Coastal Team Challenge 2009

Coastal Challenge: Washington 2009
By Bob Vogel

In August, American Portfolios Chief Executive Officer Lon T. Dolber led an intrepid team of sea kayakers on the Coastal Team Challenge, an 85-mile journey from Anacortes, Wash. to Vancouver, B.C. Organized by World T.E.A.M. Sports (WTS), where Dolber serves on the board, the event brought American and Canadian soldiers with disabilities, non-disabled kayakers, and this journalist (a paraplegic) together in a spirit of cooperation. In a week’s time they battled currents, rode rapids, and pushed themselves to the limits of their endurance.

From the outset, the sea-farers met with challenge. Under a brilliant blue sky, they prepared to take to the waters in kayaks sponsored by American Portfolios, 12 of the firm’s registered representatives, Pershing LLC, and Soldier On of Canada. But dividing and stowing a weeks worth of gear in the kayaks proved more time consuming than anticipated and they didn’t take to the water at their scheduled departure time noon, a time the guides had chosen because it was “slack water” a window of stable water that happens between the swift incoming and outgoing tidal currents the area is famous for.

It didn’t take long for the group to learn the importance being ready and starting a day’s voyage according to the tidal charts. Because they missed their departure time, what should have been an easy four-mile, 90-minute paddle to James Island wound up being a four-hour battle against the current after it pulled the group behind the island.

The next day, the kayakers left the beach on schedule and paddled with the current to cross a nine-mile stretch to Cypress Island. The trip began smoothly, but soon became intimating as they encountered their first tidal rapids, which looked like they could easily flip or swallow a kayak. As they bucked and splashed through the swiftly moving rapids, several kayakers were spun around by whirlpools, and had to paddle hard to get out and pointed in the right direction. Only after the team made it to calmer water unscathed, did they agree with guides that it was “fun”.

During the first two days of paddling they gained the experience and rhythm that would be required for the increasing distances in the days to come – distances that would test the limits of the kayakers strength, endurance and willpower, a test that attracted Dolber to the challenge. “I’ve always liked sports that focus on endurance because anybody that has the willpower can do them, which is why I was drawn to the idea of this kayak trip,” he says. “In the past I’ve done mountain climbing, distance cycling, and run marathons. I found what brings success in those sports also applies to distance kayaking, I don’t think about the goal, just about the here and now, and I get into a meditative state and find myself happy and at peace. I live in the moment and enjoy the day.”

While the days were grueling, the team lucked into a week of crystal clear days and enjoyed amazing scenery including lush green forests on the islands, snow-capped mountains in the distance, seal sightings and the call of bald eagles. They camped on uninhabited islands, with no running water and pit toilets. The clear weather brought nights filled by a bright full moon, and a star filed sky. After a long day of paddling, the sound of waves gently washing against the beach lulled people into a deep sleep.

For Dolber, the best part of the trip was forming new friendships and learning about people. “We started out the first evening not knowing anybody and over the trip we became friends.” He says. “With the paddling, being tired, and pulling together as a team in an adventure, our egos dropped — talks in the evening around the campfires were interesting, sharing very different backgrounds and ideas but without an argument, more from a true point of interest.”

Meeting the Unexpected

For most of the participants, sea kayaking was a new experience. “Sometimes when you are in my position you could get the feeling there are things you shouldn’t or can’t do,” says Paul Franklin, a retired master corporal in the Canadian army who lost both legs above the knee to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006. “An adventure like this gives me freedom. Knowing I am fit enough to complete it is great. My favorite part was, after the 15-mile open water crossing of the Straight of Georgia, surfing the one-meter-high breakers into Point Roberts.”

Karen McCoy also found the real magic of the trip was getting to know other people. “I expected the trip would be physically challenging,” says McCoy, an aviation technician and sergeant in the Canadian air force. McCoy lost her right leg below the knee to cancer in 2003. “What I didn’t expect was meeting people that went straight to my heart. Sharing the challenge and the laughs and the difficulties made us become really close. My favorite part of the trip was the evening chit-chat around the fire and hearing different people’s stories of survival and determination.”

