Good news: River Bear Racing officially launched this week and I am quite proud of my beloved Steve aka “River Bear.”
Well known to the racers of the United States Canoe Association, Steve has accepted an invitation to represent Stellar Kayaks in the Midwest. Since 2009, Stellar has been delivering innovative kayaks, surf skis, paddles, and accessories across North America. Steve always liked the cockpit and foot plate design of Stellar Kayaks as he advanced from a recreational kayaker when I met him in 2007 to the reigning State Champion in the Men’s K-1 Open Class in Indiana. We have been on many adventures together since then, usually with me cheering him on from the side of a river somewhere, “gooooooooo Steve!!!!” And I have loved every minute of it too.
So I invite you, Gentle Reader, to check out and FOLLOW my husband’s new website: River Bear Racing. Steve is an amazing storyteller so expect to be treated to much adventure and humor as he navigates the rivers east of the Mississippi in carbon fiber boats narrow enough that the rest of the world would call them a man-sized tongue depressor! These racers are amazing, fast, fit, and . . . well I better stop here lest I get into some wifey-poo trouble! I am grateful to have learned so much from Steve and his love for the sport of sea kayak and surf ski racing. And I even have Steve to thank for my really neat paddling gear (that exceeds my abilities) as well.
Lord willing, I am looking forward to getting back to our water adventures really soon. Maybe I’ll just have to try out that S18S to see if it’s as cool as my old Stellar SR? Hmmm, guess I’ve become a bit of a paddling geek to, eh? JJ
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 . . .
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.”
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!
I remember the day Steve first took me out kayaking. He was careful to put me in the more stable of his two kayaks: the white one with the yellow deck (Epic Endurance). Or was it the yellow plastic one (Sirocco)? Perhaps I was too nervous to recall the color! All I remember was trying to trust my new boyfriend while fearing toppling into the water. Becoming a drowned rat was not my intention during one of our early dates together! Besides, he was an aspiring kayak racer and I had already shared with him my many other types of canoeing/boating experiences thoughout my lifetime. Yes I can swim. Oh the mixture of thoughts that ran through my head as I got in that tippy little thing . . .
With an unwelcomed nudge (shove?) on the stern from my teacher I was able to paddle out some from the park launching site he had so carefully selected, turn around then return to the shore a few times. When it was time to go he carefully straddled the boat to stabilize it and instructed me on in the finer points of a gracious dismount. That action requires straddling your legs wide apart to either side of the wide cockpit of an elongated diamond-shaped seafarer. Ladies: that’s not the view I had hoped to offer my intended beloved at this stage of our relationship if you know what I mean? And my feet got wet and muddy to boot since this would be a couple of years before acquiring my own proper pair of water shoes from our local mega-grocery store. (That was another rite of passage that came later!) Steve expertly cleaned off the boats and attached them to the roof racks of his truck. Oh, so that’s how those beastly black metal frames filling the bed of his periwinkle-striped truck work! (I remember seeing them on our first date in the west suburbs of Chicago. A rare sight in suburbia for sure! Who is this guy?)
Steve rapidly progressed that summer as he shifted from a recreational to a competitive United States Canoe Association (USCA) racer. I watched closely as he increasingly dedicated himself to all things paddling: studying the equipment, kayak dimensions, paddling technique videos, and outings with both Indiana racers and the Fort Wayne kayaking group. Hmmm. I had an important decision to make. Either I would master this paddling thing or spend lots of afternoons home alone as he perfected his craft away from home without me. To insist that he stay home with me would get in the way of the paddling athlete he was becoming. After all, I did enjoy the fruits of all that cycling and marathon racing. 🙂
Our first USCA Nationals was an amazing experience. Cars, campers, trucks, wagons, and anything to which you could strap a boat (can you say Amish buggy?) were crammed along the shore of the St. Joe River in South Bend, Indiana. There were young and middle aged men in either spandex or neoprene everywhere! My training as an occupational therapist has often helped me appreciate the beauty of God’s human form just long enough to remember that I must bounce my eyes to other lovely things lest my heart go to dishonoring places! Sish. You would think that everyone was a competitor given the hundreds of colorful vessels sprinkling the shoreline that day. Excitement and anticipation were in the air. Steve competed in the sea kayaking class and finished respectfully for his first Nationals. A former Olympian named Matt smoked the pack by minutes: a dramatic sight to see. I’d never seen a racing canoe (C-1) or an Olympic-class ICF kayak before: narrower, tippier, and lighter than 2 bowling balls side-by-side and pushed effortlessly against the current of any river with carbon fiber, bent or winged paddles, respectively. I didn’t see any that looked appealing to me just yet! My learning curve would surely keep me beyond reach of these river rats in vessels as wide as a hewn log floating downstream to a lumber yard.
