Paddling to freedom: Adaptive kayaking attracts all abilities

Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 6:36 PM EDT
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WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - Summer months mean lots of time spent out on Vermont’s lakes and ponds, but that’s easier for some than for others. A program in Waterbury is taking some to places they never would have dreamed possible.

“I went out for an hour, and I didn’t want to come back,” said Brian Irish. For the Colchester resident, water is the great equalizer. He says shoreline views are great, but nothing beats exploring those views. “When you’re in a kayak, you can actually be on the water looking into the woods.”

Irish, who became quadriplegic following a car crash, says he was never a “water guy” -- too many risks. But three years ago a friend encouraged him to try something new, and with the risk came new-found freedom. “Getting out of the chair and being in some other device and going places the chair wouldn’t be able to take you.”

“The freedom in a kayak just offers limitless exploration,” said Cathy Webster with the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association Adaptive Kayaking Program. The physical therapist launched the program seven years ago to try something new. “We finagled with a few pieces of equipment, I did some research, she did some research,” Webster said.

Since then, the program has ballooned to 50 to 60 kayakers in their Tuesday through Thursday class schedule, offering anyone with a range of abilities, a chance at open water.

“Even though it can be noisy at the launch site, once you’re 10 feet off the launch, it’s a whole different world,” Webster said. “Out of the people we were able to capture at the beginning and the end of the year, there is a 20% increase in their efficiency and speed.”

Reporter Kevin Gaiss: Beyond everything, is community what you are trying to build?

Cathy Webster: Yeah, people have felt so isolated, unable to get out. People go out together or they ask to be scheduled with different people. They really have an enjoyable day.

“How big it’s gotten, it’s just incredible,” said Jamie Perron of Jeffersonville, another participant who helped spark the idea for the program. “As soon as I got out on the water, I was hooked.”

Seven years and hundreds of kayaking trips later, Perron now gets to do something she didn’t know she could do herself and share it with countless others. “Seeing the smiles on their face and just knowing you can be out there on your own, pushing your own kayak -- it’s just great,” she said.