Two Steps Back, One Step Forward
The blizzard was a gift. With it came the opportunity to reflect on what I learned during those first days. I could change some of my equipment. And, most important, I could refine my cold water survival techniques.
I returned the expensive, tiny tent to my friend. It was claustrophobic, trapped condensation, and I couldn’t cook inside of it. I replaced it with my two-person summer tent. The tent was a gift from an old boss—bought for $10 at a discount grocery store. It was quick to set up and had vents for condensation to escape.
I traded in my old flip phone for an iPhone. The iPhone had GPS, weather, and I could load navigation charts on it. It also took fantastic photos.
The wetsuit was a bust. If anything, it decreased my chance of survival because I sweated so hard in it that my clothes were soaked at the end of each day. And wet clothes in the dead of winter are a recipe for disaster. The first days that I paddled out of Omaha, I was either wet and cold or wet and warm. Frankly, it sucked. The wetsuit also caused chaffing near my armpits and legs. My raw skin made for a painful journey, so I abandoned the wetsuit.
Without the wetsuit, if I fell into the water, I would have only a few minutes before hypothermia shut down my muscles. Realistically, a few minutes was not enough time to get to a shore which could be thousands of feet away. Worse, I would have to do this in a river with a swift, strong current that can break barges from their moorings. And, I would have to tow a canoe behind me. Impossible.
“There must be a solution,” I thought.
One of my friends ran a whitewater kayaking program for Veterans, called Team River Runner, based out of St. Louis, Missouri. On Wednesday nights they met at an indoor community pool to practice rolling kayaks. I gave him a call and arranged to practice with them—the Vets in their whitewater kayaks and me in an expedition canoe.
I hoped that if the canoe capsized, I could roll it over while floating beside it and then climb back inside.
The practice session went worse than expected. I flipped the canoe dozens of times, turning it upside down and ejecting myself into the water. I was able to climb back into the canoe twice.
I used a technique taught by canoeing instructors. I would swim to the stern of the capsized canoe, roll it over, and then climb into the stern of the canoe. For the average canoe, this technique works. However, my canoe was designed to be fast in the water. It was too narrow to provide enough stability to climb back in.
“Ok,” I thought, “if I fall in the water I die.”
There is no satisfaction in stating that death is inevitable. I needed another plan.
I decided that if I fell into the water, I would abandon the canoe and swim to shore. I was on the swim team in high school, and we practiced in an unheated pool in the winter. I reasoned that I might stand a chance.
But if I made it to shore, I would be soaked. So I packed an emergency dry bag with extra clothes, food, and water. I placed it behind the canoe’s seat. If I capsized, I would grab the bag and swim for shore. Once on shore, I would change clothes and build a fire. The plan would be a long shot, but at least it was a plan, and that offered some comfort.
The downtime also gave me time to think; to ponder more deeply on the questions the reporter at Nebraska City had asked me.
“Why was I doing this?”
And, “Why in the winter?”
First, why not? As crazy as it was, I might as well have been paddling the river in the winter as writing a book next to a warm fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa in my hand.
However, I didn’t like this answer.
There was something more. I was testing myself. Could I do it? Could I succeed? I had my doubts—every second of every day.
When I was nineteen, I gave up college and moved to Bolivia to do humanitarian work. I couldn’t bear to be locked away in another fluorescent cave, stuck to a desk, learning about the world from a whiteboard. I wanted to be a doer.
Out on the river, I was doing.
All of this doing raised a question for me. Did my autistic nephew squirm all day while sitting at a desk, like I did as an adult in college? If he could escape the desk, what would he do?
Autism is defined as a difficulty communicating, interacting, and forming relationships with others.
How are the autistic to communicate that the school desk feels like pins and needles, especially if no one listens? How will the autistic say, “Hey, I want to learn to ride a bike, but I’m terrified, especially when all the other kids are swirling around me and the bicycle seat feels weird?”
For people on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, they can’t say that. They can’t say anything because they’re non-verbal. It’s up to us to observe, listen, and support them.
So, why was I doing it?
Nothing in life is easy. Everything presents challenges, whether we are taking a standardized test, applying for a new job, working with a team, building a loving relationship with another person, paddling down a river, raising a child born with autism, or living with autism. I was making a statement to myself; if I was capable of this, then I was capable of much more. And I was making a statement to others; if you can rally behind me, then why not autism?