There are lots of inspirational posters and sayings about “when life hands you lemons make lemonade,” and “when you fall down, get back up” etc. There are few people who embody this spirit on a day to day basis more fully than Ian Engle of Steamboat Springs CO.
Ian was a division 1 wrestler at Michigan State in the early 90’s. He liked high adventure and would jump out of a fourth floor window into a nearby tree, then climb to the ground. As long as he stuck the landing, no problem. However, gravity has no mercy, and one day Ian missed the landing, hitting a big limb on the way down and shattering his pelvis and severing his spine. This left Ian paralyzed from the waist down, and having to navigate the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But this didn’t mean his life of adventure was over, just shifting gears.
I met Ian at the No Barriers Summit in Telluride Colorado last summer. No Barriers is a semi-annual conference for people with all types of disabilities to come together in the spirit of creativity and courage to try new things, and to live by the motto “What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in front of you.” We were there as part of the vendor village and participating in the on-water demos for adaptive paddling. If you ever get a chance to be around this community, you will be instantly humbled, inspired and filled with gratitude, and never look at disability the same way.
We’ve had many folks with different types of disability use the bellyak, but primarily on flat water. Since the bellyak is a “lie on top,” it’s really easy to use for people with paralysis, lower limb amputation, etc. Not many “differently-abled” folks have used the bellyak on whitewater though (to my knowledge). This was about to change. Ian came through Asheville recently with his dog Zuma, and we went out on the French Broad River near our shop. Ian rode his off-road wheelchair down several railroad tie steps to the river and got in the bellyak with minimal assistance.
I was there to help if he needed it, but for Ian, adapt and overcome is the name of his game. For his first try in the bellyak, I used a Play 35 with a prototype fin to help the boat go straight on the flat water. After about one minute of getting used to the feeling of the boat, Ian was off, with me trying to keep up. However, flat water wasn’t going to cut it for Ian.
It was obvious that Ian was ready for more…so he came back a few days later while we were having a Team Bellyak campout and stayed with us at Hot Springs Campground. The next day we met our friend Spencer Cooke and Kyle Thomas who helped run safety for us. Ian was fired up, and for the first time in my life I was nervous on the Pigeon, as I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want my friend to get his legs banged up, or hurt his tailbone in the river (both big concerns with paraplegics). Ian reminded us that he was from Colorado and our little ol’ class III river wasn’t gonna be any kind of problem for him. So I believed him and we went boating.
Once on the water…we were all equal. No one could tell that Ian was by ADA standards, handicapped. He just looked like a dude with huge shoulders and skinny legs with four bellyaks and two kayaks chasing him down the river.
For the Pigeon, he used the Play 45 (stock, no adaptations). I chose the Play 45 for him because it’s much more forgiving in cross currents than the Play 35 (which is more high performance for surfing, etc., or for lighter people). We lowered Ian down the bank in the bellyak, and it was game on. One thing about Ian…he has a whole lot of muscle in his upper body. Once he took off, he was off! It was all I could do to keep up with him. Ian flipped in the first mile, but with a little bit of assistance from me stabilizing his boat, he was back on and cruising in seconds. That’s one of the benefits of the bellyak: swims that in a kayak would be ordeals are just brief moments of cooling off before easily getting back on the boat. No skirts, no straps, no paddle, no boat full of water equal less problems and more fun.
The boogie water went by quickly, Ian ran the bigger rapid of the day, Lost Guide, and barely got his hair wet. Another quick swim after running the meat of Double Reactionary, but otherwise a perfect run. Towards the end of the run Ian had the boat dialed in and was able to read and run on his own…leaving us all in the dust. I finally had to tell him to turn around and paddle upstream. Only by having him paddle up river were we able to get a break! When we made it to the takeout, Ian Geisen, Team Bellyak chief recruiter gave Ian a piggy back ride out of the water. We unanimously decided to sponsor Ian, and sent him home with a green Play 45.
There are certain days on the river that stand out above all others. Perhaps it’s running a hard rapid for the first time, or nailing a trick you’ve been working on, or maybe it’s the chemistry of the group you’re with. Maybe it’s seeing a familiar run through the eyes of a first timer, and seeing their joy. Taking Ian Engle down the Pigeon River was by whitewater standards a very tame run, but for us, one of the most memorable days any of us have spent on the water. Or as Pop Geisen said “experiences like that are the next best thing to positive cash flow.”