Like so many humanitarian disasters we see on television and social media, we struggle to grasp the full scope of the suffering until it’s distilled to a scale we can understand. For me, that moment came last week, when an image of a kayak in the sky blue and sunflower yellow of the Ukrainian flag stopped my scroll.

The boat was part of a fundraiser by Pyranha kayaks, a company founded and run by lifelong paddlers. The picture led to a blog post that started this way:

“We have ceased all shipments to Russia as of the week before last and have heard from both of our Ukrainian dealers that they are preparing to defend their homeland in any way they can,” it said.

“These are our dealers in Ukraine,” it continued, between a pair of photographs. “Mike, with his family… Anton, with his paddling crew.

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Pyranha dealer Mike with his family. Photo Courtesy: Pyranha

“These are wonderful people.”

That is when the human impact of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine finally hit me in the gut. I’d been reading for weeks about families split by war, with mothers, children and even pets fleeing west, while men stayed behind, compelled to kill or die in a conflict they could hardly have comprehended a month ago.

Anton’s photo, all smiles and shakas from a snowy riverbank in Ukraine, could just as easily have been taken on any of a dozen rivers I’ve run in West Virginia, Colorado or British Columbia. And Mike’s family portrait looks much like my own, down to the way his daughter leans into his shoulder.

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Pyranha dealer Anton with his paddling crew. Photo Courtesy: Pyranha

“We are lucky to live in a stable and peaceful democracy, whilst millions live with the harsh reality of the many dreadful wars around the world,” said Pyranha’s managing director, Graham Mackereth. “This war in Europe, in an area where some of our staff come from, where our customers are being bombed, brings that reality far too close to home.”

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Photo Courtesy: P&H

The company’s staff will donate their labor, and several suppliers have donated materials to make 20 custom Pyranha Scorch river runners and 20 P&H Virgo touring kayaks in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to The Disasters Emergency Committee, a major charity doing humanitarian relief in Ukraine.

Support from Pyranha’s dealers across Europe and North America was so strong that the company committed to making an additional 20 Ukrainian flag kayaks at cost, with proceeds also going to DEC. Two of the kayaks will be raffled for the cause, one in Europe and the other in North America. Tickets can be purchased through Pyranha’s European and North American webstores.

Those not in the market for a kayak can show their support by purchasing limited edition t-shirts in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and bearing the slogans ‘Launch Kayaks, Not Missiles’ and ‘Drop Waterfalls, Not Bombs.’ Shirts and raffle tickets can be purchased through Pyranh’s European and North American webstores. Paddlers also can contribute directly to DEC or a relief charity of their choice.

Pyranha announced the program March 9 with the goal of raising £75,000 ($98,000) for Ukraine relief, and the response was so positive that the company increased the goal. “We’re on track to raise over £120,000 ($158,000), which is almost double what we were aiming for,” said marketing manager Mat Wilkinson. “It is a true showing of the far-reaching community spirit amongst paddlesports enthusiasts that Pyranha is already over halfway towards this goal.”

Other paddling companies and organizations are also helping. Level Six, which regularly raffles drytops to support its mandate of “life on the water for everyone,” this month is supporting Ukraine relief. A $10 virtual raffle ticket (unlimited entries per person) buys a chance to win one of three drytops (Duke, Nebula or Nova) with all proceeds going to the Ukrainian Red Cross. The raffle runs until March 27 at www.levelsix.com.

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Photo Courtesy: LevelSix

The American Canoe Association (ACA) also has stepped up in the crisis. When the International Canoe Federation pulled a pair of elite paddling races from Russia in the days following the invasion, they were faced with a monumental problem—relocating on little notice two events that normally take years to plan.

Enter Oklahoma City, which in recent years has hosted paddling events of all stripes, from the Paddlesports Retailer trade show to elite international competitions like those the ICF snatched back from Russia. In fact, Oklahoma City hosted the 2021 ICF Canoe Sprint Super Cup downtown under the lights—the first such competition to be run at night.

The ACA, which doubles as the national governing body for U.S. Olympic paddling, will partner with Oklahoma City’s Riversport Foundation to host the 2022 Canoe Sprint Super Cup and the 2022 ICF Stand Up Paddling World Cup previously awarded to Moscow, Russia. The events will take place in August, with final dates to be announced in early April.

“Even before the ICF approached us, we were exploring options to help Ukrainian athletes. Reallocation of events from Russia to the USA is equally a challenge and an opportunity, and we look forward to welcoming our Ukrainian friends and other international athletes in Oklahoma City this summer,” said Rok Sribar, the ACA General Manager for High-Performance Programs.

Riversport Foundation Board Chairman Michael Ming echoed the sentiment. “When we were approached about stepping up to host the displaced events, it was a resounding yes from everyone involved,” he said.

With world-class competition under the stadium lights, they promise to be events to remember. If you go, may we suggest you wear sky blue and sunflower yellow.

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