|An adult woman with a physical disability is sitting in a t kayak on a lake|
Last fall my husband and I wanted to see migrating pelicans at a nearby lake. Try as we might, we could not get close enough to get a good view. There was no wheelchair accessible vantage point that I could access. In pondering a solution, we decided that a canoe or kayak would increase our bird-watching opportunities, and that paddling would also provide some exercise. However, a visit to our local outdoor store presented too many choices. Canoe? Kayak? Sit-top kayak? Single kayak? Tandem kayak? How much would a boat cost? How would we transport it to the lake? We shelved the idea for the winter.
Come spring, we considered the options again and spoke with vendors and friends. We attended a kayak demonstration where my husband paddled leisurely around a cove but where I paddled 12 feet, got tangled in some weeds, capsized, and had to be dragged to shore by my PFD (Personal Floatation Device)—how embarrassing! But the lure of the water was motivating and we were determined to make this work. We needed something that was reasonably-priced, could be transported in our van, and would be accessible to me. My mobility limitations, and my husband's short stature and arthritis, prohibited our transporting it on the roof of a vehicle and we did not want to invest in a trailer.
Finally we made a decision. We purchased a single, sit-top kayak from a local sporting goods store. As neither of us are great swimmers, we figured this would allow us to safely paddle along the shore of a calm lake and at less than 9 feet long, could be easily loaded in the back of the van. A sit-top quelled my fears of not being able to get out of the kayak if I capsized.
Our first trip out was great for my husband but not for me. I simply could not balance in the 28-inch wide kayak. I felt that I needed something a bit wider and more stable. Online, I found another sit-top kayak from the same manufacturer — Penguin Sport - that was a bit wider with more capacity. The kayak arrived at our door about one week later and I arranged with our city recreation department to try it out in the indoor pool. What a difference! I felt stable immediately and paddled around the pool easily and safely! It was easy to get into and fun to use.
Since that day my husband and I have been frequent kayakers in that nearby lake. We go early in the day, when most of the powerboats are not out creating wakes yet, and when there are some birds to see. Since I don't do well in intense heat or lots of sun, kayaking early in the morning is a great way to get some fresh air and exercise while avoiding overheating and sunburn. I am able to transfer easily from my wheelchair down into the kayak. To get out of the kayak, I use a two-step process: I transfer to an overturned plastic milk carton (with a cushion on it!) that we tote the PFD's in, and from there, up onto my wheelchair. The kayaks are small and light enough for my husband to load them into the back of our van.
I cannot describe the feeling of serenity I experience from being on a calm lake early in the morning, hearing the calls of birds and the sound of the paddle dipping into the water. It is the feeling I last had regularly many years ago when I was able to hop on a bicycle and ride for an hour to get away from everything. Recently, I've also learned of evidence that paddling a kayak can improve posture and preserve shoulder function in people with paraplegia. My next goal is to take some swimming lessons so that I can improve my stroke, stay fit over the winter, and be ready for kayaking on a river next summer.
What I learned from this is that many activities can be made accessible with some creativity and persistence. However, it's not as easy for people with physical limitations, as it is for non-disabled people, to try out a sport. We need more community opportunities for people with disabilities to try new activities in supportive environments, without a large investment of money and without a long distance to travel.
My husband and I hope to get a better view of those pelicans this fall from our Pelican kayaks. And we hope to organize a demonstration day in our own community so that people with disabilities can try out this activity. Maybe there'll be more of us out on the lake in the future!