Finally the Real Yukon...

The Yukon Blind..... Canoeing the 'Big River'
Team "Imtiaz and Howard"
Mon 20 Jun 2011 21:37

Finally the Real Yukon…
61:23.52N, 135:13.53W

After the cold and rainy start to day 3, by 10h30 there was a break in the clouds and we took the gap to excitedly set off on the short distance to connect to the start of the real river flowing out of Lake Lebarge. Being the morning dishwasher, Imi had suffered from cold hands, and so was warmly clothed, and I was dressed in full rain gear ready for a possible wet day ahead.

It was just great getting into the deep green flowing river, and with mostly steep, tree lined, earthen riverbanks either side, there was this wonderful sense of tunnelled solitude. Progress was noticeably faster than the still lake, and the need for my 'J' stroke intervention less important as we drifted, sometimes lazily with the current.

U.S. Bend was fun as we stuck on the fast flowing outer course, bobbing in the gentle rapids. I saw a moose calf down at the river, but it took off before we were alongside it. I also saw quite a few varieties of duck, but generally I was hoping for more wildlife, definitely bald eagles, but just seagulls so far, and let's hope that the next days bring more viewings.

This 30 mile section is very beautiful in its riverbanks, forestation and green river, a beauty and associated solitude that is hard to convey in photos, but is so apparent from the seat of our moving canoe. It moves me, when every so often, Imi just shouts out: "I just love this!" He really does, it's just so fantastic to see how he feels the river and the special parts. He somehow knows when it's special. This '30 mile section' is special and so we decided to go slow and take two days enjoying it. We will pay later with long days soon to get our daily average back to what we need to complete in our plan, but today it felt good. We stopped at a beautiful small island, only to find it was owned by mosquitoes, huge, aggressive ones too. At least I wasn't bombed this time.

We found a wonderful campsite location, hidden in an aspen forest, just as the river splits around another, larger island. Tent building time produced our first major team camping challenge, and one I was anticipating, but had put off preparing for...Building Imi's architectural masterpiece, but engineering disaster in the rain. After a wonderful rain free paddle, the rain started half way into Imi's daily tent building challenge. I knew I should have practised building his complex tent, so I could shortcut the up time if there was rain, but just looking at the complex poles and structure, and seeing his solo resolve, made me delay it each day. Well today we got caught out: Rain teaming down, Imi clearly having one pole in the wrong sleeve, I stepped in 'subtly demanding' that we abort the erection and seek refuge in my, already erected two person tent until the rain stopped. I sensed Imi, initially felt he had had his favourite puzzle unfairly, taken away, but as I explained the rapidly deteriorating situation, and once inside my tent he agreed with the intervention. It rained pretty hard, for a couple of hours, resulting in us resorting to an unplanned luxury afternoon nap. We both awoke with the silence of no rain on the tent roof, and I was soon getting my overdue lesson in putting his tent together. Gee, I was impressed how he knew and felt his way around its corners and tent pole sleeves, but with three lots of three tent sleeve intersections to contend with, one, easy to make, wrong sleeve choice takes one down a frustrating insoluble puzzle that only becomes apparent with the last pole! Always determined, Imi is a model for patience and methodical ness, as long as it's not raining!

The rain has largely held off, and after yet another stimulating two hour philosophical debate we headed out for a walk in the wilds. With no path, and terrain vary from river boulders, to lake marsh, to aspen forest, Imi was in his element. He is a natural and his passion and love for being out in the wild is just so inspiring. He insists on walking without being connected to me, and is quite happy walking into the odd bush / tree for that freedom. I describe the terrain and scenery, and he just responds with: "I just love this". We passed some old bear scat, so maybe a viewing isn't far off. The area we walked with a few ponds and open grassland does seem to have potential for wild life viewings and so we will check it out again before we finally leave. We did practise bear safe procedures last night when setting up to go to bed...Just in case!

I sense the weather will remain challenging for the next few days, but with long days on the canoe and my Ruth's poncho a wonderful rain protector while paddling, I have no doubt we will find an unlikely, newly discovered, heaven out there on the Great River North.

