, then through the historic fur trade route toward Lake Winnipeg and beyond. Inspired by the early 18th century voyageurs that opened Canada up to exploration, both men were determined to press on. "Today's man is capable of doing what our forefathers did," claims Kruger. "They were no more supermen than people are now." Looking into Kruger's eyes gives one the impression of a man who has lived in the early centuries as well as the present.
Surrounded by miles of raw beauty, pristine waterways, and the solitude of nature, their determination to press onward became an everyday part of their lives. "I am impressed that two people got along so well for that length of time," says Waddell with a laugh. "We spent more time together than most married couples." Sometimes hours would pass by with only the sound of paddle strokes breaking the silence. Pressed for time, the modern day voyageurs worked their way across the famed Methy Portage, the Clearwater drainage, the Athabasca and Slave Rivers, and down the mighty Mackenzie River. Oft times they were slowed down waiting for a documentary filmmaker who followed them to vantage points along the way. The constant waiting for the camera crew began to eat away at their patience. Winter was closing in as they battled with the arduous Rat River and McDougall Pass. "The Rat was the most physically demanding part of the trip," says Waddell. "We were cold and wet, pulling the canoe back and forth across the river while in flood stage. We had to cut trees down and even lost valuable gear when we swamped the canoe."
By early September, the snow had reached the high elevations and the autumn colors were fading to brown. Winter was closing in for Waddell and Kruger who still had to paddle over 1000 miles down the Yukon before it froze solid. Then on a cold October day they paddled the last stroke, gazing out over the sea and tasting the salt in the water. They accomplished what others had questioned. Against near impossible odds, they arrived on the exact date estimated in their time schedule. "The view was anticlimactic," recalls Kruger. "Nothing but brush and mud bars. But the experience of having arrived was tremendous."
The CCCS has inspired many paddlers over the years, causing some to wonder if they too can pull off such an accomplishment. "People just need to do it," exclaims Waddell. "Even if you fail. Too many people say 'one of these days, I'm going to do this or that,’ well one of these days never comes around."
Not a day goes by where the two are not reminded of their historic efforts. The smell of a musty pack or the call of the geese puts them back on the river. "I was boiling eggs the other day and thought of the time on the Mackenzie River when I was watching a pot of eggs boil only to accidentally drop one in the fire. I wiped off the ashes and ate it just moments before Verlen noticed there was an egg missing in the pot," says Waddell, chuckling at the memory.
Thirty years have passed but often it seems just like yesterday to the two men. The trip calculations estimate they paddled over five million strokes. There were 133 portages totaling 153 miles. Kruger and Waddell covered more distance in six months than anyone recorded has ever traveled by canoe. But for these two men who dared to go beyond these numbers mean little; it’s living the experience that matters. Kruger puts it succinctly: "if you can dream it, then you can do it."
This story was first published in Paddler Magazine May/June 2001 Issue.
I had the pleasure of being a member of the support team for one of the
few all-women teams for one of the most difficult races in North America-The Ausable River Canoe Marathon.

(Copyright Paddler Magazine May/June 2001)

"Apollo 13 Canoe Survives the Marathon"
By Norman Miller

For Abby Kingman and Lisa Salvini racing in the countries toughest non-stop canoe race was to be just that. Long and tough! However upon finishing the 53rd running of the AuSable Canoe Marathon, Kingman said " I felt we were the Apollo 13 canoe! Everything went wrong."
During the 120 mile course which runs all night from Grayling to Oscoda Michigan, Kingman and Salvini broke one paddle, knocked off there bow light, required a 12 inch gash in the hull, and broke the self bailer which empties water from the canoe. The 2000 Marathon boosted its largest number of entrants ever with 68 canoes. "The Marathon" as it is known draws North Americas top paddlers including Serge Corbin who was attempting his 5th consecutive win with Jeff Kolka.
Not only did Kingman and Salvini have to deal with there canoe taking in water, but with 8 hours of night paddling, log jams, six hydro-dam portages, high humidity and fatigue.
"Quitting was not an option" said Salvini. "Our pit team came a long ways to help us out and we were not going to let them down"
Racers have what are called "feeders" or "pit crews" who follow them downstream providing food, drink, and emergency items the paddlers may need. Team #72's support came from Todd Hanna from Oregon and Norm Miller from Utah.
"Once we found out they were taking in lots of water, the rest of the night became a logistical nightmare" said Hanna.
"We knew we had to help them as much as possible with our support. Especially the emotional support" said Miller. "We decided to show up at Wakely Bridge with the repair kit and spare light. They were not expecting us until McMasters bridge another hour away," said Miller.
"We were happy to see them" said Kingman. "We knocked off our light and were paddling blind trying to stay close to the canoe ahead that had a light"
Throughout the night and early morning Team #72 traded off positions with Lynne Witte and Karen Levitt, the only other all female team entered in the race. Witte is a record holder in the Marathon, having placed as high as 4th overall as a mixed team with Jim Meyers in 1988.
The six portages provided excitement for the fans as well as the pit crews. Paddlers get quite stiff from sitting so long that the portages provide some relief to their tired cramped legs. Kingman and Salvini jumped out of their canoe lifting it over head to drain water, urine, food and empty water bottles for the 1/4-mile run to the river below. Hanna would run next to the team and ask if they needed anything, while Miller waited below with the food and water jugs.
"It felt good knowing that after a fast pit your team gained 15 seconds on the next team" said Hanna.
At Five-Channels Dam more water entered the canoe causing Kingman and Salvini to duct-tape the hole. Witte and Levitt gained valuable time here. At the final portage at Loud Dam some 100 plus miles and over 16 hours of over 60 stokes per minute, Team #72 made one last attempt to patch the ugly hole and headed downstream. The support team of Miller and Hanna felt relieved that their part of the job was over and headed toward Oscoda.
"Shortly after seeing the women at Loud, the heavens unleashed a cold hard rain," said Miller. "We had there rain gear in the car and no access point to drop it off to them. After all they had been through, we were certain they would finish anyway".
The crowds at the finish had sought dryer ground as Kingman and Salvini crossed the line in 18 hours 8 minutes for 46th place. They were twenty-nine minutes behind Lynne Witte and Karen Levitt. Seventeen teams had dropped out during the coarse due to various reasons, but the Apollo 13 canoe battled through the tough times to finish North Americas toughest canoe race.
"Those are two tough women, I can't believe they stuck it out" said Hanna.