Two members of the group created their own story of survival and determination. Brett Rickard, a veteran of the Canadian army who lost his left leg above the knee in 1988 when it got caught in a winch cable on a 5-ton diesel refuel truck, casually recalls a narrow escape involving Jeff Henson, a retired demolitions specialist in the U.S. Army. Henson is blind in his right eye and has only 15 percent of his vision in his left eye.

“A group of us decided to walk around Clark Island. The tide came in and the sun was starting to set. Most of the group decided to risk wet feet on the rising tide, but Jeff and I chose the high path over the island. Jeff was in the lead. He slipped off the trail and grabbed a sapling as his body [slid down] the cliff. He was unable to pull himself up,” says Rickard. “I took off my [prosthetic] leg, laid down on the trail, and held it out, and he was able to grab the leg and climb to safety.”

Upon hearing the story, the other members of the group wanted to know why Henson was in the lead in the first place. The answer came quickly to Rickard, and in five words he summed up the teamwork and friendship that comes out of WTS events like the Coastal Team Challenge: “I forgot he was blind.”

A version of this story previously appeared in American Portfolios quarterly magazine FREE, 2009.

Vancouver Island Adventure: 2008

By Bob Vogel

Moonlight shimmered off the ocean as I settled into my tent, perched on a spit of sand on the rugged northwest coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. I was here as a member of an inclusive (disabled and nondisabled athletes) team of sea kayakers on a “beta-trip” for World T.E.A.M. Sports (The Exceptional Athlete Matters), a non-profit organization that promotes participation in sports and disability awareness by creating inclusive adventures and events ranging from adaptive cycling clinics to adventure races.

The Vancouver Island adventure is the brainchild of American Portfolios CEO and World T.E.A.M Sports (WTS) board member Lon Dolber, 52, from East Moriches, New York. “My idea was having a group of military veterans with disabilities from the U.S. and Canada kayak the 700-mile distance around Vancouver Island in stages during the summer of 2009,” he says. To test feasibility, Dolber planned a 5-day, “beta-trip” made up of disabled and nondisabled kayakers on the most exposed and remote part of the island.

Dolber’s first hurdle was finding a guide service willing to take the challenge. A Google search pulled up Rob Lyon of Lyon Expeditions and Colin Doherty of Cascadia Kayak Tours, both from the San Juan Islands in Washington state. “When I explained the beta-trip, they were totally skeptical,” he says. “They hadn’t worked with people with disabilities before and didn’t know what to expect. Plus they recognized I had no idea what sea kayaking in the Pacific Northwest was all about. They didn’t refuse, but they were very nervous.” Dolber persisted, and a deal was struck.

The ten-person team included seven nondisabled paddlers – the two guides, plus Dolber and his 18-year old son James, Richard Antunovich, David Rey, and Peter Noris, all from Long Island, New York. Disabled team members included Master Corporal Brett Rickard, 43, an active duty member of the Canadian Army who lost his left leg above the knee in 1988 and is the longest serving amputee member of the Canadian military; Airman Josh Sharpe, 34, a T9 complete para and U.S. Navy veteran from North Bay Ontario, Canada; and this reporter, a T10 complete para who, thinking the event sounded amazing, managed a last-minute invite after speaking with Dolber and mentioning that I had some sea kayaking experience.

We flew into Campbell River on August 16, greeted by hot, sunny weather. Vancouver Island is known for its rich fishing grounds. Part of our plan was to fish and live off the sea as much as possible. Half of our group were fly fishing fanatics, and Rob Lyon – a world renowned fly fisherman and fly fishing author – brought an extra fly rod and said he would give pointers. I love to fish but never catch anything – this was going to be great! Over dinner at the lodge we looked down on the marina as boatloads of happy anglers unloaded their days’ catch of big salmon.

