Paddling Past Cancer

Valerie Fons. Submitted photo.

Life after Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia requires emotional healing. Surviving the valley of the shadow of death is no instant triumph. Two years following my bone marrow transplant, I was walking on the beach at Wisconsin’s Newport State Park and saw my shadow. I was startled. Cancer did not kill it! Jubilant, I pantomimed rabbit ears and kicked the sand to make my shadow dance.

Throughout cancer treatment, I kept a kayak paddle in my hospital bed. Walking the hospital corridors, I carried my paddle with me like a shepherd’s crook while pushing my IV pole, taking care not to hit the ceiling sprinkler ports with my blade.

Three years passed following transplant before I considered kayak racing again. Prior to “induction therapy,” fire-in-the-belly described my competitive spirit. After the toxic fire of chemo in my gut, I had to create a new credo. With chemo-brain blurring my focus, simple goal setting was not enough. To be able to race again, I would need to suspend disbelief and confront my infirmities.

Being a patient had tested my limits of endurance far more than competitive racing. I would need to push my bag of bones even further if I wanted to race again. Could my experience in hospital pajamas, I wondered, make me a tougher competitor on the racecourse? Would muscle memory from countless races prior to diagnosis aid me? Could distance kayaking post transplant break me?

The chemotherapy drug, Vincristine, had murdered the nerves in my feet so I re-learned walking on what felt like stubs. I tripped easily. I could not stand on one foot without a prop. If a cop stopped me I would quickly fail the walk-a-straight-line and stand-on-one-foot tests without taking a single drink.

My once-athletic strength was puny after cancer. Pushing a swinging door open was laborious. Wind and sun, one-time welcome friends, were now potent enemies threatening graft-versus-host disease. My oncologist prescribed an armor of hat, gloves, and full body cover whenever I went outdoors.

The Community Clinic of Door County in Sturgeon Bay, offered three free sessions of Healing Touch, an energy-based, bio-field therapy for cancer survivors. Lying flat on a Reiki master couch, a rice pillow on my eyes, and essence of lavender rubbed on my ears, I listened to exotic drum music playing seductively in the background. While the practitioner worked toward removing energy congestion within my body, I visualized paddling. My arms rose under the sheet covering my body. I moved my limbs in the air like a ghost coming to life one paddle stroke at a time, breathing my wish to compete again.

The YMCA in Sturgeon Bay offers exercise classes for cancer survivors. Because I live on Washington Island, I was unable to meet the schedule, but I hired a personal trainer at the Y for six sessions at convenient times for me. The Recreation Center on my island also provides personal trainers just three miles from my farm. Swimming, walking the treadmill, and weight training became part of my routine. The half marathon of the Washington Island Canoe & Kayak Event, Door County, became my target.

As founder and director of the event, I knew the course by heart. Since Year I (2009), I had orchestrated with a committee the marathon from shore. Sponsors and volunteers carried on for me, consulting by phone, the year I was hospitalized in Seattle for my bone marrow transplant.

I was intent to be among the racers Year V, but my training schedule came apart in January when my husband Joe had triple by-pass surgery and aortic valve replacement. In February, my mother died. My 15-year-old daughter was hospitalized for two weeks in March. Traumatized, I sat on the floor of my office fearing the fatigue I felt was leukemia’s return. My doctor and results of a blood test told me different. Cancer was in remission, grief recurring.

Though I had not shared the secret with anyone, the Washington Island Canoe & Kayak Event was born for me as a resurrection from loss, an antidote for grief, even before cancer.

In 2008, I was returning to Washington Island from a weekend conference where I participated with other mothers who grieved the death of a child. One of the conference activities invited each participant to choose a stone, place it on a table, and leave it in a space awash with candlelight. I picked one stone for me and another stone for a friend unable to attend. At the conclusion of the retreat, when participants were told to “set down your stones,” I pocketed mine instead. I was not ready to let go of the rocks and walk away.

Returning home from the retreat, I stood on the deck of the Washington Island Ferry, crossing the Death’s Door passage, the weight of my stones in my backpack. Sunlight glittered Lake Michigan’s surface. The sky appeared bombastic blue. As the ship cruised past Plum and Pilot Islands, I had a vision of a flotilla of paddlers crossing Death’s Door. Perhaps I did not fully form my agenda in that instant on the ferry deck, but over time, in committee, I proposed and helped plan an elaborate event complete with voyageur encampment, eco-tour, kayak symposium, marathon, and half marathon, and a group expedition across Death’s Door. I wanted to let my stones go in the legendary passage, but I did not want to do it alone.

