By Dawn Ziegler ~
Andy Janicki was always willing to give up the everyday “luxuries” to pursue his love of back-country camping. He regularly sought out the most remote places he could find. And when he became a quadriplegic six years ago, the biggest challenge Andy faced would be how the heck he’d ever get back to them.
Growing up in the ‘burbs of Milwaukee, Andy loved swimming and biking. During his freshmen year at UW – Stevens Point, he had his first backpacking experience. It was an immediate obsession. Once Andy got a taste of this wilderness hiking, he couldn’t get enough of it. He loved being totally immersed in the outdoors…the smells, the sounds, the awakening of his senses… and being far away from the ‘noise’ of civilization.
“I developed the mentality that I needed to be outdoors every day,” Andy explained. “I was known as ‘the guy who was always outside.’” Camping, hiking, kayaking and canoeing…he did it all. Even his interest in improving the environment, which led him to a job with the University in the Center for Watershed Science and Education, afforded Andy more opportunities to explore the outdoors to do field surveys on area water sources. “It didn’t matter to me whether it was for work or pleasure. I was the most at peace when I was out on my own surrounded by nature.”
In January of 2005, Andy’s world took an abrupt halt when he dove into a snow pile to cool off after a night of dancing, shattering his C5 vertebrae. “There I was upside down looking back at where I had just run from,” he recalled vividly. “I could see my body crumple around me but could feel nothing.” Laying there unable to move and struggling to breathe, Andy was fully conscious of what had happened.
After a long half hour, an ambulance finally arrived. He was rushed to the Stevens Point Hospital and then air lifted to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. He spent three days in intensive care and started rehab soon after. A long seven weeks later he was discharged.
“I had no setbacks, and I was healthy and strong going in, so I regained strength quickly,” Andy described with a glint of hope in his voice. “But I was still kind of in denial over the whole situation. I don’t remember any doctor coming in and saying I wasn’t going to walk again, but maybe it was implied,” he admitted, “I knew I was in rough shape then, but I was still hopeful I would get better and walk again.” Soon, though, the reality of his condition set in. “It was shocking getting use to only having three main muscle groups functioning. It was humbling. It was disappointing. I thought with all the swimming practice and hiking that I would be able to jump right into therapy and regain all my strength,” he confided, “I really thought I’d be farther along when I went home.”
Andy’s character, however, couldn’t be repressed for long. He moved back to live with his mom for the next four months so he could continue his rehab at Froedtert. He had an upbeat drive that pushed him to get outside as much as possible. There were a lot of challenges to be worked out, but that would have to come later; for at the end of the summer, he was going back to Stevens Point to finish up his last two years of his degree.
“That first year was the hardest because it was frustrating trying to figure out what I could do,” Andy mentioned. “Before, I’d go backpacking by myself all the time, but now I couldn’t even look at old photos of my camping trips without breaking down.” It was this loss of independence that was the most difficult for him to adjust to, “The hardest thing for me to do was ask for help. Not just with outdoor activities, but with day to day living.”
Andy’s outlook on life, however, was where he drew his strength. “Life was too good to let anything stop me from continuing with my passions,” he affirmed. “The world just had too much to offer!” And for Andy, surrounding himself in nature was some of the best therapy there was. “I did so much outdoors before my injury that it was something ingrained in my mind.”
Andy was determined to find trails in and around Stevens Point that he could manage by himself. Not an easy task. “I had to purposely search for paths that had crushed limestone or granite surfaces,” he described. “There were other things to consider, too, like the slope, width, and evenness of the trail. I needed to feel like I could propel my chair down the trail with no worries of getting stuck or tipping over.”
Although it was a start, the trails that were manageable by wheelchair couldn’t get Andy where he wanted to go, which was back into the wilderness. “The reason I liked backpacking before was because I could get away from civilization, way the hell out to the middle of nowhere, and not see city lights or hear anything except for the sounds of nature,” he confessed. “It’s great to be out there for a whole week without seeing a single person.” He wasn’t going to achieve that sense of solitude by wheeling on the trails around town.
Andy realized that if he was going to access remote places that he was going to need to find another mode of transportation, something other than a wheelchair.
As if on a new mission, Andy had his friends sit him in the middle of a canoe so they could paddle him to places unreachable by chair. “It was nice to get further into nature, but I still had the feeling that I was relying on others to get around,” he said disappointedly because he was aching to get out on his own again. But Andy was motivated, and that kept him searching for new things to try.
Andy lay in bed at night thinking about his single-person Perception kayak and about ways he could propel it on his own. He and his friend tried everything they could think of, but it just wasn’t happening, at least not yet. The cockpit was small which made it difficult to get Andy in. In addition to that, the slim design of the kayak made it quite tippy, and with Andy’s unsupported trunk, it was simply not steady enough.
One day, someone found a short (and more stable) tandem kayak to give a try. This kayak had a raised back on the seat which gave Andy more back support, but without any kind of lateral support to keep him from falling to the sides. “I could keep my balance alright, but I knew that if the kayak tipped a certain amount, that I would flop over and not be able to get back up and that could turn the boat over,” Andy stated. Though it was not a great setup, Andy was determined to make it work.
The next step was to figure out how to paddle the thing without the use of a grip. “I had someone mold handles out of that white plastic that OTs use to make splints,” he added, “and then I had them mold it right around the shaft of the paddle.” Since Andy had strong wrists, he was now able to paddle without the function of his fingers. Progress was being made!
