Cardinal rule of the wilderness: Don’t panic

The scene: Somewhere on the Gordon River, Tasmania, Australia, in 2002

Steph and Russell, a couple of friends from my activist days in Tasmania, Australia’s Tarkine Rainforest, had invited me on a paddling trip up the Gordon River. I figured it would be a fairly relaxed trip, and a nice break from the hiking in prosthetics I’d been doing in preparation for a planned climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.

I’d done a little bit of kayaking before, and though I was happy not to be walking, I packed my hiking legs anyway, just in case. My hiking legs are what we call stubbies. Ditch the knees of regular prosthetics; keep them nice and short; ditch the regular feet, even; just a footpad is all you need. (Or a half crampon, but that’s another story).

For most of the trip, my stubbies stayed stashed in a dry bag in the cockpit, funnily enough, where one’s legs typically would be.

Then on about day three, I decided to hike around a bit while we stopped for lunch. In a stroke of brilliance, I decided to keep my legs on for the rest of the day, just in case we wanted to do a short hike in the afternoon.

With a bit of finagling, I managed to maneuver myself into the cockpit with my stubbies on. Once everything was inside the boat, I snapped my skirt into place and off we went.

We paddled the rest of the day, having a great old time, before pulling into our campsite for night  three. While Russell pulled my kayak up onto the shore, I pulled off my skirt, reaching back to make sure it was undone all the way around before placing both hands on the cockpit rim to push myself up and out.

A greyness must have come over my face as I pushed down and quickly realized I wasn’t coming out. Unlike normal thighs, the brim of my prosthetic socket is made of carbon fiber, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to get both hips out from underneath the cockpit’s fiberglass brim. I panicked.

“What if I was capsized? What the *#@% would I be doing then?”

After what seemed like an eternity, I figured that if I twisted sideways and kind of crossed my legs, I could extricate myself without guillotining my nether regions.

It wasn’t pretty, and for anyone in a similar situation, I highly recommend taking your legs off when kayaking and keeping them safely stowed where they are supposed to go, in the cockpit where normal legs go, stored safely in a dry bag.

The lesson learned?

Don’t panic.

Practice not panicking if you have to, in a swimming pool even. Just don’t panic.

It won’t help, and will likely land you in more trouble that you can handle.