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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Norm,

I’m the editor of the NSW Sea Kayak Club based in Sydney, Australia – a pretty great place for kayaking!

I came across your inspirational article by/about Greg Allen... Amazing stories!

I would dearly love permission to reproduce the article and photos on our club magazine.... Unfortunately we are completely not for profit and run by volunteers so no payment is possible however we're very happy to provide credits and links as required.

More about the club here:

And past magazine articles here:

If you're OK with that please contact me at

Look forward to hearing from you!