By Erin Browning
Early one morning some years ago, Chris’s alarm went off early–too early. He looked outside, saw that it was raining, and promptly went back to sleep. A few hours later, his phone rang–it was Danielle from Rivers for Change, “Where are you?” “Well, I figured the rafting trip was off, because it’s raining,” replied Chris. “It’s a water sport! Rain or shine. Get out here!” Danielle exclaimed.
Surprised that anyone would be willing to go rafting in the rain, Chris got ready and drove out to the South Fork of the Yuba where he found John, waiting for him wearing a PFD and holding a canoe paddle. Everyone else had started downstream. Chris was touched by the fact that John had waited for him, for caring, for ensuring he got to go paddling that day. In fact, Chris had emailed three paddling organizations to inquire about getting on a trip, and John emailed back within one hour, encouraging him to come out to the community paddle day. And so Chris was initiated into his first river trip. Chris and John took the canoe down river until they caught up with the community rafting trip and Chris was able to hop on board. This turned out to be a pivotal moment for Chris–it was the beginning of the next chapter of his life.
Life had not been easy on Chris up till then. Chris joined the United States Marine Corp in 1978. He sustained an injury during active duty that compromised his ability to stand all day to do his painting job after his military service. His doctor prescribed him opiates for the pain, which left him tired and falling asleep often. Eventually, due to his injuries, Chris’s doctor recommended that he go on full disability. Unable to work, Chris became depressed and began drinking more as he sat around the house all day. He became a diabetic with high blood pressure. Realizing that he needed to make a change, Chris started volunteering at the local VA Hospital. One day in Palo Alto, Chris was walking by a pool near the hospital and saw a flotilla of colorful kayaks, people splashing about as they maneuvered them around the pool. He also noticed many wheelchairs and walkers parked around the edges of the pool. This was Chris’s introduction to Team River Runner’s weekly pool roll sessions. Though it was a long commute–120 miles round trip–Chris embarked on the weekly journey. He was drawn to the community that TRR cultivated through the lively pool sessions, and what a great way it was to stay active despite his leg injury.
Seven years later, Chris is at the center of the CA paddling community. He is co-coordinator of TRR’s American River Chapter, co-Chair and Facilitator for Team River Runner’s Diversity Committee, has trained as a River Advocate with Friends of the River, runs trainings on the water for vets experiencing disability and visual impairment, races annually in the California River Quest, and has a pile of kayaks in his backyard. He is an Environmental Traveling Companion guide for Angel Island and Tomales Bay, as well as River Rat Advocacy trained. He does weekly surfski training with friends on Saturdays, and has regained his health and wellbeing at age 62. Though he claims he’s not that great of a paddler, Chris has progressed to more challenging events in the California River Quest each year. Hearing Chris speak about how paddling has changed his life is nothing short of inspiring. And in return, his current work focuses on providing opportunities for more Vets to be able to get outside to experience rivers and community just as Chris was able to.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the paddling community has been welcoming. Chris experienced micro-aggressions from other paddlers when he attended a TRR Idaho chapter event, saying that people that looked like him didn’t know how to swim. After this experience, Chris developed a new strategy: whenever he felt an unfriendly vibe from someone at a paddling event or meeting, he would focus on building a friendship most with this person. TRR now is hoping to implement a training for chapter coordinators to be able to recognize micro-agressions and act as allies. However, the paddling community at large continues to be majority white people. Chris is working to recruit more people of color for the Affinity Paddle as well as his paddling workshops for Vets. And he has been successful–this year 50% of the Affinity Paddle participants will be African American.
Chris says that when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we all need to embark on a personal journey. We all need to have friends that look different from us, have different religions and beliefs. Getting together once a month with someone that is different from you and having a conversation is more important than any workshop you can attend. Chris says that this is the best thing we can do to be inclusive, and I couldn’t agree more.
Chris’s vision for the paddling community moving forward is to combine conservation with recreation–to enjoy the river while at the same time see the detrimental effects of dams on the river ecosystem. For folks to gain an appreciation of how rivers are the veins of the world that must be protected. Chris is looking for ways to help Vets and inner city kids find connection to nature. Chris remembers how seeing an eagle swoop down and grab a fish out of the water during one of his first river trips was formative for him–he realized how being on the river was a healing process because of the profound connection he was able to develop with the natural world. He hopes to be able to provide these opportunities for other Vets and inner-city kids in the future.
Rivers for Change is very grateful for the chance to hear Chris’s story and is proud to have Chris as an RFC Grant Ambassador.