Dave Aharonian and I are paddling into the Broken Group archipelago off of Vancouver Island’s West Coast. We’ve only travelled about 10 miles to reach our campsite and we’ve covered the distance quickly. But as Dave climbs out of his kayak and grabs his cane, I reflect on how very far he’s come to be here. After suffering a spinal cord injury it’s no stretch to say that kayaking saved his life.
A moment of misfortune
Back on June 1, 1986, Dave was 19 years old, working hard as a tree planter in the northern Ontario bush. After a day off in town, he and two others were on their way back to camp when the driver lost control and went off the road. Their crew-cab pickup rolled down a hill and all three of them were thrown from the vehicle. None were wearing seatbelts.
The driver got away with only cuts and bruises. Michelle, a young woman riding in the front seat, died at the scene. Dave, who had been in the back seat, fractured his spinal cord in his lower back at the T12 and L1 vertebrae.
In the initial “decompression” surgery doctors removed bone fragments and inserted a metal rod to stabilize Dave’s spinal column. Eleven days later, in a second operation, they fixed two more stainless steel rods on either side of his spine in a procedure called spinal fusion.
Coming to terms with a spinal cord injury
The accident left him with no feeling in his feet, the backs of his legs, or his backside, and no use of the muscles below his knees. He was in hospital for six months and spent another six months in outpatient rehab relearning how to walk.
“When I first stood up at the parallel bars during rehab, not feeling any weight on the bottom of my feet—not feeling my feet at all was just plain weird,” Dave recalls. “My occupational therapist kept trying to persuade me to buy a wheelchair. She was just doing her job. But eventually I lost it and yelled, ‘Stop talking to me about buying a fucking wheelchair’.”
A year after the crash, Dave was able to walk with the aid of a cane and two ankle orthoses (foot braces), yet his reduced mobility left a big hole in his life. He was living in Toronto at the time. “I’d spent a ton of time in Pukaskwa National Park on the northeast shore of Lake Superior. I took four months hiking in the Rockies, the last two on my own. A few times I achieved a certain connection with that wilderness experience that was very profound for me. It was a bit of an epiphany. Six months after that, I was lying in hospital with a fractured spinal cord. Having that intense experience in the outdoors again was a huge motivation. And it was very important that I do it independently. I couldn’t hike or ride a bike again. I couldn’t carry a canoe alone. But one day a couple of friends found me an old kayak.”
Learning to kayak after the injury
Just 13 months after his accident Dave was back in Pukaskwa National Park, on his own, and in a kayak. “I had very limited experience with kayaking, and I know that I gave my mum more than a few grey hairs. But she understood how important it was to me that I be able to do that trip.”
Over the years Dave developed his paddling skills and expanded the scope of his trips. He moved to Victoria, B.C., and started doing multi-day solo trips on the ocean. Using his cane for balance, he can solo carry his 60-pound Valley Nordkapp and load it on the roof of his car alone, so he has the freedom to head out whenever he wants to. Dave is a professional photographer with a passion for wild landscapes, and his kayak is an indispensable photographic tool to access wild places.
In 2002 he and Adventure Kayak editor Tim Shuff paddled from Prince Rupert to Victoria over three months. “Roughly one week into that trip, paddling down Principe Channel, I had a bit of a moment. Tim was a little ahead. It was a beautiful day with a light wind at our backs. A bunch of ducks flew over, and I could hear their wing beats. In that moment I felt, this is what is real. I actually stopped and teared up a bit. If I hadn’t discovered kayaking, I don’t know how I would ever have achieved that sort of moment again.”
Kayaking with a spinal cord injury presents unique challenges
Long trips present additional challenges, as I learned when Dave and I paddled the north end of Vancouver Island last summer, rounding Cape Scott and the Brooks Peninsula. Because he can’t feel his backside, minor chaffing from the constant rotation of paddling can quickly develop into nasty sores. In typical fashion, upon discovering a raw hole worn at his tailbone he quipped, “Wow, that must really hurt!”
Dave also has to use catheters, which need to be sterilized every day and put him at constant risk of urinary tract infections. “Initially I didn’t know if I could boil them in saltwater. And there wasn’t anybody to ask. Turns out that saltwater works great.” Trip mates quickly learn what’s in the pot when Dave says he’s “boiling spaghetti.”
Dave is a strong paddler, but when he climbs out of his boat, pulls out his cane and limps up the beach, he sometimes draws stares. Other kayakers are curious, but don’t feel comfortable asking questions. Dave is incredibly good at putting these folks at ease, volunteering information and explaining his medical history. Only after seeing Dave perform this trick several times did I begin to appreciate the profound grace that he was exhibiting.
His view is pragmatic: “If I can inspire anyone else to enjoy the outdoors, even if they have to deal with some challenges, then that makes me really happy. The more they understand, the better.”
Fringe benefits of kayaking after injury
Back on the beach, we each grab an end of a kayak, ready to haul it up beyond the high tide line. I wince at the shock of the cold water on my feet. “It’s freezing,” I stammer. Dave gives me a cheesy grin. “Really?” he says. He’s in no hurry. One fringe benefit of kayaking after a spinal cord injury is that he can’t feel a thing.