What Dairy Farmers and Angels have in Common

outrigger canoe, OC-1, canoe racing, racing, USCA, USCA Nationals, Warren PA, 2015 Nationals, wife of a racer, wife of an athlete, alone on the weekends, downside of illness, missing life, river rat, Allegheny River

Usually I refer to myself as a “kayaking widow,” as soon as the weather warms up in the great State of Indiana.  My beloved Steve races kayaks and now an outrigger canoe (OC-1) on the United States Canoe Association circuit.  This requires practice and travel to river or lake events at least twice per week during the warmer months, in addition to work and church commitments.  Since I am largely homebound I send him happily on his merry way . . . with snacks and a kiss, of course!

But it wasn’t always this way.  Just 3 years ago I joined him on Tuesday nights for the paddles of our local kayaking group.  (See the About Julie blog for details on the day that I got pulled from the water!)  If the races were local I would join him on Saturday mornings to cheer him on from the start and possibly the railing of a bridge along the course.  “Goooooooo Steeeeeeve” was my mantra and I loved it.  I am so proud of Steve, having watched him progress over these past 7 years of our marriage from a recreational paddler to a National competitor in surf ski racing.  And this year he added the OC-1.  Oh yeah!

For the first time in THREE YEARS, I would be joining Steve at the USCA Nationals scheduled this year in Warren, Pennsylvania.  The last time I was in PA was when I had purchased my first sea kayak (Think Fit) as I was progressing from a tandem, pedal-driven, plastic Hobie Oasis to a real fiberglass boat suitable for racing.  I had a near-drowning experience as I was testing out that boat which only served to reinforce that I had what it took to face the worst of perils when paddling in open water.  Dozens of paddling experiences followed over the next few years including upgrading to an introductory surf ski myself:  the Stellar SR.  That is the kayak in the photo of the article referenced above.

Flash forward FOUR YEARS and we now are grateful to have a travel trailer aka as a “mold avoidance clean room” that affords me the opportunity to travel with Steve and stay overnight.  The plan for this trip was to stay at a local KOA Kampground while shuttling to and from the stages of the two racing events in which Steve was registered to compete.  Miraculously and despite convulsive episodes each day and night, I was able to join him at the side of the Allegheny River on Friday for a full day of events.  We were bushed by nightfall:  Steve having paddled 15+ miles at breakneck speed and me having participated in over 12 hours of outdoor activities for the first time in a very long time.  It was a win-win for both of us!

Then came Saturday morning.  The night was a rough one for me but not as bad as they could be for sure.  Steve overslept 45 minutes and scurried about to get himself, his special nourishments, breakfast, and doggie duties covered before leaving for a second day of racing.  Adrenaline was pushing him beyond the fatigue he too was battling.  As for me, the morning seizure attacks died down as I pulled myself out of bed just as he was leaving!  It was clear that I was NOT going anywhere and would be a kayaking widow in the woods of the campground that day.  Swell.  Sadly I heard my truck pull away along the dirt road with my beloved therein, headed past the Kinzua Dam and beyond to the water’s edge without me.  To see my River Bear in action WAS WHY I CAME!  I was crushed.

And then my brain cleared.  A few crumbs of achiness remained yet I was upright and thinking straight.  “I should stay home and rest,”  I reasoned, “maybe take the dog for a walk later and be, well bored out of my mind for the rest of the day thereafter for sure!  Who wants to read Suzanne Summer’s book, Tox-Sick, when there’s an exciting USCA race going on out there?!  Not me.  I AM GOING TO THE RACES!!!”

There was one BIG problem with this:  how the heck would I get there?  I had no vehicle and the race start was a 17-minute ride away by car.  I had no car.  I had no truck.  I had a dog and that was it!  Looking back I believe it was the Lord nudging me on to keep getting ready.

“Pack up your stuff, grab some food and get out to the office.  See when it opens and maybe someone will be going into town this morning and can drop you off.”

Alright.  “Shouldn’t I eat some breakfast?  I mean, I get sick sometimes when I don’t eat breakfast?”  And so I bemoaned some more as I continued in motion, getting dressed and figuring I would have to leave the pup behind in the locked travel trailer with the air conditioner running all day.  “Keep moving,” was the leading of my heart.  “You might have to leave on a moment’s notice if this works out so you need to be ready!”  Out the door I scurried, hoping that most of me was covered with clothing and foot-coverings suitable for a campground!