Steve could give you more details on how he progressed to lighter and faster sea kayaks, trading up or buying-and-selling with guys throughout the Midwest. For the two of us we had settled on a Hobie Oasis when the Lord provided the needed resources: a tandem bright blue pedal-driven barge-by-comparison, complete with cup-holders and 100 pounds of stability. We had fun taking the Hobie out on local lakes many Sundays that summer after Steve had raced all day somewhere in northern Indiana on most Saturdays. We could use it as a swim platform or explore native shorelines and never fear the wakes of ski boats zooming by. The only drawback was the slow peddling speed. With both of us peddling we still maxed out at around 4 MPH. Adding power from the wimpy plastic kayak paddles didn’t make much of a difference. It takes a long time to get anywhere at that speed! We were always struggling to keep up with the recreational paddlers of the FW Kayaking group and getting water lilies or seaweed caught in the drive system under the boat (think bicycle crank shaft above and swim fins below). Sure we could trade up for the shorter fins. Somehow I had a feeling that I was going to learn to paddle eventually. Could I become strong enough to power my own vessel? I started looking around at kayak designs when at races. I looked over Steve’s shoulder many times as he was watching frightful ocean-going surf ski racing You Tube videos. Good golly! So where is the middle ground?
In many sports you are only as good as your gear. You can’t blame your gear for poor performance most of the time (or at least your spouse will remind you of the financial cost of trying to get it right!) but you can spend less energy where it doesn’t need to go when your equipment is lighter and your technique is streamlined to match. This is where it is beneficial to be married to an athlete of the sport in which you are choosing to dabble! With my own better gear I was about to start looking a bit more accomplished than my ability! The next stage began in Warren, Pennsylvania.
I knew it when I saw it. We were pulling into the parking lot of the beautiful park that would be the home base for the Warren USCA Nationals. She was bright orange and gray, strapped to the roof of a racer from New Jersey, and wearing a big red-and-white “For Sale” sign. The boat, not the guy! My dad had just sent me an unexpected financial gift that happened to be idling in my checkbook. I had seen the fiberglass lay up of the Think Fit on display at our first trip to Nationals the previous summer. Something about it resonated with me: a sea kayak that wasn’t too narrow, was significantly lighter than the plastic beasts like the Hobie that the recreational paddlers tended to favor, and yet was respectable even by the racing crowd. Very few Think Fits were available in the Midwest. It looked intimidating and skill-building all the same. She was going home with me. I was sure of it long before I said anything to Steve.
The bonding experience would change my view of kayaking forever. Think about it: what’s the worst fear a person might have when getting into a tiny vessel on unknown waters? Drowning? Even if you know how to swim there are variables on open water that can kill you. A jet boat can run you over, a swirling eddy can entrap you under a log, the current can take you where you don’t want to go, and a spider can tether down from a tree branch from above and frightfully let you know that you are not paddling alone . . . It’s the stuff waking nightmares are made of. You know, that twilight time just before you fall asleep? I would have many recollections of my first time in the Think Fit after that maiden voyage. It’s the stuff you tell stories about when out to dinner after a day of racing or touring.
Steve stabilized the Think Fit in the midst of the current of the Alleghany River to help me get a feel for it. This is a bit misleading for many reasons including these top two: 1) a boat (like a bicycle) is more stable as you move forward instead of sitting stationary and 2) the rate of the current (or the overpowering wind on a bicycle) can challenge the skill level of all of us. The Core of Army Engineers had released a bit too much water from the dam earlier that day to correct the water levels for the race competitors. So instead of a gentle 2-3 MPH current, we’re talking 5-6 MPH! The last time I stood in current like that was as a kid when helping groom a trail at day camp. I had slid off the trail into the swirling waters of the Clinton River, feeling the rush pull me away from the shore as I struggled to get back onto dry land. Where were the other kids? Who knows. All I knew is that I was scared and I had to spend the rest of the day in soggy shoes and shorts! Bummer. Or there were the times as a kid that we created a current walking around the periphery of our 24-foot backyard pool. After about a dozen times pool-walking around the circle we had created an awesome current for crazy fun, sweeping us away unless we hung onto the sides! The feel of rushing water returned few decades later when I felt the undertow when swimming in the ocean along the Gulf of Mexico . . . Now there’s a real sense of danger right there.
Steve had me paddle towards him then drew me back along the shore for a repeat mini-paddle. I could feel the rush of the water making the paddling easier. No problem. His presence boosted my confidence too. Then I started venturing out a little more, requiring less help from him to turn around. I barely had a handle on the rudder steering mechanism as I tried to make a turn before a large tree hanging over the river. Before I knew it I was pushed into a horizontal branch and began rolling over in slow-motion. I grabbed a branch within reach above me, nearly panicked, and somehow remembered to hang onto the very expensive boat that wasn’t mine. Everything flashed before me in an instant: I’m glad I am wearing a life jacket. I can’t hold the boat and the paddle at the same time. The boat isn’t paid for so I can’t let go. I am horizontal and the current is stronger than I could ever imagine. How long can I hold on? If I let go will I be strewn down the river backwards for miles before anyone ever finds me? I will be stranded somewhere with snakes, barbs or worse as it gets dark. Why are the men watching right now and not doing anything? I could die! I don’t know what to do and I am panicking!
