Gina Utegg is a 42-year old former pharmaceutical executive with a husband and teeneager. She lives in Massachusetts and has suffered 3 separate traumatic brain injuries, 2 from car accidents and one from a fall. She is also a breast cancer survivor. I met Gina one day in July at a place called Spot Pond in a Boston area urban park known as Middlesex Fells. She was arriving to participate in a Universal Access kayaking program. It was a glorious sunny summer day with a deep blue sky and random puffy clouds.
While the program staff worked out an adaptation for her grip on the kayak paddle – they were busy duct taping pipe foam to the paddle so that Gina had a larger and softer area to hold – I asked Gina a few questions. As the program coordinator, I was visiting today to see how this new kayak program was going in its first season at Spot Pond.
“What brings you here to kayak, Gina?” I asked.
“Oh!”, she exclaimed, “It gives me freedom. I love it out on the water. I’ve been here with my kids, alone, on sunny days, in the rain. I love it all.” As she stood next to me, the fact that she had a disability did not show. As we talked further I found out that Gina had been working hard over the past few years using various therapeutic methods to address memory, physical and emotional issues that were the result of her injuries.
“My confidence was shot,” she announced. “I had no confidence. It is so hard to keep trying. But kayaking and recumbent cycling made life fun. I met all these great people here and I love coming every week. Now I have confidence again. I am much more motivated to try new things and push myself further.” Her enthusiasm showed with every word and I marveled at her upbeat attitude. Clearly she had found a therapy that was working.
It was time to get in the boats. Gina walked onto the dock unassisted and sat down to get into the front end of a double kayak while Willow, the program leader, held the boat secure. They were using a wide flat water boat which is quite stable and sat waiting while other staff and participants got into their boats on the nearby beach. In no time four kayaks, myself included in a solo boat, were launched and traveling on the open water.
The sense of bright spaciousness, the smell of the fresh water, the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze were exhilarating. The lake stretched out before us in all directions, its forested coastline occasionally marked with some rocky spots, and several islands both near and far were apparent by sight. A few gulls floated lazily over us. I could hear the sound of traffic on busy I-93, but otherwise the scene was idyllic so close to Boston. It felt wonderful to be afloat on the water, propelling my sleek boat with a paddle.
Willow slowed the group down after we had paddled for awhile and coached us in paddling strokes. We all practiced turning our boats for a few minutes, then proceeded to travel again at her suggestion to paddle around an island. We had with us a certified lifeguard, Moe, who paddled like me in a solo boat. Another tandem completed our group, two women from the Statewide Head Injury Program, both named Susan, one of whom was recovering from an injury, the other a staff person providing steering assistance and support. We filed off in a colorful line of boats as we circled the island with its rocky outcropping and white pines.
The group chatted in easily about several topics as we paddled back across the lake to the dock and beach. Our hour was up and soon more participants with disabilities would have their chance to explore the lake. Gina had paddled beautifully today and was pleased with her progress.
After we landed, Gina and I visited some more. “I loved hand cycling with the Statewide Head Injury group at the Nashua River Rail Trail in Ayer,” she told me, “and I really want to try horseback riding.”
“Gina that’s great,” I encouraged. “Our riding program has just two sessions at Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, not too far from where you live. The dates are August 24th and September 9th I believe, both Fridays. You might also want to consider our new sailing program on the Charles River at the Esplanade in Boston. That runs every week on Thursdays and some weekends too.”
Gina’s face lit up. “Oh yes!” she said with excitement. “How do I sign up?”
You, like Gina, can sign up for many different outdoor recreation programs in the Massachusetts State and Urban Park system designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Programs occur throughout the Commonwealth and include activities such as canoeing, rowing, fishing, cycling and hiking in addition to those mentioned already. These program activities are provided by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Universal Access Program. Some activities are free, others, like paddling, have a nominal fees per person. To find out more and obtain a statewide summer program calendar, call 617-626-1294 or 413-545-5353. You can also get information on line at http://www.mass.gov/dcr/universal_access
As Gina and I said goodbye, I paused before I headed to my car and looked back at the dock. A man in a wheelchair as getting ready to transfer into a kayak with the lifeguard Moe’s assistance. I walked away smiling, knowing that another adventure on the water was about to begin.
DCR Universal Access Program Coordinator