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    Overcoming adversity – in a kayak

    By Karen Lai - From the series 'Stories by Guests'

    March 3rd, 2020

    Karen Lai, long-time guest and friend of Spirit of the West once again successfully applied for MEC’s expedition grant program. We are inspired time and time again by her determination: overcoming adversity and not letting Cerebral Palsy slow her down in the pursuit of adventure. Her nature-loving and strong mind brought her to the heart of the Johnstone Strait in summer 2019.

    Johnstone Strait Ultimate:
    Getting a Little Help from Friends

    Mother Nature couldn’t decide what to do on the second day of my kayaking trip – it was foggy, cloudy, sunny, rainy, definitely a mixed bag! As we were kayaking back to base camp, the rain started, but all our kayaks floated still in the water… as there were a pod of resident orca whales surrounding us. At that moment, all of us didn’t even mind we were getting wet as we were all mesmerized by the graceful movements of the whales and the sounds we heard through the hydrophone. Time stood still as we watched. Nothing seemed to matter in that moment as the whales captured our delight and hearts. As the whales floated away, double rainbows appeared and all of us had the luxury to kayak underneath the rainbows.  It was absolutely magical. Absolutely bliss!

    I was so happy that MEC decided to support me again through their Expedition Program so I can participate in another kayaking trip hosted by Spirit of the West Adventures.

    “A trip like this means that I get to enter into my “happy place” where I disconnect from the world, enjoy nature’s outdoor playground, and challenge my abilities.”

    The MEC funds supported a friend to come along to provide equilibrium for me to participate in the larger group. Since birth, I have lived with Cerebral Palsy, specifically Spastic Diplegia, a neurological disability that affects my coordination, balance, motor dexterity, speech, and motor control. As I am slowly discovering, CP intensifies as we age, in combination with the natural progression of getting older. This means that I am consistently in pain because of the increased spasticity of my muscles.

    When I am at home, I live a relatively independent life because of the supports and the community I have created around me. However, when I am playing in the outdoors, it is a different story because of the natural environment with tree roots, rocks, sand, or loose logs… all of which make it an extra challenge for me to maneuver around. To assist in this, I use hiking poles to give me that extra balance. In addition, when being in a kayak for a couple of hours, my lower limbs get quite stiff and possibly in spasms, so it is that much more of a challenge, even with the help of hiking poles. Thus, having my friend there as support gives me that extra hand to carry things, to support me when walking on the rugged terrain, or being my partner in a double kayak to provide that extra stability, Quite frankly, this support of a friend allows me to enjoy my holiday, take in the pleasantries of the other kayak participants and the outdoors, without having to consistently struggle to keep up to meet the “normal” pace of the group.

    “The act of helping is a very strange phenomenon.”

    In much of society, we tend to associate success with independence – there’s an unspoken societal norm about this. It is engrained in us – from the early years of our life, when we learn how to tie our own shoes, walk to school on our own, move out on our own, etc. Our parents teach their children to be as independent as possible, and their wish is to have their children to be as independent as possible.  But what if the need of getting help allows a person to access their community? Or being able to be fully employed? Or being able to enjoy the great outdoors? The reality is that the majority of us need help, and for some of us, we may need a greater degree of help to participate in community or the outdoors.

    However, the act of help has become a necessity for me whenever I want to play in the outdoors and the degree of help has increased over the years. Not only does it support me, it also gives Spirit of the West Adventures and their kayak guides the peace of mind that I am comfortable, and my specific needs are taken care of, minimizing their risk management. That’s the reality. Many mainstream outdoor outfitters may not be familiar with people with disabilities, as there are countless programs that are designed for people with disabilities in mind. In my particular situation, I am quite high functioning that often I am caught in the middle. Programs for people with disabilities are often quite limiting and doesn’t challenge me. Then, with mainstream programs, my disability gets emphasized because I am unable to keep up with the pace of the group or need specific supports for me to be a part of the group.  So, I am always left with the challenge of where do I fit in?

    With the positive relationship I have established with Spirit of the West Adventures, it becomes a learning experience for us all. They had to learn about my specific needs and what would work best to include me on their adventures. Then I had to learn to be open and transparent about my needs along with the acceptance of needing extra support. There’s a part of me that I have to let go, to let my vulnerability be seen. I have to be willing to accept help in order to participate in mainstream activities and be comfortable with it. I know that the only way I will have a wonderful trip is when I am honest, open, and transparent about my abilities and limitations. Then on the other end, it is the responsibility of the company, in this case, Spirit of the West Kayaking Adventures to create a welcoming and open environment so that their prospective clients can share their specific needs. They sure did with me! They were willing to work together to find creative accommodations – this is inclusion at its finest!

    So, it is us, that we need to redefine help or support and the opportunity to be independent may look differently to all of us.  I am independent to be able to build the appropriate relationships so that I can have the necessary support in place to have a successful trip. As I sat there in my double kayak watching the graceful movements of the orca whales and hearing the rain drops pitter-patter against the water, I was intensely grateful for the opportunity of being surrounded by this beauty of a place. I am grateful for the journey of self-acceptance, as well as my relationship with Spirit of the West Adventures and MEC.

    Photo credit: Karen Lai

    Posted in Stories by Guests

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