Now to a more sobering subject: The day Imi, went blind!

Sitting around a roaring fire, next to the flowing river, me drinking a Yukon Jack, aptly named "The black sheep of the whisky family", and with a human toe, the other key component of 'Sour toe", Imi emotionally told me his scary and sobering story:

Being born with the genetic eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa, he was destined to lose all or most of his sight sometime during his life. By early 2006 he was having periods of challenging vision, almost always associated with extended exposure to bright light, eg snow etc. These were always temporary situations, where his sight returned within hours of the end of the bright light exposure.

This evening in late March 2006 he was enjoying dinner out at a restaurant with a female friend. She was sitting in front of a bright light, and in desiring of staying connected to the conversation he was forced to deal with the back light. Starting to feel excruciating pain in his eyes, he couldn't continue the evening, and asked his friend to take him home, thinking this was another temporary situation just needing removal of his eyes from any form of light.

He got home, went straight to bed, thinking the morning would bring a return of his sight as usual. He tells me he did sense this pain was unusual, but he was in complete denial that it could be more serious. He woke at 6am to a sightless situation, but in the confusion and associated hallucinations he concluded he was having a bad dream, and now needed to go back to sleep.

He awoke again at 9am, and to the same sightless world, but this time he felt this feeling of "the deepest agony and being totally alone, and beyond help". He tried meditation, but it never helped. He thought of phoning the ambulance to take him to hospital, but his denial came back and he put his hope in more time. After a lonely and fearful 12 hours without talking to anyone, and moving between shock and denial, finally at 9pm that night he phoned the ambulance to take him to hospital in St Paul, Minnesota. There the ophthalmologist confirmed his worst fears: He had lost his sight forever. He says nothing can prepare one for this devastating news, and the state of mind that flows from it. In a matter of hours his whole life had changed dramatically forever.

He had deep pain within, but the source of the pain was not about his inability to read or teach as one would maybe think, it was this feeling of being crushed. He would now be seen as a handicapped person, and this was humiliating, as he would now depend on others for help. There was this feeling of despair, as he felt he had been relegated to the ranks of beggars.

Imi openly shared with me how he seriously contemplated suicide, even selecting in his mind the rope in his garage he would use to hang himself. It initially seemed better to die proudly, but three thoughts kicked in taking away from this lowest of low point:

Firstly, he said life is about feelings and pain, and in have this extreme pain he was extremely alive, and so dealing with it was to part of living, and somehow the spirit of life will give him something. Secondly, it was midterm at university and he had many students who had paid for his tuition, and he couldn't let them down. Thirdly, he couldn't disgrace his family by an act of cowardice.

In talking through all this with me, Imi was very strong and clear on his recall, but tears often streamed down his cheeks as he spoke. I repeatedly asked him if he wanted to continue and if he was happy blogging this, and each time he answered passionately "of course, I like this". Here is a man who has clearly conquered something few of us would ever understand, and with the 'darkness' behind him, was at peace sharing his pain of those days.

He went on to tell me that the hardest thing to deal with was his first day walking onto the campus with his white walking cane. He felt humiliated and being judged as now some lesser person.

In reflection he added:

"Humans are infinitely adaptable, managing the mind to not only tolerate disaster, but to even see positives within it. Each door that closes opens a new one"

For me listening to the story, and having now lived with Imi for three days, I was deeply affected by my virtual arrogance at taking my non-disabled position for granted, and relying on a fragile, no true basis sense of invincibility, as my antidote to experiencing his level of pain. Every hour I am painfully reminded of his restricted world, often disappointed at myself for not having put myself in his shoes and been more proactive in helping him have a better experience. All humbling yet valuable life learning and 'we' thought this was a river canoeing trip, hey!

Back to the river, the start of day 4 has brought an overcast cool morning, with some glimpses of sunlight, and we are hopeful for a long but pleasant day on the river.

We have only done some 70 kilometres of the more than 700, but today should see a big step change.

Off to cook breakfast...

Take care...

H + I