The office didn’t open until 9:00 a.m.  It was around 8:15 a.m.  I had seen what I deduced was the owners shaking out their rugs out the front door of the adjacent mobile home so I could maybe knock on their door . . . No that would not be nice.  But look!  There’s the car leaving their campsite that left yesterday morning around this time.  Maybe they are long-termers who are leaving for work or something and can take me?  So I stood near the middle of the dirt road in between the office and campsite Number 2, waiting for the car to drive by.  Surely the driver would see me and stop?  Nope.  She never even looked up from her steering wheel as she drove straight by me.  Sish!  Surely I could not have looked that threatening, no?

What to do now?  “Stay put,” was the leading in my heart.  Maybe I could go back to our CampLite and wait for the office to open?  Someone would drive me to the Visitor Center and I would get our truck and just catch up with Steve somewhere along the race course.  He would be shocked to hear, “Goooooo Steeeeeve” from the side of the river like the day before.  Our reunion at the finish line would be sweet.  Well, no.  Then I saw around the corner of the dirt road in front of some other campsites a car with its lights on!  In front of it was a large motor home that I soon discovered was travelling with the small SUV behind it that had its lights on.  They were leaving too!

The driver of the motorhome stopped when I motioned from practically the middle of the dirt road as he approached.  My heart was beating fast and my voice trembled as I poured out a quick version of my dilemma then waited for his response.  The man got out and talked with his wife who was driving the vehicle behind him as I stood shaking like a schoolgirl waiting for permission to go to the bathroom from the headmaster who had seen enough already.  The man got back into the motorhome.

“I’ll take you,” was all he said through the window he opened.  Oh wow!  He said yes!  She said yes!  I REALLY AM GOING TO THE RACES!!!  So I quickly gathered my things; said goodbye to the big brown puppy-dog eyes that were ready for another day of fabulous sniffs, hugs from cute little girls, and wide open spaces; locked the door and did not look back.  I hopped into the passenger side of a stranger’s large motor home and hitched a ride to my second day at the 2015 USCA Nationals.  I was going to be with my River Bear!

The gentleman was in town with his wife to visit their daughter at a local Mennonite college.  They owned a large dairy farm in southeastern Pennsylvania and had just opened a restaurant with a storefront too:  September Farm.  They were headed to Bradford for the day which is over 12 miles in the other direction from where I was headed.  His low-fuel light had just turned on and he did not know where to find a local gas station.  Later I realized that it is possible that he might not have made it all the way to Bradford if he had not backtracked to Warren (5 minutes of travel beyond where he had dropped me off) without running out of gas.  Dave talked about him and his wife, Roberta, meeting a sweet couple through Farm and Ranch magazine that were like angels to them.  I said to Dave that he was my angel that day.  Yes, I do believe in angels!

Steve was shocked to say the least, when I came up behind him with a gentle, “Goooooo Steeeeeve!” to let him know that I had made it and in time for the starting gun.  He was still getting ready after the 8:30 a.m. race meeting, leaning over his Stellar SEL when I kinda snuck up behind him.  I had made it in time to see him launch in what would become a great day of racing.  We embraced with tears.  Steve said he felt a magnificent boost carry him down the river, through the Plume Rapids, and passing paddlers with greater ease than he had ever noticed before.

USCA Nationals, 2015 Nationals, K-1 Unlimited, kayak racing, surf ski racing, senior kayak, 50+ kayak, racing, paddling, USCA, awards ceremony, male paddler
Steve takes 1st place in The Senior Class, K-1 Unlimited at the 2015 USCA Nationals

Later Steve was awarded a first-place medal in K-1 Unlimited for his age group and finished in the first group of a large field of athletes.  We laughed the rest of the weekend about me hitchhiking just to see him.  Steve said he had never felt so loved!  I laughed then shuddered to think of the dangers that I had not experienced in the fearlessness I experienced when following the leading of the Holy Spirit in my heart that day.

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I am grateful for so much these days!

I made it to the races despite the odds against me and learned some new things on Saturday:  Dairy farmers can be angels.  Love transcends the greatest of heartaches then brings us back to what or who matters most.  Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit!  And life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.

In the end I got a taste of what it means to live again.  And that is a good thing my Gentle Reader!  JJ

It can be a mixed bag for the wife of a racer: Part 2

As I described in my post on May 28th, becoming a kayaker mid-life can be a daring adventure.  When your intended beloved becomes a United States Canoe Association racer (State and now Nationally-ranked) you have a couple of decisions to make.  The first one was whether or not I would also learn to kayak.  Would I become a “kayaking widow” a couple of nights per week as my River Bear practices then races throughout the State of Indiana?  The second one is if I did paddle, what kind of kayaker would I become?  Recreational?  Racer?  Eeeeek, no!