Early the next morning we departed on a four-hour van ride over old logging roads across the island to Fair Harbor, where we loaded our kayaks (three doubles and four singles) and gear bags into a 30-foot water taxi and headed out of Kyuquot Sound on the 50-mile voyage to our dropoff point on the Brooks Peninsula located on the northwest (Pacific Ocean) side of the island. Brooks Peninsula is the only part of the island that was untouched by the last ice age and consists of jagged mountain peaks and dense, old-growth forest. Captain Cook had dubbed it the “Cape of Storms.” Due to frequent fierce storms and the remote location, it sees few visitors. This should have told us something. Our plan was to spend the next five days paddling toward Kyuquot, fishing and camping among small barrier islands. The rugged, lush scenery on the boat ride to Brooks was stunning – and eye-opening – we didn’t see a person, boat or sign of civilization the entire way. This was a serious adventure.

By mid-afternoon we were on a pebble-covered beach in a secluded inlet loading a mountain of gear bags into the sea kayaks and lashing our chairs to the decks. We shoved off and started paddling northwest onto Brooks Peninsula. The conditions were perfect, sunny skies, gently rolling seas and 90-degree air temperatures. Our senses were on overload as our kayaks sliced through the frigid (50 degree) turquoise blue water, rounding jagged rock spires that seemed to be guardians of the mountainous emerald-green shores of Brooks. James and Rob had their fly rods out and within 15 minutes James had a strike from a big salmon. Soon it was getting late and time to find a camp. Rounding another rock spire, we found a secluded beach and headed ashore.

While setting up camp, somebody asked if there were bears on the island. The guide’s response was, “Yeah, but they are just black bears – they won’t bother you. It’s the mountain lions you have to be careful of!” Since mountain lions and bears aren’t exactly common on Long Island, this information had a couple of team members a bit nervous. Sitting around a driftwood campfire under a full moon on that balmy evening, I contemplated sleeping under the stars, but opted for my tent, a good choice.

The Weather Arrives

The next morning dawned cold, drizzly and breezy. Rob checked the forecast on his VHF and said that we were in for some weather. A storm from the Gulf of Alaska was headed our way, bringing high seas and hurricane force winds. So much for learning to fly fish. Instead we spent the morning tying down tents, battening down the camp, creating a driftwood “throne room” and clearing a trail to it.

Before the trip I had asked the guides my big wilderness concern: “What about bathroom facilities?” I was told the area is so remote that squatting in the woods, burying the waste, and burning the paper was the norm. I explained that I needed to be sitting to let gravity assist. Collin had packed a tiny plastic commode designed for wilderness use, which worked great.

By afternoon the weather deteriorated. Josh wheeled down the firm, low-tide sand and joined some of the group to explore caves and driftwood art left over from previous “storm stranded” kayakers. The rest of the group was paddling out for rockfish and ling cod. I wanted to fish, but admitted my kayaking skill may not be up to the rising seas – part of being a good team member is communicating when you need help. Colin said he would join me on a double kayak and keep it stable, which turned out to be a good call. Paddling out, we hit a set of waves that broke over the front of the kayak and me. When the second wave hit, I hooked into a 145-pounder – me. The wave drove a fish lure into my hand. Fortunately, I got the hook out, but my bloody hand was fodder for a few great white shark jokes.

The fishing turned out to be great. Everyone was catching fish. I caught six rockfish but found out the hard way that they have strong jaws, sharp little teeth, and spines that feel like a bee sting when they puncture your skin. I managed to get three into the net. We caught enough fish for several meals for the group.

The next morning the full force of the storm hit with 60-mile-per hour winds, driving rain, 45-degree temps, and 16-foot seas. A good part of the day was spent huddled under a rain tarp next to the driftwood fire telling stories. The forecast turned from bad to worse. The storm was expected to last through the next day – with two more storms lined up behind it. If we didn’t get a calm weather window in two days, we would be trapped for five extra days. Not only would we miss our plane, but communication to friends, family and jobs would be limited to brief messages delivered via VHS radio.

