Jamie Proves That Kayaking for People with Quadriplegia Is Possible
Changing "Time Out of a Wheelchair" to "An Adventure"
Back in 2015, Jamie Perron was among the first people in Vermont to participate in the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association’s (NDAA) Adaptive Kayaking Program. The program, developed and managed by Cathy Webster, a physical therapist and certified adaptive kayaking instructor, provides opportunities for people with physical disabilities and mobility challenges to pursue adaptive kayaking. Its goal is to empower participants to move independently under their own power, allowing them the opportunity “to leave chairs and canes on the shore and explore the beautiful Vermont shorelines.”
That all sounded great to Jamie, an artist, in her mid-30s at the time. As a C3-C6 quadriplegic, Jamie was game for anything that was enjoyable and different, would change up her routine, and would get her out of her wheelchair. Having the potential to do it fully independently? Well, that would be icing on the cake. “My favorite thing to do is kayaking! The freedom it gives me to explore places I can’t in my wheelchair is great. I always feel better when I’m out on the water,” she says.
Jamie has minimal movement of her arms, muscle weakness and very little trunk control as the result of a head on car collision in 2001. The NDAA program had much of the equipment on hand it needed to adapt a kayak for Jamie, such as a specially constructed seat for truck support, outriggers for added stability, and paddle adaptations to reduce the strength and range of motion required to propel the kayak.
It was that October, however, that Cathy contacted Angle Oar expressing interest in our Versa Paddle, citing its “excellent design and versatility." We sent her one of the first “proof of concept” paddles that we had received in advance of the first full shipment. On a beautiful 60-degree day in Northern Vermont, she and Jamie were the very first people to try it out on Metcalf Pond.
Trying a New Adaptive Kayak Paddle
Cathy was optimistic that Versa might remove some of the obstacles that other assistive paddling methods hadn't been able to overcome, such as keeping the foot space in the cockpit unencumbered or supporting the weight of the paddle. She says that Jamie had tried a number of paddle assists and, together, “we had spent more time fiddling with the alignment of (her hands and keeping) them positioned correctly than actually paddling.” On their first outing using Versa, “I re-adjusted her hands just once. Maneuverability and control were also easier than with prior setups.”
“In the past Jamie has been out on the water for 45 minutes max, usually sitting and resting for long periods, and she needed to get towed back to shore because her arms would get tired so quickly,” reports Cathy.
“Get ready for this: today we were out for 1 hour and 15 minutes with no rests and Jamie paddled completely independently!!!” Versa changed our paddling experience on water from “time out of a wheelchair” to an “ADVENTURE”!!! It was so much fun. We went across a pond, around an island and back.”
“I couldn't believe how much of a difference having the Versa Paddle made, but it did, and seeing how far I was able to travel by myself is the proof," says Jamie. "I will NEVER go back to using a regular paddle. I can't wait to get back out on the water in the spring!”
Cathy went on to explain that “because of being able to paddle continuously, the activity was aerobic -- something Jamie has not been able to do since her injury. And Jamie had the biggest smile as we paddled past the smell of decaying leaves, pine trees blowing and leaves falling.”
Continuing to Stay Active
In addition to kayaking back in 2015, Jamie was active with the Vermont Chargers Power Soccer Club for about 10 years and loved it. “I met so many amazing people and my teammates are my friends forever. Unfortunately, I can no longer travel, so I no longer play,” she notes.
Fast forward to present day, and Jamie loves spending time with her family and her golden retriever, as well as designing the family’s flower gardens. She also likes “being creative with cooking and baking and doing art projects with my nieces.”
Jamie’s love of art stems from her childhood. “In high school I loved experimenting with different mediums and really liked working with clay. When I became a quadriplegic, I could no longer use my dominant right arm at all, and my left arm was very weak. I slowly started using watercolors and drawing. I used acrylics for a while but struggled because they dry so fast,” she explains.
A talented artist friend, Karen Winslow, taught Jamie how to use oils. It “was so much easier because they take a lot longer to dry, and she taught me how to paint under painting and glaze on top.” You can see and follow Jamie’s art here.
Jamie says she likes trying new things, so she tried zip lining (see video here). I “was definitely not a fan, although it was fun to try something new with my friends. Life is more interesting when you try new things,” she advises.
If you haven’t gathered by now, Jamie seems to attract positive attention with whatever she does! According to Cathy, she’s “an inspiration of this program.” Her progress and enthusiasm have had a multiplying effect on the program, attracting dozens of new paddlers with disabilities and mobility limitations over the years.
The feeling is mutual. “I have enjoyed working with Cathy as she’s grown the NDAA Kayaking Program. She’s helped a vast amount of people like me get out on the water,” reports Jamie. “I hope she knows the impact she’s making on our lives!”
Still Going Strong
More than half a decade since she first started, Jamie is still paddling regularly in the NDAA program. In those intervening years, she’s developed new friendships, gotten her extended family on the water, and become The OG of the group.
Back in 2015, she talked about wanting to someday be able to kayak around a particular island. “The Versa Paddle has been huge for me because it has allowed me to gain momentum and paddle further,” says Jamie. “As a result, in 2020 I was finally able to kayak around that island, and I will continue to make goals for further distances because every year I gain strength and endurance.”
Those gains have been due to her consistent participation in the program and commitment to training, sometimes even in the off season. In this short video clip, you can see how Cathy helped Jamie use the angled portion of the Versa Paddle to work on her paddling strength in the Winter months.
In 2020 she realized another important goal: getting her extended family out kayaking with her. With the program officially closed due to the pandemic, it was a rare opportunity for Jamie to get Cathy’s assistance in leading an outing with her family.
As it turned out, a couple of them were new to kayaking and one was a bit fearful of being on the water, so Cathy equipped a couple of the kayaks with outriggers. It was a chance for the entire family to spend time together being active outdoors. According to Jamie, it "made my dream happen of getting my whole family out on the water" and checked off an item on her bucket list.
Kayaking with Quadriplegia
“Kayaking as a quadriplegic definitely isn’t something to just jump into,” Jamie cautions, even though it has added tremendous joy to her life. “The most important thing is to make sure you’re doing it safely. Everyone’s abilities and disabilities are different, so equipment might also be different for each person.”
Indeed, this is excellent advice. A great place to start is to find an adaptive kayak program in your community, ideally overseen by professionals certified in adaptive kayak instruction and with training in human physiology. This combination of expertise will help ensure the paddler is equipped with the right adaptive equipment, is following safe kayaking practices (e.g., use of a PFD, tow ropes, knowledgeable instructors), and is not risking injury (e.g., joint overuse, skin abrasions).
In addition, here are other tips Jamie offered:
Wear a life jacket
Always be prepared for the weather to change
Use pontoons or outriggers
Have safety whistles, horns or a phone
If it’s possible you’ll be out after dark, have safety lights
If you’re prone to skin issues, sit on a good cushion and always check your skin after every trip
Kayak with others because there’s safety in numbers (and it’s fun to kayak together)
For other people with quadriplegia or disabilities who are considering kayaking, Angle Oar has pulled together a variety of adaptive kayaking resources, including a guide that highlights another family's experience in adapting a kayak, from start to finish.
We are so grateful to Jamie Perron and her family, and to Cathy Webster and the volunteers at the Northeast Disabled Athletics Association, for sharing their experiences and insights with us.
The blog post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated since that time.