Steve dons his dry suit here in the Midwest by about April or as soon as there is open water in our local rivers after the long Winter.  Initially he would borrow my Think Fit (sea kayak) to start his season as it was more stable and forgiving when wearing this neck-to-toe zoot suit.  As the weather warmed up he transitioned to either his Thunderbolt (open cockpit racing kayak) or surf ski (sit-on-top ocean vessel) as I reclaimed the Think Fit to join him with our Tuesday night Fort Wayne Kayaking Group.  As I described in my previous post, one of the fears a paddler must overcome is that of falling into the water and drowning.   To help guard against this outcome you can wear a paddling life vest, choose a more stable boat, or upgrade to a surf ski.  When you topple out of a surf ski you will have a much easier time re-entering the boat, especially in deeper water.  The kayak won’t fill up with water since the hull is a closed system.  This provides you an excellent flotation device to hang onto should you topple over, until you can either re-mount the boat or swim with it to safety.  This surf ski design began to look appealing to me in my second season of paddling.  So did having a kayak that was even lighter and narrower making it easier to paddle.

You could say that I was the first in the Midwest to bring home a Think Fit and then a Stellar SR.  In time the introduction of the Stellar line would open up opportunities for my River Bear, Steve, to become a representative for both Stellar and Epic kayaks here in Indiana.  Cool beans.  Wifey-poo done good!  I had so many offers to purchase the Think Fit that it wasn’t hard to sell it when a suitable Stellar SR became available.  Our friend Allan took to it easily and made waves, literally, that I could have never accomplished as a recreational paddler.  My baby found a good home and served her new racer well.  He even won a medal at his first Nationals in his age class:  his first year competing and finishing in a torrential thunderstorm!  Ah, the things that become normal when racing enters your life.  Yes of course we were cheering him on equally drenched at the finish!

At first I doubted my decision to upgrade to a beginner surf ski.  Sure there would be a learning curve but when my maiden voyage in a friend’s private ski lake yielded a nearly effortless glide with my winged carbon-fiber paddle, I thought I “knew” that I had made the right decision.  Or did I?  I can recall nearly panicking as I paddled between lakes in a local chain-o-lakes:  my legs outstretched and straddling either side of the boat for stability.  What had I done?  The cross-winds were fierce in open water!  Forget the great secondary stability it’s the initial stability that I was sorely missing!  Once in the channel I could calm down a bit.  Whew.  “This is going to take some practice,” I muttered to myself.  But was that what I wanted as a recreational paddler?  Not really.  I like to stop and grab a drink of water or bite of a snack bar along the way in addition to taking advantage of navigating a more streamlined, lighter vessel.  Learning the sport from my racer husband had landed me in unfamiliar territory for sure!  Now that Allan had already bonded with the Think Fit there was no use looking back to my first love (the kayak, that is!).  Back to the calmer lake we went for more practice before the next outing . . .

Julie in the Stellar SR
Julie in the Stellar SR

The Fort Wayne Kayaking Group was headed to the Cedarville Reservoir in Leo, Indiana early in October.  The boat launch just over the bridge provides access to the St. Joe River to the north and to the reservoir to the south.  Later Steve would remind me that my first paddle when we were dating was in that reservoir.  Sweet.  Now it was three years later in the Fall:  October 11, 2011 to be exact.  I did pretty well that beautiful night for my third outing in the Stellar SR, continuing to wear a life vest for added security.  Unfortunately I made 4 costly mistakes that evening.  First, I let the mouth of my water bottle make contact with the greenish water.  Second, I ate a snack that I had saved in the zippered pouch of my life vest even though it had become a little mushy, perhaps melted.  I was hungry and it hit the spot!  Third, a winged paddle tends to throw a lot of water into the air, particularly for beginners just learning the more efficient racing stroke for which it is designed, which also sent blue green algae aerosols into the air.  And fourth, I doubt that I washed my hands after we loaded up the boats and sampled one of the member’s luscious peanut butter cookies she often brought to top off the Tuesday night paddles.  Within 24 hours I was deathly ill and it was not from the cookie!

