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After a back injury, my kayaking days are numbered

As soon as ice closes the lakes and rivers around the Great Lakes, I dream about next year's first kayak outing – not tentative forays on sheltered rivers, but the first trip on a big lake. After a winter clumping through the woods on snowshoes, paddling on open water seems like the ultimate freedom.

This spring's first lake paddle promised to be great. A brisk wind ruffled the water's surface. Overhead, migrating geese called on their way north. My friend Marilyn and I paddled across the bay, thrilled with that shining day.

Then disaster struck, although the twinge in my back didn't seem bad at first. As we headed back to the launch ramp, my right hamstring and seat muscles went into spasm. It took half an hour to paddle the last quarter-kilometre. When we reached the shore, Marilyn pulled my boat onto the ramp and helped me out. I took a painkiller and stretched out on the dock, trying to ease the knots in my back.

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The pain wasn't new. When someone rear-ended my car a year and a half earlier, my back was injured. I'd worked hard at rehab over the winter and thought it was improving. Now the damaged disc seemed to be deteriorating.

I waited a week and tried a few outings on a small, sheltered lake. In calm weather, everything was fine. On windy days, my back shut down after three kilometres. It soon became obvious that I wouldn't be paddling forever, maybe not even for long.

The first thought of a kayak-less future made me sob uncontrollably, the way I do when a good friend dies. How could I possibly say goodbye to a sport that means so much to me?

I fell in love with the kayak in 2001, the first time I tried one. It was a different world on the water, even if – initially – water meant the busy waterfront of a downtown paddling school. A week later, when I graduated to the harbour, I found hidden lagoons where black-crowned night herons nested and peregrine falcons hunted. I was in another world.

That first summer, I headed out whenever I could. I developed strong shoulders. Confidence, too. Kayak outings were teaching me preparedness, organization, leadership and perseverance.

In the fall, I bought my first boat. How handsome my kayak looked on its first outing, gleaming white against the fall gold of the willows along the shore. My instructors toasted my purchase with hot chocolate and invited me on a kayak trip the following week.

So began a series of great adventures. Kayaking took me to Lake Champlain, Maine, the Thousand Islands, Georgian Bay, the Ottawa River and New England lakes.

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In 2003, I flew to Whitehorse to try Northern wilderness kayaking with a friend. The experience changed me forever. Paddling on a turquoise glacial lake surrounded by the towering Coast Mountains was profound, the silence so deep I could hear water dripping from my paddle. Sometimes I held my breath, afraid I would wake up and find the North was just a dream.

After that, I went north every summer with others who loved the wilderness as much as I did. Wherever I looked, there were subjects for my camera and brush. Poetry seemed to write itself. Soon my kayak logs became a celebration of the subarctic.

I'd begun writing kayak logs early in my paddling days, to document trips for kayak instructor certification. I'm glad, now, to have the journals and their memories. Rereading them, I see that the earliest entries were all about achievement: the fastest speed; the greatest distance; the highest wind; the most Eskimo rolls in a pool session – skills growing with every course I took.

Rolling was the first skill to desert me after the car accident. I was sure I'd get it back. My doctor set me straight. "You'll have good days and bad days, but the injury won't improve. You're going to have to protect your back. When it hurts, you can't power through the pain. That will only make it worse. If kayaking didn't mean so much to you, I'd tell you to give it up right now."


This summer, I started wearing a back brace to kayak. I paddled shorter distances, on sheltered water. As my pace slowed, I began to notice nature more, starting with the loons on my favourite lake. When a tiny speck in the distance turned out to be a loon chick, I was delighted. Unusual visitors, like a pied-billed grebe or green heron, were occasions to celebrate.

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Once it required courage to face 50-kilometre winds. Today, I must find courage to face a loss of physical prowess, less-than-perfect technique and no more serious expeditions. Acceptance, adaptability and gratitude are the skills I must master now. Even gratitude, which makes the waning days of my kayak life bearable. I'm grateful for each modest outing, each stroke of the paddle that my back lets me take. At least I'm on the water.

On a recent morning, I took a kayak out on my favourite lake. Along the shore, trees glowed orange and gold in the October light. The sun cast diamonds on the water in front of me. The breeze felt like silk on my arms.

I paused, basking in the autumn sunshine, feeling intensely alive. In the moment, life was perfect.

Pamela Stagg lives in Eastern Ontario.

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