Monica KamalRossa has compiled quite an impressive record of vigorous physical activity. "I did martial arts, body-building, sports conditioning, and I was my sons' soccer coach," she says. "For fun, we would go to Devil's Lake to climb the trails, and we loved biking at Governor Dodge."
Now 43, she was chaperoning her sons' ski party 7½ years ago when she hit a tree, sustaining a spine injury that has left her paralyzed from the ribs down but has had little effect on her determination "to be a good example to my two boys." She still bikes, using a hand-cranked model. She is Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, and is training for the New York City Marathon's wheelchair division. And if she no longer engages in some of her former pursuits, she has since her injury added such other activities as fencing and archery - along with canoeing and kayaking.
KamalRossa will be among the volunteers and staff facilitating Madison Paddle Fest this Sunday. Scheduled for 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Wingra Canoe & Sailing Center, the event is organized in cooperation with Madison's Rutabaga paddlesports shop and Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit devoted to making the outdoors accessible to people of all abilities.
KamalRossa can testify firsthand to the benefits of adaptive paddling, as it's called. About two years ago, she recalls, she learned of a collaboration involving Rutabaga and an adaptive fitness class organized by UW-Madison kinesiologist Tim Gattenby. Using a boat equipped with an outrigger, she was able to paddle from Monona to Lake Waubesa.
"That was awesome," she says. "You have freedom to be out in nature and see the birds and experience the air and the sky and you don't have cracks in the sidewalk disturbing how you roll down the sidewalk."
If her husband was at first skeptical regarding the advisability of KamalRossa trying to kayak, he soon came around. "He was in a kayak," she says, "and I was in a kayak and we were kayaking together. And he kind of relaxed when he saw I was in a kayak with an outrigger and could control it fairly well."
KamalRossa, meanwhile, was quick to recognize paddling's therapeutic benefits. "I'm out exercising my coordination and balance," she says. "I have fresh air. And then there's the mental therapeutic benefit of being out in nature."
Nancy Saulsbury, director of outdoor programs for Rutabaga, says adaptive paddling opportunities can yield benefits for people across a wide range of disabilities. Using a variety of tools and safety practices imported from the American Canoe Association's adaptive-paddling certification process, trained instructors can accommodate anyone from people with spine injuries, neurological or sensory impairments to those recovering from strokes or the loss of a limb.
Sunday's event will be based on principles espoused by Wilderness Inquiry, which organizes adventure trips and travel opportunities that bring together people with and without disabilities. "By bringing people together like that, it enriches the experience for everybody," says Saulsbury, who anticipates people with disabilities will attend Madison Paddle Fest with their families and friends. Wilderness Inquiry is providing four large Voyageur canoes, and "we'll have kayaks, we'll have other canoes, we'll have all kinds of people who are excited about helping folks get on the water."
She pauses. "I think one of the things that's just so cool is that being on the water takes away a lot of those barriers that people find on land." Recent innovations in the paddlesports industry have produced adaptive equipment that has knocked down other barriers. Saulsbury cites Kevin Carr of Chosen Valley Canoe Accessories, who will be in attendance. "He has a seat that can be put into a canoe or a kayak that has all kinds of adjustments for lateral support," she explains, providing stability for people who have balance issues but want to try kayaking.
"You don't have to get in a boat," Saulsbury notes. "You can come look, watch, talk about other opportunities." There is no fee to attend Madison Paddle Fest, and no registration required, but anyone planning to attend should bring shoes that can get wet, water to drink and sun protection, Saulsbury advises.
And be open-minded about the concept of limits, she adds.
"The limits on people, a lot of times, are in the minds of those looking at them," Saulsbury observes. "The limits aren't necessarily that person's own internal view of themselves, and I think that's one of the things that's so wonderful about this. It is about that person and their own perception of themselves and what they want to do with their life, and what kind of recreational activities might bring them joy."