After several excursions on local lakes and rivers and some additional tweaking to the setup, Andy was ready for a “Mancation!” Before his injury, he was exploring plans for a camping trip down to Big Ben National Park in Texas. Well, the time had come. In January of ’07, Andy, his brothers and two buddies left the cold winter of Wisconsin and headed south for a four day river camping expedition, paddling the scenic Rio Grande through the majestic Boquillas Canyon. Andy could hardly wait.
Spending four days paddling river rapids through the 1,200 foot canyon walls and setting up camp along the river each evening was just what Andy had been dreaming about. It was also just what he needed. His extensive backcountry experience, coupled with the confidence he had in his companions and the choice of river to run made this the ideal choice for Andy’s first time out. The 33 mile stretch through the Boquillas Canyon rate a Class II rapids, making it a modest challenge for his new rigging.
It was easy for Andy to adapt to tent camping because of how much he had done it beforehand. He loved to ‘rough it’, so getting by with the bare necessities put him in his happy place. Andy used a Half-Dome Plus two person tent, a Thermarest ProLite tent pad for extra cushion while sleeping, and a basic camping sleeping bag. The guys were used to packing equipment, so when they had to stow Andy’s gear plus his wheelchair in the canoes, they had the system down. [Andy would skip his BP cares until 2009 when he found the Activeaid raised toilet seat. Before that time, he would limit all of his trips to a max of four days.]
Andy admits, though, that things were different, “I had to leave behind what little independence I had,” he said. “I had to make adjustments. My friends had to pick me up and put me in my sleeping bag and it was really difficult to move around in it, definitely not like home where I could grab the side of bed to turn myself or sit up. And when I needed to cath at night, I had to rely on one of the guys to sit me up so I could do my business.” But this was a trade Andy was willing to make.
“Two years after my injury I was back,” Andy beamed, but it wasn’t without its hurdles. “The hardest thing to master was that kayak.”
Andy described a near capsize: “The river was really low at that time and the water murky with silt. That made it hard to see anything that might be floating in front of us. About two hours into our paddle on the first day, a branch popped up suddenly, and without any time to react, we hit it! The impact made the kayak rock, making me lose my balance. I flopped to the side and the kayak tipped enough to start taking in water. Luckily, I was with my buddy who is a very experienced paddler and the river was moving very slow, so we were able to make our way to the shore before the situation became tragic.” Smiling, Andy confessed, “We decided to rethink our plans, and I spent most of the remaining four day trip in the canoe.”
“It was such an epic trip though,” Andy recalled. “It was filled with so many mishaps and adjustments to our ‘plan’. Besides almost flipping, I also forgot my sleeping bag. I wrapped up with a blanket and my fleece jacket, but the dessert that first night gave way to freezing temps and I couldn’t stop shaking. The next day we had to travel quite a distance to the nearest town to get a sleeping bag.” There were other challenges, too, that came on a daily occurrence, but what he took away from that trip was a sense of how to accomplish.
After earning his degree at Steven’s Point, Andy took a job with the Wisconsin DNR as Accessibility Coordinator in January 2008. Working through his own struggles compelled Andy to create more access to the state’s parks, camp grounds, lakes and rivers for others. One of his first goals was to make the WDNR “Open the Outdoors” site more user friendly and increase the number of accessible outdoor activities. [Significant improvements were made and it is currently one of the most complete sources of information on accessible cabins, campsite listings, paddling, fishing locations, and hunting licensing throughout Wisconsin.]
Through his work, Andy met Kevin Carr, owner of Creating Ability from Minnesota. He is the manufacturer of seating, hand, and outrigger adaptations for disabled paddlers. An instant friendship formed. Kevin’s designs were the missing pieces to the puzzle Andy had been working on.
He set Andy up with a Kestral 140 kayak. The cockpit is stripped of anything that might cause skin injuries or impede the paddler from making wet exits. It comes with an adapted seat that has adjustable back height and tilt, as well as two levels of removable lateral supports. To increase the stability of the kayak, outriggers are mounted on the sides. And finally, included in the package is the Sweet Cheeks inflatable seat cushion that protects the driver from pressure sores. With all of these innovations, combined with the Creating Ability hand grip which Andy attached to a lightweight Phantom GX paddle, he was good to go!
In May 2008, Andy and his friends traveled to the Flambeau River State Forest in northern Wisconsin for a three day paddling/camping trip along the river. The campsites along this one are only accessible by water and are more primitive than Andy had faced post-injury. But he was ecstatic! Andy was able to paddle alone in his one-man kayak with his chair secured behind him. “I knew I’d never get back to backpacking by myself, but being that kayak knowing it was just me paddling… took me to a whole other level of freedom,” Andy explained.
Andy continues to work on getting information out about the various levels of accessible camping, but to him, staying in a cabin isn’t camping. He seeks the primitive nature of the outdoors, “You can’t expect things to be like at home. You need to be prepared to ask for help, and don’t go into a situation thinking you know what’s going to happen. To enjoy this freedom, you need to be flexible and patient, and know you can’t control the outdoors.”
Andy has since been on trips to Lake Powell in Utah, the sea caves of the Apostles Islands in Wisconsin, and two weeks paddling through Glacier National Park.