Year I of the Washington Island Canoe & Kayak event, before setting off with a mob of participants, I put my two stones on the floor of my kayak, tussled my spray skirt onto the cockpit, and launched with the group. Mid-crossing I paused, reached beneath the elastic seal of my spray cover and picked up the stones, one at a time, mine first. I felt the weight of grief in my palm, put my hand over the side of the boat into the cold, clear water, opened my fingers, and let go. The stone plunged to the bottom of the lake, my tears accompanying its fall. I got my wish, planting two symbols of loss at the bottom of Lake Michigan, before cancer interfered.

In fits and starts, I trained through spring of 2013. Ice out came late, so my on-water paddling time was scant. I put off registering for the race just in case I chickened out. Then, one weekend in May, I got into an argument with my teen children. I chose a time-out, walked out of the house, loaded my kayak, picked up my canoe paddle, drove to Jackson Harbor and launched, heading north. By the time I reached the north shore of the island, my emotions were still not cool. It was late afternoon but I kept paddling. My destination became Washington Harbor, School House Beach, not Jackson Harbor where my car was parked. When I went on instead of turning back, I felt free.

The water was near dark when I landed at School House Beach, pulled my boat far up on the rocks, and starting walking the miles to my car. I walked past the Farm Museum where my great uncle Albert Olsen’s cabin stands alongside Jackson Harbor Road. Acknowledging my heritage helped me keep walking until an island resident stopped and gave me a lift the rest of the way. The next day, I registered for the Year V half-marathon.

The first week of June, ten days before the race, I received a phone call from Karen Mattson, a concerned paddling friend.

“We’re bringing Joe Zellner’s double kayak to the race,” she said. “We want you to paddle with Mark Dipasquale.”

“No way I’m going to let a man paddle me around the course,” I responded, but Karen would not give up.

“Mark injured his shoulder, and he says he won’t race without a partner,” she countered.

“Nope,” I insisted. “I’m going solo. This race is my debut, and I have a score to settle with the big C.”

I had made up my mind, but the night before the race Mark arrived with the double kayak and his assertion that he would not race unless I went with him. I agreed to try out the boat, sat in the stern, and spent less than fifteen minutes skimming Detroit Harbor before dark. Our speed in the sleek double captivated me.

Before we returned to shore, I agreed to enter the race with Mark. My desire to go solo was to prove to myself I could do it. Mark at the helm of the double, gave me a shot at racing.

The morning of the race, Mark looked at my tennis shoes, and offered a pair of neoprene booties that were too big for me. Neoprene would insulate my feet from the cold, but paired with neuropathic feet, I was a menace unable to negotiate the foot controls from my position in the stern. When the bullhorn blared to signal the start, our double seemed like flotsam jostled in the wake of the pack. At least we did not capsize in the ruckus.

Cancer had not extinguished my bravado. I had tolerated the disease and triumphed, but now, my inability to steer a kayak, a skill I had mastered and practiced before cancer, confounded me, and I loudly bewailed my incompetence. Steering was my job sitting in the stern position, but I could not make the boat go where I wanted it. Our forward motion was compromised stroke after correctional steering stroke.

Mark did not sympathize with my angst. He kept paddling. I kept sputtering, apologizing, cursing, and veering off course, pushing my feet against the pedals as hard as I could with no control. Is my rudder down, is my rudder down, I kept wondering. It was.

On the northeast corner of the island, I momentarily redeemed my dignity by picking a route close to shore. We could weave through shallows rapidly because I knew the territory. I watched our kayak edge past contenders who chose a deeper route.

We entered the Rock Island cut and clunked a rock with such force our kayak stopped with a hush so great I registered the impression of speed at which we had been moving prior to impact. Mark jumped out to dislodge the boat and pull. I did not budge from my seat in the stern, unwilling to put my already numb feet into lake water. With Mark’s weight removed from the bow and me seated, the stern bumped and scraped bottom all the more as he pulled us through shallows. Now I had something else to apologize for. I was seated like a queen in a barge, my partner trudging solo.

Mark, a mechanic from St. Paul, Minnesota, who makes his living muscling transmissions out of engines, reading schematics, and figuring out how to make things work, was challenged on race day to put the carcass of a Humpty Dumpty together again.

By the time we re-entered deep water to follow the northern shore, the last miles of the course, I looked back and saw other boats struggling to negotiate the Rock Island. I continued spewing my litany of complaints unaware, because of my desensitized, neoprene wrapped feet, that we had ripped a hole in the bottom of the boat and were taking on water. The kayak seemed even harder to steer with water sloshing inside the hull.

In the home stretch, I finally shut up, accepting my place, intent upon matching the pace of my long suffering bow paddler. Our push to the finish was against a crosswind that required both of us to take steering strokes with every bite.

When we landed on the smooth-rock shore of School House Beach, John Abrahams announced us in second place and held out his arms to catch me from falling as I wobbled, speechless, to an unsteady upright stance on the rocky incline.

Before cancer, Valerie Fons paddled from the Arctic Ocean to Cape Horn, and set a Guinness Record racing the 2,348-mile Mississippi River. She lives on Washington Island.