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  • Meg McCall

Neither Age Nor Shoulder Surgery Keep This Mother-Daughter Team from Kayaking

91 year old kayaker

For nearly a decade, Jean Mugford, 91, and her daughter, Nancy Witham, 63, both of Massachusetts, have been taking an annual kayaking trip together. With Jean, the love of kayaking started 30 years ago in Gloucester, MA. She saw lots of people kayaking on the river there and says, “I thought I’d like it and that it was something that I could do.” Nancy’s interest began about a decade ago, fueled after borrowing her sister’s and brother-in-law’s kayaks. A short time later she was hooked and purchased her own single kayak.

In the early years, the two women would take week-long trips, renting kayaks and staying in hotels. Ultimately, all the logistical coordination with renting and transporting kayaks required too much effort, so they decided to buy their own kayak. “It happened very quickly. We just said, ‘we’re doing this,’” recalls Nancy.

They opted for a red tandem kayak by Prodigy. They love the “Cadillac-style” seats that came with the Prodigy, which allow them to paddle up to six hours at a time without discomfort. Nancy’s paddle of choice is by Werner. “It’s carbon fiber, and you can hold it on one finger.”

Nancy, 63-year-old kayaker with torn shoulder labrum

They’ve covered territory throughout the East Coast on their trips, from Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Conway in New Hampshire to the Waterbury Reservoir in Vermont. Their usual MO is to rent a cottage on a lake, the one requirement being that it has a sandy beach. “We go up for a week, and we’re out (in the kayak) every day,” notes Nancy. “We find different places to put in, and we’ll leave in the morning and not get back until it’s dark.”

The two seem to have quite good sense of humor about their outings together. They recounted a trip, back when they were still renting tandem kayaks, where they went on a group tour that ended in a wine tasting. “There were times the water would get very low at the sand bars, so I’d have to get out. There mom would be, taking off in the high water and leaving me on the sandbar,” jokes Nancy. “The whole trip was kind of amusing. The other paddlers were all strangers, mostly couples, and you could hear everyone yelling at one another, saying ‘get out’ and barking orders. Now I know why they call them ‘divorce kayaks’,” she quipped.

Will Shoulder Surgery Mean the End of Kayaking?

A few years ago, Nancy experienced a chance injury when a dog tore into her shoulder, splitting the labrum from under her arm all the way over her shoulder. She says the surgeon performed a tenodesis using a heat seal (as opposed to anchored hardware) to put the tendon back in place, and this rendered her bicep useless.

Prodigy tandem kayak with Versa kayak paddles

As part of her rehabilitation, Nancy tried sitting in a chair and practicing a paddling motion with her paddle. “After five minutes, I was done.” Around this same time, Nancy had been hearing about the Angle Oar’s mount-supported Versa Paddle and thought it might be a way to keep her and Jean on the water. “We actually got two Versa paddles at that time because mom was feeling a little tired that year,” recalls Nancy. They attached one of Versa’s mounts to the front coaming, and for the other, they fastened a horizontal bar behind the front seat and across the cockpit to mount the second one.

Nancy’s surgery was in October, and by the next summer she was able to paddle. “(Using Versa) was like physical therapy. I wouldn’t have been able to paddle without it.” She describes how having the extra stability of the post in front her of supporting the paddle made all the difference. “It’s not a power issue with respect to the paddle, it’s a lifting up issue,” she explains. “It’s amazing. I can paddle like crazy, and between the two of us, we move really quickly in the water. And if I did get tired, I could sit back and just use one hand or let mom take more of the lead.”

Jean, who sits in front, knowingly jokes, “I can tell when Nancy stops paddling because my own paddling becomes much harder. She’s not fooling anyone.”

Transitioning Back to Greater Control

kayaking with shoulder injuries and pain

That first year, both women were using the Versa Paddle. “I absolutely needed Versa that first year,” notes Nancy, who continued to use Versa into the next paddling season. Later, as she gained strength, Nancy wanted to have more control. That’s when she decided to transition to Angle Oar’s Gamut Paddle Holder. Gamut uses the same hinged mount as Versa, but Nancy could go back to using her treasured Werner paddle with it.

Nancy says that she likes the power of the stroke with her Werner paddle, which she can also feather as needed. “It’s just a comfort thing, and the Gamut lets me control the way I use it.”

Between Nancy’s regained strength and the duo-person power of a tandem, Jean ultimately decided she no longer needed to use the Versa paddle – at least for now. She’s currently experiencing some back problems that have limited her ability to walk, but fortunately, she can still sit comfortably and therefore kayak. Because she has less mobility, “Nancy gets me in (the kayak) and dumps me out!”

When we last spoke with Jean in 2019, she had recently undergone a radiofrequency denervation procedure on her spine and had to wait six weeks to see if it was successful. She was feeling optimistic because she'd already been out walking her dog.

It must've been successful because just this last paddling season we saw Nancy posting pictures on a Facebook group from their most recent kayaking adventures. As always, here's wishing you many more years of trips together, ladies!


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