Within 36 hours I thought I was going to die.  Seriously.  Have you ever been in so much pain that all you can do is moan, holler, and moan in agony some more?  After the second trip to the doctor’s office that week, he sent me to the emergency room for IV fluids mixed with anti-nausea medication.  We figured by then that it was from something in the water but what could it be?  The weekend was hell on earth.  In between vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and unbelievable abdominal pain eventually my brain started to put the pieces together in what was left of my mind.  Early the next week some blind internet searching found a report documenting the testing of Indiana rivers and lakes.  In a chart written in 2005 describing various cyanobacteria populating stagnant waters in the Spring and Fall I found it:  cylinderospermopsis.  I matched all of the symptoms listed for exposure.  The treatment?  “Supportive measures” as needed.  I already had that.  What else?  I didn’t need the other recommendation thankfully:  intubation or life support.  My liver enzymes were elevated but that didn’t indicate any additional treatment at the time.  These days I wish that I had been administered activated charcoal back then.  Oh well.  It’s amazing what 2 1/2 more years of research yields that could have been helpful at the beginning of this exceedingly difficult journey.

I never paddled the Stellar SR again.  Here’s a picture of me in the one that has now gotten away.  We never fully bonded.  I never fully mastered her.  ‘Tis bittersweet you might say for the wife of a kayak racer.  I had learned so much and come so far since my maiden voyage in that plastic Sirocco in the summer of 2007 only to stop as they say, “dead in the water.”

Julie in the SR in early October 2011
Julie in the SR in early October 2011

The next 2 1/2 years was a wretched process trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting well.  Was it Chronic Lyme disease?  Biotoxin illness such as cyanobacteria and mold?  Non-epileptic seizures?  For more on finding hope during the medical part of this story just scroll through this blog a bit for the good/bad/ugly of overcoming a serious illness.  As for kayaking and while the battle continues today, there have been enough recent improvements that I am able to get back into the water for limited outings.  I am exceedingly grateful for the improvements.  The Lord appears to be restoring the years the “locusts” (as in pesky little cyano-bugs) have eaten (Joel 2:25), slowly but surely.  He has sustained me through this hellish journey and many nights home alone while I supported Steve in his continuing to progress as a USCA racer.  He has done well and I am proud of him.  That’s the benefit for me of having a Heavenly Husband at home with me in my heart while my earthly husband is away.  It works that way for us gals whether we are married or single.  It’s all good:  whether or not you are with your paddling buddy or not you are never really alone when you have Jesus in your heart.

My watercraft of choice has now changed.  When I did try to sit in the cockpit of the Stellar SR, I realized that my balance skills were now altered.  How in the world would I ever enjoy paddling a tippier kayak with an altered center of gravity?  It was just too much for me.  But I also did not want to go backwards into a heavier, wider, shorter sea kayak either.  I had tasted the sweetness of performance race boats and longed to be with Steve back out on the water.  The lighter kayaks and paddles made this all possible in the first place, minimizing the stress of my underlying fibromyalgia.  I would have never been able to paddle in the past due to chronic pain.  My Stevers had helped me find a way.  Now could we find a way to get me back on the water again?

By this time we were grateful to have acquired a tandem outrigger canoe.  The first time out in the OC-2 after the onset of the recent illness were meaningful minutes and happened at the end of last summer.  We went out again on our friend’s ski lake earlier this year and even took it to the smaller Oliver chain-o-lakes last month.  Yes, my first outing in 3 summers happened a couple of weeks ago!  Having a River Bear at the helm made it all possible as I could rest in the front seat when needed.  THAT was an emotional day for sure:  tears of joy to be out again and tears of sorrow for all of the lost time.

The question remained as to what would I paddle solo?  Could I even paddle solo?  The answer came with our one-man outrigger canoe.  She is beautiful.  In carbon fiber she weighs in at 22 pounds despite her 21 foot overall length.  And she looks so very cool too.  Oh how I love Steve!  I get to do so many cool things because of him!  Anyways, here’s a picture of the boat I will be paddling, Lord willing, as I get stronger.  These days I still have seizure attacks every day, including in the evening after paddling for awhile.  I’m not sure yet how to modulate this other than making sure my body temperature doesn’t fluctuate, stay hydrated and nourished, and avoid contact with nefarious waters underfoot!  Oh well.  The answer to the unknowns lie in the Lord’s hands.  I’ll just go slow and remain grateful to be paddling a bit once again.

See there?  Who says you can’t paddle an ocean-faring outrigger canoe in the Midwest?  Just like the Think Fit then the Stellar SR, sometimes you get to start a crazy trend that works for you and others follow along too.  Good ideas breed good company.  Thank you Lord.  Guess it was meant to be.  God is so good.  All the time.  God is good!

May 2014:  Julie in the OC-1
May 2014: Julie in the OC-1