Rafting With the National Ability Center

Lynn Barlow | RaftRaft
The National Ability Center offers adaptive rafting. PC NAC

Brought to you by the National Ability Center

The National Ability Center was founded in 1985 in Park City, Utah, to provide ski lessons to veterans. Almost 40 years later, the NAC runs programming based in both Park City and Moab, Utah, and serves over 7,000 people. The NAC now has an equestrian program, downhill skiing, snowboarding, several competitive Paralympic teams, and recreational sports, including whitewater rafting. 

According to the US Census, one in five individuals lives with a disability, ranging from amputation to PTSD to those diagnosed on the autism spectrum and those with invisible disabilities. In addition to serving individuals with disabilities, the NAC also serves their families. The programming is designed for individuals of all abilities, and the executive director of the NAC, Danny Glasser, is insistent that the NAC won’t turn anyone away. 

I spoke with Karen Locke, who runs the adaptive whitewater rafting program in Moab, Utah. 

SnowBrains: What does adaptive rafting entail?

Karen Locke: We do one to six-day rafting trips on the river. What’s nice about rafting is that it’s easily adaptable, so our participants come on the raft with us. We control the raft because we are rowing down the river, so it’s easy to make that adaptable to folks. We have different adaptive equipment–it’s pretty simple for the river. One of our favorite items is a plastic lawn chair with the legs cut off. It has a tall back, and it’s kind of wide; it’s a great chair that we strap into the boat, and then a participant can hang out on that underneath a shade structure while we’re going rafting.

The thing that I like the most about rafting is that it’s easily adaptable for folks who might have a disability. And then, too, I think that water is a great equalizer, especially for folks who might have mobility issues. We do anything from float trips (on calm flat water) to big huge class V rapids. (A class V rapid is challenging and involves consequential must-make-moves.) But, for a lot of people, especially those with mobility issues, to be able to get in a raft and go down a river and maybe swim around a little bit–it really helps. It’s really magical.

Costumes (and river prom) are an integral part of any river trip. PC NAC

What is the “I can” mindset?

One of the things we talk a lot about on the river is the dignity of risk, so we encourage our participants to get a little bit out of their comfort zone; to say, “I can get in the inflatable kayak, and I can go through this class I or class II rapid.” I have had participants on those longer trips start out coming on our trips saying, “I can’t do it, I have a disability,” and using our adaptive chair on day one, and then by day two or three, they’re rowing the boat on flat water, they are not using their wheelchair at camp, they’re using their body to get around camp– it completely transforms people. Our biggest thing is giving people that voice to say, “I can do it, and I might fail–I might fall off the inflatable kayak, I might fall off the stand-up paddleboard, I might run this raft into a rock–and that’s ok.” We are there to support them as they are, in what they want to do, and we’re there to back them up.

I had a participant once who, by day two, had stopped using his chair. We had hiked back into a canyon for lunch half a mile or so, and we had carried him into the canyon. On the way back, he said, “I don’t want to be carried. I want to get back to camp by myself.” His mode of moving was to crawl. It was August and hot, and I asked him, “Do you want some gloves?” He said, “Nope, I’ve got it,” and he crawled his way back to camp. It took him a little bit, but we walked in front of him and behind him, and we weren’t asking him every second if he was ok–just being there. He was an adult, and he knew he could ask for help, and he made his way back to camp by himself. That’s the “I can” mentality–freedom to fail, freedom to try. 

It’s hard not to smile when you’re on river time! PC NAC

How do you make adaptations for your participants? Can you tell me a story or a specific example? 

When we get the information about our participants, it really is just fitting the trip to meet the needs of the participant. Sometimes it’s just helping someone into the raft and then finding out what makes them comfortable. We have adaptive equipment at camp. We have a groover (portable toilet used for multi-day rafting trips) that is stable and wider than other grooves, and we have a metal stand that goes around it so that folks can transfer from a wheelchair onto the groover. But the biggest thing is really listening to people and making those small adjustments so that they can be comfortable. 

What are the benefits?

I think for certain populations like those with mobility issues getting into the water and feeling weightless in the water is a huge benefit. What I’ve heard from those with mobility issues is that water is magical. And then I think for folks who have been diagnosed with PTSD, getting on the river and getting to experience the solitude of it is a really beneficial. They get to sleep next to the river, and they have told me about the benefits of quieting down and getting away from all of the noises of the city. They’ve told me that they’ve had amazing sleep next to the river. 

Going back to the freedom to fail mentality–to get out of their normal routines, to try something new, to be around people who are encouraging them to try something that they thought they might not get the chance to try or might fail at, but there’s a group around them that’s supporting them, whatever ends up happening–I think that’s really beneficial too. 

I do encourage my guides to teach while we’re on the river. Not only are we providing this experience for our participants, but we are trying to create stewards for the land that we love so much. We try to let people leave with new skills and new information about the outdoors. 

High-fives and smiles abound! PC NAC

Can you tell us a little bit more about your guide staff and the training they receive?

We’re a pretty small guide staff down here. We typically have about five to six guides every year, and we hire a variety of folks with either adaptive experience or previous guiding experience or sometimes expedition experience, and then we do an immersive three weeks of training. That training includes all of our adaptive equipment, transfer training, ability awareness training, as well as the river-specific stuff. We also do in-house swift water rescue training with a hint of ability-awareness, so we really focus on folks who might not be able to swim or folks who might not be able to help rescue themselves–they might not be able to grab a throw rope. We also do continuing education throughout the season.

What is ability awareness training?

Ability awareness training talks about person-first language, talking about why we don’t use words like ‘handicapped’ anymore, and then we’ll go through disabilities and generalized characteristics about folks who have those disabilities so we can help make them more comfortable on the river. So, for example, when I’m doing ability awareness training, and I’m talking about folks with PTSD, I’m advising the staff not to slam cooler lids or toilet seats and things like that. We also do transfer training so how to help someone with mobility issues. Ability awareness training is also continuing to interact with folks with disabilities and continuing to absorb the information that they give you. I respectfully ask a lot of questions when a group signs up and someone has a disability that I haven’t heard of before or haven’t worked with before because I want to make the trip feel as comfortable as possible for them.

Are there any other activities or summer programming you’d like to share with our readers?

In Park City, we do a lot of other activities. Mountain biking is one of our most popular activities by far. The competitive ski and snowboard team is amazing. We have a challenge course. The challenge course is fully adaptable, they can lift someone who is using a wheelchair up onto the course, and they can go through the course. Water sports are also super popular. They’re starting water-skiing back up this summer; a lot of people are really into that.

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