Alvin “Al” Law harbors a dream of sailing around the world.
After a life of little adventures, the retired rafting guide and outfitter, 69, believes he has time left for one more big adventure. Though he has not yet assembled a crew or procured a seaworthy sailboat, Law envisions a three-year voyage, with plenty of stops in ports along the way.
But first, Law needs a kidney transplant. It’s illegal to buy organs, and Law is very careful about his wording when sharing his idea for taking a donor on the trip.
“I would be pretty willing to include the donor in my three-year expedition,” he said during an interview last week at Redmond Library. “A donor has to donate for altruistic reasons, without expectation of anything in return. If after that they want to volunteer to help make the expedition a reality, I don’t think that would cross any lines.”
Right now, however, Law spends three to four hours a day, five days a week, tied to the dialysis machine at the Crooked River Ranch home he shares with his wife, Melinda Allan.
Before he met with a reporter, Law described himself as “large,” and indeed he is. Over 6 foot tall and still strapping, he walks with a slow but confident gait.
A former Boy Scout, Law said, “I don’t know whether it shaped my character, but I’ve always been a fairly gentle soul.”
On one occasion a library employee came over from his perch and said he could hear Law’s conversation with a reporter.
“I used to be a whitewater rafting guide. I’m used to speaking so my voice projected,” Law explained. “It’s hard for me to calm down because I get excited about this stuff.”
Two adhesive bandages adorn Law’s left arm, the signs of his almost-daily dialysis treatments.
“I’m shoving 14-gauge dialysis needles into each spot in my own arm, and yes, it hurts,” he said.
The process removes toxins, salt and excess water, a job normally handled by healthy kidneys.
“The dialysis process moves a liter of blood out of my body every 10 minutes, throws it through the machine and pumps it back into my body. Eighteen times in three-plus hours … my entire body’s blood supply gets shoved through this machine,” he said.
Though dialysis keeps Law alive, it exacts a physical toll. After the process, for the next two or three hours, “It leaves me washed out and weak,” he said. “So my days are basically dialysis and not much else — dreaming.”
Learning the ropes
Law studied broadcast communications and minored in journalism at University of Oregon, graduating in 1972. Not long after finishing school, he began learning to sail in a canoe to which he rigged a sail.
“My mother helped me sew up the sail for it,” he said. Law still has that canoe.
“I tend to use it every so often, but as I get older … it gets to be a little heavy to carry around on my shoulders,” he said. “I’ll sell that to somebody if they want it.”
He worked several years at a small radio station, KWRC-AM in Woodburn, writing ad copy and reading news. In 1978, he became night office manager in the media center at UO. In 1980, while still working at the university, he launched Al’s Whitewater Adventures with a single cheap raft.
“Then Melinda came along. The first full summer, she helped me run things. It was a mini pickup truck and one beat-up old Ford van,” he said. They made $3,000 that season. The next year, they added a second boat and doubled their income.
“The river business pay doubled just about every year until we maxed out at $130,000, $140,000 in sales per season,” Law said. “That sounds like a lot, but business is so expensive we were almost always broke by Christmas.” A couple of years, they qualified for food stamps, he said.
Over the river-running years, Law rafted the Grand Canyon three times. Running the major rivers of Oregon “got to be another day at the office,” he said.
The year 2005 was an eventful one. Law and Allan retired from the rafting business after 25 years. They sold Al’s Whitewater Adventures and moved to Crooked River Ranch. Allan published a guidebook, “Floating & Fishing Oregon’s Wilderness River Canyons.” Law took up sailing again. When he got serious about sailing, he took lessons.
In 2014, he bought a 25-foot Catalina Sailboat, named the Sassafras, which with help he can still put in the water at nearby Lake Billy Chinook, or at Elk Lake.
About 10 years ago, Law began getting hints of kidney problems. He has Type 2 diabetes, “which I have pretty much under control at present, but I accumulated various bits of damage from that,” he said. “I hadn’t taken the whole kidney thing all that seriously until I started doing dialysis and realized what a drag it is to have to be tied to a machine, quite literally.”
There are close to 100,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list, according to the Living Kidney Donors List, and the wait for a kidney from a deceased donor can range from 5 to 10 years.
The other option is a kidney from a living donor. According to the National Kidney Foundation, a kidney gifted by a living donor happens in one of two ways: One option involves locating a suitable match. These are often found between blood relatives such as offspring, but Law and his wife have no kids.
Law explains option two in an essay-meets-pitch he wrote, titled “Do you have a dream?” “The kidney transplant program at Legacy Health maintains what they call a paired or directed donor program, where if I can bring a kidney into the program, they will find a match for me from another donor.”
