top of page
  • Meg McCall

Kayaking with One Hand: Julie's Stroke Recovery Journey

kayak disabled brain injury
Julie paddling last Summer.

Julie Stillman and Jeff Nagle have spent a good portion of their 25 years together kayaking and boating on the beautiful waters of Lake Champlain in Vermont. The couple has a home on Grand Isle, a large island located in the center of the lake.

Jeff, age 69, has always had a love of boats and built his first tandem kayak back in 1966. He stretched a canvas skin over a wooden frame and painted it white; he still owns it to this day. A woodworker by profession, Jeff had a career restoring antiques and creating antique reproductions. Over the years he’s also helped build numerous vessels, including several kayak kits from Chesapeake Light Craft.

rowboat with oars
The "Roadboat"

His love of the water is shared by Julie, 67, who worked as a lifeguard growing up in Buffalo, NY. She also owned her fair share of watercraft, including a wooden boat the pair jokingly named FLITS, a naughty, but light-hearted acronym we won’t spell out here. Jeff fastened a wheel to the front end of the rowboat and then used two oars, fed through the transom, to easily haul it to and from shore, much like a wheel barrel. He calls it his "roadboat."

The couple has kayaked all over the Northeast, including on the expansive Lake Champlain, nearby Waterbury Reservoir and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “Vancouver Island is spectacular,” says Julie, who explained they paddled that particular trip together in a tandem kayak. “It was wonderful.”

A Stroke Puts Kayaking on Hiatus

Those were treasured trips, but 12 years ago, the couple’s kayaking excursions were placed on pause. Julie sustained a major stroke, completely paralyzing the right side of her body and drastically damaging her ability to express or understand speech, known as aphasia. Devastating under any circumstance, the stroke also stole Julie’s livelihood as a book editor and author.

Julie Stillman, Author

In 1996, Julie wrote the book, Great Women Chefs: Marvelous Meals & Innovative Recipes from the Stars of American Cuisine, which includes a forward by renowned chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. At the time of her stroke in 2008, she was three-quarters of the way through her latest work, Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History, a coffee table book with a forward by Senator Patrick Leahy, With the generous help of colleagues, the book was finished and subsequently published in 2009 and has been very well received.

The whole situation was “terrible. I can’t do anything….write books, work with a publisher…I just can’t do it,” states Julie, laboring to form her words. Though she can walk, Julie lost the use of her right arm. “Thankfully, she was left-handed to begin with,” notes Jeff. “But it’s been the speech, the writing, the computer work that have been the biggest struggle for her.”

Adaptive Kayaking: A New Lease on Life

As most people who’ve suffered a stroke know, Julie’s days, months and years afterward were filled with rehabilitation of all stripes and colors – speech, occupational and physical therapy, neurological specialists and nurses, and re-learning how to perform functions that used to come naturally. It was during this period that the couple met Cathy Webster, a physical therapist at the Rehab Gym where Julie was doing water therapy.

“Cathy was really helpful with Julie’s pool therapy. It turns out, she also lived just two houses down from our old rental place on Lake Champlain,” said Jeff. That chance meeting was the beginning of a deepening relationship, and eventually Cathy invited Julie to participate in the adaptive kayaking program she managed through the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association (NDAA).

handicap kayak
Julie with her own adaptive paddling equipment.

The NDAA adaptive paddling program works with a wide range of disabled kayakers, from people with quadriplegia, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries to those with brain injuries and limited mobility due to shoulder problems. They take groups of paddlers on pond and lake outings around the area, relying heavily on volunteers, adaptive kayaking equipment (e.g., stabilizing floats, paddle holders, transfer benches, adaptive kayak seat) and trained kayaking instructors.

Four years ago, Julie joined the group for the first time. Cathy outfitted Julie’s kayak with outriggers and Angle Oar’s Versa Paddle, which allows paddlers who only have one functioning arm (i.e., due to paralysis, congenital amputation, etc.) to go kayaking with one hand. “Cathy is just amazing, and I can’t tell you how much the Versa Paddle has helped out,” reports Jeff.

After a few practice runs, Julie got the hang of things and has been kayaking with the program ever since. She uses her functioning left arm to stroke the paddle through the water, raising the left side up while the right side dips into the water, and visa versa. Though the Versa Paddle can be used in a downward, angled position, Julie prefers to use it straight.

When asked for her thoughts on using Versa and being able to kayak again, Julie conveys, simply, “It’s been great. Great. Great. That’s all I can say.”

Jeff also participates in the program in a volunteer capacity. “I’m not a physical therapist, but I pay a lot of attention so that I know what NOT to do.” He sometimes goes out with the group in his own kayak, assisting as needed and enjoying the time with Julie. “It’s so nice to get out on the water, and it’s something we can do together,” he notes.

The Singing Kayakers: Stroke Survivors Bond Through Singing & Kayaking

Julie is part of a choir for people who’ve had a stroke or brain injury, aptly called the Aphasia Choir. Jeff explained that, though people with aphasia have trouble speaking, there are portions of the brain that remain undamaged, which allows the stroke survivor to “recall familiar melodies and express them through song.” Julie has been in the choir for six years.

The choir, which had 25 singers last year, normally starts rehearsals in mid-March and performs a concert in June. “It is SO powerful,” exclaims Jeff. “They’d be up on the stage and start a song, and I’d be in a back row where I could see people in the audience just losing it, crying.” This year, of course, there was no concert, but Julie does sing with some of the other members over Zoom.

adaptive kayak seat
Members of the "Singing Kayakers" paddling last summer

As word caught on among the choir about Julie’s new hobby, it became an ideal environment to recruit more paddlers, many of whom also have paralysis. Now, on any given outing, there may be as many as a half a dozen people from the choir kayaking together through the program. Jeff refers to them as “The Singing Kayakers.” He took this photo of three of them last year, and it serves as the main image on our Facebook page and website! Go check them right now. That’s Bob and Rachel with Julie, who's on the far right.

Transitioning from Borrowing to Owning

With four years of kayaking with the group under their belts, Julie and Jeff decided it was time they invested in their own adaptive kayak equipment for Julie. “We were doing it with the NDAA program, and it’s been so great that now we want to do it on our own,” says Jeff.

Stroke Survivor Kayaking & Swimming
For a change of pace, Jeff takes Julie for a spin!

Cathy helped them find a used kayak, and they purchased a Versa adaptive kayak paddle and kayak outriggers from Angle Oar. Jeff says that installing the equipment was easy. “Now, we can just go for a cruise any time we want!”

Jeff and Julie seem like a very warm, funny couple. We’re grateful they got involved with an accessible kayaking program that has made such a difference, and we wish them many happy years of paddling ahead.


bottom of page