My love story; lets just say it’s a bit out of context for this topic; but one that we all can relate to. Kayaking; a love story.
Yes I was one of THOSE people. You all know what I am talking about. It all began when my boss would show me awesome pictures of him kayaking local rivers. I was always amazed at the beauty and mysticism of the rapids. Finally, I decided to take my Perception Swift lake kayak down a class II river by my house. I jumped in and quickly learned lesson #1. Do not put on the river 3 miles above the first rapid if you don’t need to. Slowly I paddled my way down enjoying the fall New England array of reds, oranges, and yellows that filled the trees. The cool breeze blew up against my face and over my un-helmeted head. As I neared the first rapid; a small amount of angst and excitement consumed my body. I would later learn this is what I refer to as my “excita-nerves.” Making it through the rapid and consequentially having to empty my half submerged boat was both exhilarating and tiring. I had arrived…almost….
After completing the river with no swims per say; I stopped by a local outfitter shop and asked a bunch of questions. I guess you would say I was in lust. I learned about spray skirts and PFDs (not to be confused with PDFs), paddles, helmets and dry gear, which was essential being a northeastern boater. Wow, boater, I liked the sounds of that. About a week later I purchased my very first whitewater kayak. I did not know then that this was the moment that would define me.
They say love can happen at first sight.
I knew it to be true the moment I sat in my boat on my very first real river. An old friend of my dad’s happened to be in town and was thrilled I had bought a kayak. He said he would take me. It was the day after Thanksgiving on the Fife Brook section of the Deerfield. Yes, November 29th in upstate Massachusetts. It’s amazing what love will make you do. I had my very used new boat, my new sprayskirt and a bunch of borrowed gear. Brian explained to me some things about river safety and away we went. I learned about peel outs and eddys, and how to swim, …twice. I loved it. I practiced my newly learned skill of hucking my boat onto my shoulder and bounced back to the car with a grin from ear to ear.
I learned about pool sessions at local YMCAs to learn to roll my kayak. The only pool session that fit my schedule was 2 ½ hours away. With love this strong I would not let any distance come between me and my boat, so every Saturday I would take the haul up to North Adams for my two hour pool session. I was determined to learn.
I hit the Fife Brook a few times in January with my pool session pals, but knew I needed more. I needed a foundation. That March I made my way down to North Carolina for 12 days. Brian had a place near the Nantahala River, and said he would teach me. I met many other boaters that came in for the weekends. We kayaked, then hung out, and ate, and played cornhole and talked shop around the fire. Those 12 days was where I learned there was so much more to being a kayaker than just the whitewater. This was not just a sport. This was a lifestyle.
The Honey moon period is always the best.
That feeling of going anywhere and doing anything just to be with your love. When I returned to Connecticut, my boating sky rocketed. I would boat with anyone at any time that was willing to take me. What’s great about Northeast paddlers is if you are willing, they will take you. I met tons of amazing boaters, and people who were more than willing to share their experience and skills with me. Over the course of two months, I paddled on twelve different rivers, any time there was water. I had one goal in mind. The first weekend of May, I was to go to my very first Kayaking Festival. Cheat Fest. I wanted to run the Cheat Canyon. A step up in my kayaking game.
Like any good love story, there are always some rocks in the road. In this case, the river.
It was the week of Cheat Fest, my bags were packed, car loaded and I began my seven hour trek down to the wild and wonderful land of West Virginia. I was excited to meet up again with all my newfound North Carolina boaters and the chance to meet a bunch of new people. Meeting people and smiling are my two favorite things! I pulled into Teeters Campground and found my friends. We planned to run the lower Yough on Thursday and Cheat Canyon Friday.
I made it fairly unscathed (I had a minor Cucumber incident) on the Lower Yough. The next day was it, the Cheat Canyon. This, they said, would be some big water! I was following Brian, who I trusted. I had been doing this from day 1 of boating. Our friend Pat was right behind me to clean up any messes just in case. I felt like I had my armor of boaters on and was ready to go. We slowly moved down the river, taking each rapid in pieces. Each line, meticulously. By the end of the day, I was swimless and stoked! I had done it!