After huddling under the tarp for the better part of the afternoon, I pushed through the driving rain to my tent, only to discover it had sprung a leak and part of my sleeping bag and pad were wet. Fortunately a spare ground tarp thrown over my tent stopped the leak.

“The weather’s a great equalizer,” Lon said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a world class kayaker or a beginner, wheeling or walking, when there are 60 mile-per-hour winds and 16-foot seas, you are still just as trapped.” We all realized that we had to be extra careful in the storm. If one of us got injured, there was no way to get medical help. We were also getting a taste of what makes adventures so … adventurous. You never know when the weather will trap you, or let you go.

We noticed bear tracks near the “throne room” and along the creek near the tents. Later that day we saw a bear nonchalantly striding past our camp. From then on, the words, “Hey bear!” could be loudly heard any time somebody went near the woods or there was a sound near the tents at night. It was tough enough finding a break in the driving rain to use the commode, but the bear visit made it even more adventurous.

Lessons Learned

The day before we were supposed to leave, the storm still raged. The forecast called for a let-up during the night. Rob hailed the water taxi on the VHF and we were informed that we could be picked up – if we could paddle back to our departure inlet on Brooks, and if it was clear, and if the seas were less than three feet. For the wheelers, things like saving and re-using catheters became vital in case of an extended stay.

“Some of my best memories of the trip were sitting under the tarp, hearing about people’s different backgrounds, stories and life experiences,” recalls Brett. Stories that ranged from Rob’s solo circumnavigation of the island, the physical agility and running tests required of Brett to stay in the military, Josh’s handcycle touring and racing, how Lon’s successful investment company launched on 9/11/01, and tales of my scuba and hang gliding adventures.

“An important part of WTS’ mission is to not differentiate between nondisabled and disabled – it is all one team, and together we work with each team member’s strengths,” says Lon. “Part of that teamwork on this adventure was everybody keeping each other’s spirits up while we were cold and damp and sandy, huddled together on that tiny spit of sand, not knowing if we were going to get out of there on Thursday or be stuck there for another week.”

Weather on the last day dawned calm and crystal clear. We struck camp and kayaked back to the inlet and our ride back to civilization, looking forward to a cold beer and a warm dry bed, but we were sad to be leaving. The beta trip taught us that the circumnavigation plan would be possible, but the extreme weather on the west side of the island would be a major obstacle. Because of this, the goal has been changed to a team of disabled U.S. and Canadian military veterans doing a 10-day sea kayak trip from Seattle to Vancouver late this summer, to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Colin and Rob came into this adventure apprehensive about taking disabled people to such a remote area, but after seeing how we held our own on the water and in camp, and hearing stories of our other adventures, they got it. Sea kayaking on the Brooks Peninsula is a big deal; Paraplegics sea kayaking on the Brooks Peninsula was unheard of. “Now if a disabled person wants to go sea kayaking in the San Juan’s or Vancouver Island,” says Lon, we have added two companies that are educated and comfortable with it.”

Since I was paralyzed 23 years ago, I’ve been fortunate (and stubborn) enough to pursue adventures ranging from off-road handcycling into Havasu Canyon and flying my hang glider at 20,000 feet to scuba diving with hammerhead sharks. These adventures come alive when I’m immersed in the beauty of the natural world and exposed to its risks and consequences. Vancouver Island was no exception. It was cold, damp and difficult, but it was also exciting and energizing, a rare opportunity to be in a wild, remote place and to risk exposure to the raw power of a Pacific storm and the whims of nature. A renewed appreciation for basics, like food, shelter, and warmth, as well as respect for the power of natural forces that required vigilance and being in the here and now – will stay with me for a long time.

A version of this story previously appeared in New Mobility Magazine, 2009.