Two by two, a dozen people took turns paddling out of Queen Charlotte last month for a training exercise they hope will eliminate another recreational barrier for islanders living with disabilities.
Guiding the mission was Jordan Kerton, owner of Access Revolution, a North Vancouver outfit dedicated to helping those with limited mobility get back into nature and access the mental and physical benefits of outdoor recreation.
“The feedback I get from our paddlers is just how freeing it is to get out on the water again, to have that opportunity to explore,” Kerton later said.
The opportunity on this day was all about the OnIt Ability Board, a 12-foot modified stand-up paddleboard with outriggers and locking mechanisms designed to carry an all-terain wheelchair. The board is robust enough to support a tandem paddler standing aft.
Kneeling in the sand, Kerton clicks the outriggers into place, lays down a portable access ramp and asks for the first volunteer.
None of those gathered live with mobility issues, but are here to observe and learn so they can later help friends, family members, or neighbours get onto the water again with a level of independence seemingly unavailable until now.
In Kerton’s experience, the OnIt holds an important advantage over kayaks and other watercraft by allowing someone to use the maximum amount of mobility they still possess. Once they transfer into the wheelchair, with the right terrain there’s really nothing stopping them from getting out the parking lot, to the water’s edge an onto the board with minimal assistance.
“It’s safer, the transfer is easier, it’s more comfortable,” Kerton says. “It’s really hard on the body to be loaded and unloaded into a boat.”
“Most are pretty shocked at how comfortable and safe they feel on the board,” she adds. “It’s only natural to be nervous the first time you get on—I certainly was—but within a few seconds you realize just how secure you really are.
“I’ve tried everything in my might to flip that thing over, to see what its threshold is, and I’ve never been able to.”
If the group harboured any nervousness it ends quickly as the first volunteer rolls aboard and the wheels are locked into their grooves. Riding tandem, Kerton shoves off Spruce Point and the pair make a speedy beeline toward Robertson Island.
The OnIt paddle board is the second and last item purchased through an online fundraising campaign earlier this spring. Led by Thea Borserio on behalf of her mother Katie Borserio, who lives with ALS, the fundraiser met its $12,000 target within 24 hours and then climbed to $16,000 four days later. The extra funds allowed the family to bring Kerton to the islands for hands-on demonstrations. As the community gave generously, the Borserios quickly realized the equipment could also have a tremendous impact not only on Katie’s life, but many more Haida Gwaiians as well—especially elders. The family has since made the equipment available for free public use—both the paddle board and an adapted wheelchair for the hiking trails.
Called the TrailRider, it is designed to withstand and navigate rough terrain and hiking trails as found on Haida Gwaii. The single-wheeled chair is a masterfully-balanced device with a surprising ease of manoeuvrability and light handling by two porters, one leading and one pushing.
Since acquiring the TrailRider the Borserios have taken Katie on humous hikes to such places as Miller Creek and Jungle Beach and longer excursions to Pesuta and Spirit Lake.
“She loves it,” says Thea, “and she’s going to love this too,” she adds, pointing to the OnIt. “She’s been a big kayaker—our entire lives—so to get her back on the water is going to be really special. I think she’s a little nervous also because it’s hard to visualize a wheelchair on a paddle board. But now, having Jordan up here and showing us how to use it and try it out, we definitely have a whole new level of confidence.”
Anyone interested in using either the OnIt or TrailRider is invited to contact Thea or her brothers Luke and Kye through Kitgoro Kayaking at firstname.lastname@example.org. They or someone else trained with the equipment will be happy to train others.
So far, Thea says no one has taken the family up on the offer, but reasserts the family’s wishes for the equipment to be a resource for all islanders.
Kerton too hopes to see an uptake in their use, and hear stories of people pushing past their barriers.
“Time and nature are two things that are so important to everyone,” she says. “Being able to get out into your backyard and experience the islands again can be a truly healing experience. It was such a gift to be in Haida Gwaii and meet the community. Such a beautiful place. I think it’s crucial that everyone, regardless of their level of ability, be able to enjoy that.”