It was while catching up with friends at a favorite Thai restaurant Saturday night when my fresh spring roll reminded me of something: I had signed up for a Beginning Kayak Roll course as the next of my series of outdoor activities with MS.
“Why don’t you just take up skydiving?” a friend asked, with more than a small degree of sarcasm.
As a recent empty-nester in her late 40s, my choices may now be looked at as suspect midlife activities! If I buy a convertible sports car then we can talk “midlife crisis,” but this interest in kayaking is something else.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was happiest playing outside, or “in the woods,” as we said. Digging in the dirt, clambering up a tree, or imagining a grand climbing adventure while staring out the windows of our AMC Hornet on many a “mountain pass” road trip. This love of the outdoors turned into a passion for hiking as childhood years slipped away — not an orienteering master who went “back country” for days on end, but a faithful day hiker.
In 2013 MS conducted a stealth attack on my right leg. A year passed without a hike. With the help of vehicle hand controls, a leg brace, hiking poles, and patient hiking companions, I was able to hike in 2015. My first time to Rocky Mountain National Park, I managed 10 miles in one day! The scenery was fascinating, the different flora and fauna — I did not want to stop. I paid a price for a few days, but it was worth it.
Outdoor activities with MS feeds three needs
The ceasefire, however, was short-lived. In 2016, MS went after my left leg. There were some major life changes this year, and the comfort of my time in the woods was dearly missed. I tried visiting parks, photographing flowers, sitting at the beach, and it helped a little. But it just wasn’t the same. Reminiscing about hikes gone by brought realization that hiking feeds three important needs for me.
Spiritual: Getting up close and personal with the wonders of nature connects me to my higher power. The lack of man-made noise and distractions allows me to listen to the quiet soul inside this body.
Physical: Exercise in the formal sense is not for me; put me on a treadmill and I’m dragging after 15 minutes. But give me 1,000 feet of elevation gain in two miles and I turn into a crazed, sweaty warrior who is battling no one but herself.
Emotional: I have bouts of depression. Whether it’s seasonal or MS related, or life just throws me a curve ball, the one thing I know is that exercise is the best medicine for my mood. But remember the bit about the treadmill?
A few years ago, a blog post of mine highlighted my efforts to catch a sunrise: “There is no flash of brilliance waiting in the sunrise — just the moments. But the force behind each moment, this is me… I am in control of this ride. There is something in the fact that I choose to chase a sunrise now and then; something in the fact that continuing to test my boundaries even as MS redraws the lines. I am willing to look for answers, for solutions, for accommodations to my disabilities. I may not find them but am hell-bent on trying. It is simply in the moments of seeking — not in the answers — that I gain strength and courage.”
A few weeks ago I went seeking an alternative to hiking, something to fulfill all three of those needs when my legs won’t cooperate. A friend and I rented kayaks on Vancouver Island. After a couple of hours paddling around the quiet Sound, staring down a great blue heron, talking to a friendly seal, chasing schools of fish with my paddle, closing my eyes and listening to the water lap the boat as weary arms were rested, I was hooked.
I wanted this so badly I signed up for lessons (and admittedly watched a few YouTube videos). I don’t have to learn how to roll the kayak, but I want to challenge myself — remember, that’s part of the appeal! Even if I can’t conquer the “roll,” I will learn some basic paddling techniques to try out on nearby lakes.
What or when the next assault on my nervous system will be remains unknown, but I intend to fortify myself in the meantime. It is through trying and seeking that I grow stronger and braver. If kayaking isn’t a solution, I’ll look for something else. It’s not about the roll, it’s about this warrior’s soul.
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