In Oregon, the wait for a living kidney is between two and five years, according to Aimeé Adelmann, director of education and outreach at Donate Life Northwest, which provides education and awareness on organ, eye and tissue donation in Oregon and four counties in Washington. When people opt into being an organ donor on their driver’s license, it’s Donate Life Northwest that maintains the state organ donor registry. It also runs an Erase the Wait program, which matches patients on the waiting list with trained mentors who are living donors or recipients of living donations.
Adelmann knows firsthand about the life-saving kidney transplant procedure, being a two-time kidney recipient herself. The first time was a living donation from her dad, an experience that she describes as “amazing.”
“It was all planned out and very easy,” she said. Due to medical complications, however, the kidney lasted her eight years, which is on the shorter side for a living kidney transplant.
The second transplant was more complicated, and the organ came from a deceased person, she said. On July 25, Adelmann celebrated her eighth anniversary of receiving her second kidney.
“I’m incredibly lucky and grateful on a daily basis for the gifts that I’ve been able to receive,” she said.
Adelmann advises kidney patients and potential donors to arm themselves with information.
“Make sure that you’re educating yourself. Make sure that you understand the transplant hospital program that you’re working with, and that you talk with your medical providers about all of your options,” she said.
“It’s an incredible thing to be able to do. You’re literally saving somebody’s life,” she said.
“I would thank anyone who is even considering going through the testing process, because it is really an incredible thing.”
Though it should be obvious by now, Adelmann said, “You only need one kidney. A lot of people don’t realize that. You only need one, and you have two.”
As for Law’s idea, Adelmann sounds a cautionary note about rewards for organ donation.
“It is illegal to have any monetary exchange for organs,” she said. “There can’t be any coercion involved or anything like that. It is definitely something to be careful of.”
Potential living donors go through an extensive testing process beforehand. Along with medical screening, they also meet with a mental health professional who screens the candidate.
“They ask questions to make sure that they are doing this because they want to do it, and that there isn’t a financial incentive involved in the process,” Adelmann said.
Law sees a possible donor as a potential friend or even a family member.
“An organ donor basically becomes a blood relative in a literal sense. We’re sharing part of a body. I would not mind considering such a person part of the family.”
To help with the costs of a kidney transplant, Law has set up an account at Umpqua Bank under his name, Alvin D. Law, to help fund his and a donor’s medical expenses.
“If we don’t use all of it, then the rest will go as seed money for the big trip,” he said.
A trip circumnavigating the globe would not be cheap, Law said, and would require financial help: “$100,000 would be just a start,” he said. “Anybody who wants to participate in the big trip needs to be willing to help out with fundraising. They should also have some boating skills.”
If he manages to find a kidney, a vessel, a crew and the funding to circle the globe, he’d prefer someone else serve as the trip leader.
“I cannot consider myself a captain, or anything but a qualified watch-stander — meaning I could steer, I could adjust sails a little bit, I could avoid other boats on the water,” he said. “I want to limit the scope of what I can offer as skills. Granted, I’ve sailed a fair amount on my own.”
That experience includes trips on a chartered boat around Hawaii. In late 2014, Law and Allan drove across the country with the Sassafras to Florida, where they sailed south from Ft. Lauderdale over a four-month excursion to Key West.
In 2017, he and Allan ran the Inside Passage from Everett, Washington, to Desolation Sound, British Columbia, and back south again, covering 600 miles in about 30 days.
“We mostly had to motor because there wasn’t much wind, but we sailed where we could,” he said.
The two have also served on the crew of larger boats. Back in 2006, they signed up as crew members on a 37-foot catamaran sailing from Staten Island to Bermuda. Because of storms, however, the captain decided he wanted to sail to the Bahamas, winter over and then sail home.
“We ended up marooned, more or less, in the Bahamas,” Law said. They found work on another 37-foot catamaran, whose captain planned to sail to Florida for some boat maintenance once his wife arrived a month later.
“So we stayed with him for a month anchored off of Georgetown, on the island of Exuma. We snorkeled and we swam and we fished and we walked around town,” Law said. “It was wonderful.”
That’s the sort of voyage he envisions for when — and if — he gets a new kidney in time. If the trip were to set off down the coast, with stops in California — San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego — then anchoring to explore interesting spots along Mexico’s Pacific coastline.
At Cabo San Lucas, “you start picking up the southeast trade winds. You’re far enough south,” he said, picturing it in his mind. “You turn west after visiting Cabo for a little while. That’s the whole point. This is not a nonstop trip I’m talking about.”
From there, the sailors would visit the Hawaiian Islands and other tropical locales around the South Pacific, poking around ports and enjoying life as they gradually continue west, following the sun.
But for now, Law sits at home, waiting and dreaming.
“The clock is ticking,” he said.
If nothing else, he wouldn’t mind help getting the Sassafras on the water, which is a little more difficult than it used to be.
“I’d love to be taking my boat out on a lake, but until I get a kidney, I’m going to need a little help to set it up,” he said. “I’ll teach people to sail it, and I’m sure we’ll have a good time together.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, email@example.com