ELK LAKE — Gary Johnson never saw it coming.
Last July, the Redmond resident and a friend slipped under the snow gate on the McKenzie Highway to ride their bikes to the top of the pass. On the way back down they were “bombing it,” in Johnson's words, and somehow he didn't see the metal gate stretched across both lanes. Johnson slammed into the gate at high speed, severing his spinal cord between the fifth and sixth vertebrae, and rendering himself paralyzed from the chest down.
Saturday, Johnson was among new friends and the crew from Oregon Adaptive Sports for a day of paddling on Elk Lake. With help from OAS and volunteers from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe and Wanderlust Tours, around a dozen people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities took to the water, many for the first time.
For Johnson, a triathlete and four-time Pole Pedal Paddle solo competitor before his bike crash, kayaking was nothing new. But being lifted in and out of his boat, the foam shims used to keep him upright in the cockpit, and the inner tubes, zipties, and pool noodles assembled to allow him to grip a paddle were completely foreign until Saturday.
Like everything else in his life post-accident, kayaking is taking a little getting used to, Johnson said.
“It went pretty good,” he said. “It's kind of a work in progress.”
Christine Brousseau, executive director of OAS, said after 15 years of providing skiing opportunities to those with physical challenges, the organization is making a big push to find summertime activities for disabled Oregonians. Several OAS athletes joined a golf outing at Awbrey Glen earlier this month, she said, and next year, OAS is aiming to acquire some handcycles to take a group on a cycling trip.
“It was a natural fit to expand to year-round activities just because of where we live,” Brousseau said. “The opportunities are endless.”
Paddling has the potential to be a great crossover sport, Brousseau said, as standard boats require only minor modifications to be used by those with disabilities. People who use a wheelchair often develop powerful upper bodies and quickly become strong paddlers once introduced to the sport.
Geoff Babb of Bend said summertime sports will be a good addition.
After a stroke in late 2005, Babb learned of the OAS ski program, but wasn't sure skiing was for him. Along with limiting the use of his arms and legs, Babb's stroke had damaged the part of his brain that helps the body regulate temperature, making a day on the mountain extra taxing. Babb eventually decided to go for it and has kept skiing with OAS for the past five seasons, tackling the downhill leg for one of two OAS Pole Pedal Paddle teams in May.
Three years ago, he and his wife, Yvonne, bought a two-man kayak. Though they've been able to go paddling with no outside assistance, the Babbs came up to Elk Lake Saturday to spend time with OAS staff, volunteers and athletes.
“I really like what they're doing and try to support them,” Geoff Babb said. “It's good to come out and spend time with other adaptive athletes.”
One of the more seasoned OAS athletes at Saturday's event was also one of the youngest, 6-year-old Emily Pfankuch. Born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord develops partially outside the body, Emily has never had the use of her legs, but has skied with OAS since she was 2.
Jill Pfankuch, Emily's mother, said the family has made the trip from their home in Salem to Central Oregon every other week during the ski season since Emily first learned to ski. Salem has hardly any sports opportunities for kids like Emily, Jill said, so OAS has been a big part of her life since the beginning.
Despite being the only OAS athlete to spend the day on Elk Lake “slaying dragons and rescuing unicorns” — a game Emily and guide Melodie Buell developed while skiing Mt. Bachelor, but can't fully explain — Emily doesn't complain that she's usually the only kid on an OAS outing, her mother said.
“It's what she knows,” Jill said. “She's grown up in an adult world, doing adaptive sports.”