In a moment like that you must make a different decision: will you become overwhelmed with fear and land in a worse outcome because of it or will you take a deep breath and try to figure something out. Even Steve was standing knee-deep in water along the shore watching me, speechless! Would he even be able to hear me over the roar of the rushing water anyways? Yes, I have to try anyways. First step, I yelled, “I need to be rescued.” He quickly came out of shock, took off his glasses/watch/keys, and started towards me. Second step, “I am letting go of the boat.” That cued him to grab the boat, make an awesome deep water re-entry into it, grab the paddle and make his way towards me. Third step and just as he got to me, I let go of the tree branch and my only security on earth in that moment. I quickly drifted into the stern of the boat and grabbed hold. He said something to me and I have no idea what it was. I held on with whatever energy was left in my trembling body. Did I mention that the waters were quite cool?
Even Steve was having trouble righting the boat to return to shore as I realized that I could help him do so. I started kicking my legs as if I were hanging onto a kick board in a lap pool. Yeah, more like a lap pool with a swim machine on steroids that is! We readily got going in the right direction and Steve paddled us into shore. When I could feel the sandy bottom of the shoreline I dragged myself out of the water. Steve dismounted out of the boat, emptied it and laid it on the shore. The two idiots that were watching the whole time and did nothing to help, said nothing, checked their phones, and walked over the hill back into the parking lot beyond. In that park were hundreds of experienced canoe and kayak racers who had no idea of the crisis occurring for me at the take-out where all of them had ended their respective races within the previous hour. I collapsed into Steve’s arms in horror, fear, grief, terror, and relief that I had not drowned. It was my worst fear you know. The second was drifting aimlessly backwards down the river forever. Both landed me in a bucket full of tears that seemed like they would never end.
These days I understand that you can swim in waters with a stout current. These days I know some navigational and survival skills should I ever be faced with that scenario again. These days I know that I could have drifted downriver with the boat as a float and with the protection of my life vest to keep my head above water in most circumstances. These days I know that Steve would have signaled for help and did whatever it would take to find me should I have become stranded along the river down from the take out. And these days I know that I could have turned myself around almost instantly if I would have been swept away with the current. I have learned a lot since that day five years ago.
When I got my wits about me I looked at that orange and gray Think Fit kayak and knew I had another decision to make. We would be leaving town the next day and the boat that I thought would be right for me would also be leaving to make a cross-country trip in the opposite direction from where we live in Indiana. This was the boat I had landed upon after investigating the options and it was about to go away. The crisis that I experienced was a rite of passage in many ways. Sure, it’s unlikely to find such perilous conditions in the waterways of Indiana so why worry about it ever happening again. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had faced my worst fear of what could go wrong in a human-powered craft. I had faced it and survived. I had faced it and gained some new skills. And in the process I had bonded with my new Think Fit kayak. I bought it and took her home with me. It was the only possible outcome that I could imagine. I became a kayaker that day!
There’s more. See Part 2 for a little more of my paddling story. Then get into your own boat somewhere on some friendly waters this summer and get going eh? Oh the adventures that await you! Did I tell you the one about the nest of great blue herons in the remote pond at the end of the Golden Lake chain o’ lakes? :J
So glad I could enjoy my husband’s kayak race today. His daughter, Christina, and I cheered him on from the shore of the ol’ St. Joe River, taking pictures and listening to paddling stories from the timekeepers (Roger and Martha). Seems simple enough: a typical Saturday outing for our household perhaps.
Er, no. THIS IS HUGE!!! When you wake up with a crushing feeling in your chest that you’ve had for days and tic attacks after a night of broken sleep due to both, it’s a blessing from the Lord to be able to go anywhere! And seeing my beloved River Bear in his element is a real treat for me. My husband is so cool. And I got even got to yell at the top of my achy lungs, “Gooooooooo Steeeeeeeeeeeeeve!” He won today in the USCA K1 Unlimited class as well as had the fastest overall time. The day was warm and sunny. All was good.
The afternoon didn’t go so well as I tried to rest with hopes of helping at the Purdue Extension Office plant sale this evening. Oh well. Cancelled that. Sometimes you give up one thing for another. Life is like that sometimes.
Praise be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that can never fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 4:24-25
Yes, we endure hardships in our lives. Yet this is not all there is and that can be a tremendous relief and source of hope. A breath of fresh air. In this life we can choose give our lives to that which fails us and fades or trust the One who is worthy and promises us life everlasting, riches beyond our wildest imagination. I have placed my trust in more than I can see, feel, hear, taste, touch in this life: God almighty, maker of heaven and earth through a personal relationship with His son, Jesus Christ. So if I get a piece of happiness today it is a sweet blessing; thank you Lord. But I will never give up a piece of happiness for true joy that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. He transcends our world and our lives for the prize in the ultimate race: an inheritance that can never fade with Him eternally in heaven. Today and tomorrow I say, “Go Jesus!”
And with odds like this, maybe you will say, “go Jesus” too?