After much excitement and little sleep I arose the next day to find out that Brian and Pat were not going to run the Canyon again. They said I could go with their friends if I still wanted to do it. I opted to go because I had such a great time the day before. We put on the river and began our way down. I could tell my boating was a bit off from being so tired. As we neared one of the bigger Rapids, High Falls, I was having some doubts as to whether or not to run it. We got out and scouted. I decided to run it anyway. About a quarter of the way down, I realized I was heading in the direction of a big rock sticking out of the water. I hesitated. My boat flipped. I immediately got into tuck position. And then it happened. The very rock I was trying to avoid, I now went screaming into bottom side up. My head and shoulder slammed into the rock. I found a few more smaller rocks. I waited. One roll attempt. Two roll attempts. I pulled the cord and ejected myself from my boat. The crew I was with helped me to the side and wrangled my gear. They asked if I was ok. I said yes, but knew something was not right. I slowly got back into my boat and we continued down the river. Paul, who was behind me kept talking to me, but I was getting confused as to what I was responding with. I began throwing up in the river. My group did not know I didn’t drink, so assumed I had a rough night. I felt distant. My head hurt. I vomited all the way to the take out and back to the campsite. When I got there I laid down, hoping to feel better.
Sometimes Love hurts.
That night I became confused. I couldn’t read. My head was progressively feeling worse. Finally a few friends of ours were nurses and EMTs so they checked me out. They told Brian I needed to go to the emergency room. West Virginia ERs aren’t like most places. They didn’t have a radiologist to read the scans and I think the receptionist was moonlighting as a doctor. He said I had a concussion but would be fine the next day and could drive back home. That night, I was awoken every hour. Morning came and everyone was packing up to go home. I was still puking. I said I wanted to drive home though. I just wanted to be home. I was hurt and heartbroken.
I don’t remember much of any of this. These are all accounts from my friends and family. I made it to somewhere in Pennsylvania when I needed to pull over because I was so confused and felt like I was driving under the influence. Brian and Pat called me and I could not speak right. I sounded like Porky Pig. “I do, I do I don I don’t know wha wha whats wrong.” They stayed on the phone and directed me to the closest hospital, and had friends of theirs there to meet me. The doctor said it was just a post-concussive state and I would be better by tomorrow or the day after. I went back to a local kayakers house, my dad and sister had to come get me.
I got back to Connecticut and spent 13 days in the hospital. Concussion quickly got re-diagnosed to Traumatic Brain Injury, which would change my life. Those 13 days in the hospital were brutal. My days were filled with neurologists, speech pathologists and physical therapists. I had to learn how to walk properly again. I dragged my left leg and my left side was weak. I needed to learn how to speak properly. Porky pig isn’t easy to listen to. The speech pathologist said to speak slow, soft and sexy. None of which I could do prior to the injury! My memory was equivalent to my 86 year old grandmother. I would tell the same story 10 times to the same person in one day. I had messed up my vestibular system, which was all of my balance.
I was released from the hospital still in rough shape and with a long road ahead of me. I had to walk with a walker the first month because I could not stand on my own. Thereafter I used a cane for several months. I couldn’t leave the house because everything was too over stimulating. Computer screens scrolled too fast for my brain to process. TV was out of the question. The worst part, I was going into my senior year of college and could not comprehend a simple sentence when I read one. I went through months of vestibular therapy, speech and memory therapy and my heart bleeding for my long lost love.
They say meeting your love brings out the best in you.
Since my injury, there has been a lot of changes in my life. I have had to re-learn how to live in many ways. What it also did was made me realize that life is too short to not live it to the fullest. Almost exactly a year after my injury I re-ran the Cheat Canyon, and I ran High Falls, and I did not let that injury get the best of me or what I love. Since then, I have not allowed fear and injury to hold me back. I am 10 years post injury, and I still have a Traumatic Brain Injury. I have to see doctors on a regular basis, continuously doing exercises to manage my vestibular system, migraines and focus. I do not let it hold me back. Since my injury, I have accomplished being the first female kayaker of the upper Amazon in Peru and the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. I navigate my TBI, and accept the new me for who I am. I continue to push myself on adventures around the world. It is my love.