An Interview with Blind Canoeist Renee Kuester-Sebranek

Renee and Ken in action. Photo by Larry Rice.
Renee and Ken in action. Photo by Larry Rice.

An abridged version of this interview ran in the March 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

Interview by Larry Rice

When first meeting Renee Kuester-Sebranek, you'd peg her as a very attractive, confident, and intelligent 50-year-old woman with an infectious laugh and a witty sense of humor. While sharing a beer and pizza, you'd learn that Renee is a world traveler, bicyclist, camper, ardent canoeist, and student of many subjects who loves living life to the fullest. And then you might learn something else you never expected about her: she is totally blind.

Her husband, Ken, 47, has been a canoeist for 35 years. He and I have paddled many whitewater rivers together. But it was not until the summer of 2013 that I met his wife, Renee, an extraordinarily spirited woman who does not allow her impaired vision to slow her down. "Canoeing with my husband," she told me, "ranks near the top on my enjoyment scale."

Later in the week, she would putting these words to the test when tandem canoeing with Ken on a challenging Class III-III+ run through Brown's Canyon on Colorado's Arkansas River. And being the unflappable, unstoppable Renee, we all knew that she would style this gauntlet, like all the others, with blind courage and grace.

C&K: At what age did you become blind to the point where your lifestyle began to be severely affected?

Renee: When I was 17 they told me I would probably be blind by the time I was 40. They were right. In 2006, at age 41, I was totally blind. I had to give up my driver’s license–a very difficult thing to do as it also meant giving up my total independence. I had to learn how to do everything differently. I had to develop patience, to slow down, to learn to ask for help. I needed to reassess everything and learn how to live as a Visually Impaired Person.

C&K: Is there a medical term to describe the eye condition you have? Can you discern any light, shapes, colors, or is everything now a uniform darkness?

Renee: Retinitis Pigmentosa, Severe Uveitis, and a Partially Detached Retina to name my major eye conditions. I have no light perception in my left eye and minimal light perception in my right eye. I can usually tell the difference between day and night, although at dusk and dawn and on cloudy days it is a lot harder. I do not see any colors, shapes, or movements.

C&K: And how have you come to grips with this new life of yours?

Renee: When I was "legally blind" I could still read most things with magnifying glasses. Now, being totally blind, it's a whole different thing. I am finally over my anger and denial. I've come to terms that this is how the rest of my life is going to be, so I need to make the best of it.

C&K: Are there any more medical options available that might restore some of your sight?

Renee: Unfortunately no. I've had six eye surgeries and have seen the best of the best. After my last eye surgery in May 2010, they said there was no more they could do. I was extremely depressed for several months after I got this news. However, I am fortunate that I have both of my eyes and that most people can not tell that I am blind by just looking at me. And I am blessed to have been able to see this wonderful world for 41 years. But it's getting harder and harder to remember what everything and everyone looked like.

C&K: Before losing your eyesight, were you a canoeist?

Renee: I've been paddling for the past 25 years with my husband, Ken. We started canoeing on small lakes in northern Wisconsin, near where we live. Then we started running rivers, which we prefer. In 2004, when I started losing my sight, we got involved in whitewater canoeing. In a good year we paddle about 25-30 days.

C&K: What types of canoes do you and Ken paddle together?

Renee: We started out with a Golden Hawk, which was not much of a canoe. Then we had several different Wenonahs, mostly for flatwater tripping. Then we got a Mohawk XL15, which was pretty good but it weighed so much we called it “The Big Pig." Now we have a SOAR 14′ inflatable canoe, our favorite whitewater boat, and an Esquif Prospector 16', our favorite canoe for flatwater. Since we got our SOAR I feel safer in Class III-III+ whitewater. It's just like paddling a hardboat canoe, but the odds of swimming are lessened.

Photo courtesy Ken Sebranek
Photo courtesy Ken Sebranek

C&K: Can you describe some of your initial reactions, feelings, emotions, when first beginning to paddle after blindness?

Renee: At first, I was terrified of the smallest riffles. But we've had a lot of practice over the years and now we're pretty good paddling partners. Now I try to inhale the beauty and serenity of the river, and the power and magnificence of the rapids.

C&K: A sighted paddler can not possibly imagine what it's like to paddle blind, especially whitewater. Can you describe what it's like to be a blind canoeist?

Renee: I don't think I do anything real different from a sighted paddler except that I need verbal commands shouted at me so I know what needs to be done. It really helps to break down a rapid into small segments; to not think of the entire run as a whole. That makes the emotional aspect of it easier to digest.

C&K: How important is hearing to you when canoeing?

Renee: Extremely important. I'm very lucky to have really good hearing. I know that the louder the rapids and shouts, the more on my game I need to be.

C&K: What words of advice do you give boaters accompanying you on a whitewater run, especially those who have never paddled with a blind person?

Renee: Our system is to make everyone aware of my blindness before we launch, and instruct them that in the event that Ken and I both swim, they are to help me out as much as possible. Ken is pretty good at self-rescue, having had a lot of practice.

C&K: What's it like to swim a rapid blind?

Renee: I'm a pretty good swimmer, but every time I do so it's scary as hell. However, if I get good directions yelled at me, stay calm, and use my head, I am fine. I'm proud that I always manage to hang on to my paddle and keep my feet up.

C&K: Have you ever met or talked to another blind canoeist to share experiences and thoughts?

Renee: Actually, I don't know a lot of blind people. And I've only heard of maybe one or two blind paddlers, Erik Weihenmayer being one of them. (Weihenmayer is among the most accomplished blind athletes in the world, best known for being the first person without sight to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. In September 2014 he kayaked the Grand Canyon with fellow blind paddler Lonnie Bedwell. Their story is featured in the March 2015 print edition of Canoe & Kayak).

C&K: How would you describe Ken as a tandem partner?

Renee: The best! The reason I do so well is because of his awesome paddling and river-reading skills. We never canoe a river that Ken has not paddled previously. And we try not to paddle whitewater that is above what we think we can handle.
Ken: I feel very honored to share a canoe with my wife. To paddle beautiful rivers with her and friends is my idea of a wonderful life.

C&K: What audible information do you receive from Ken when paddling?

Renee: He is very good at describing the shoreline and the changes in the river–when the river is wide and slowing or narrow and swift, small details as well as large. If there are rocks ahead, he lets me know that we may need to do some maneuvering.
Ken: I look at everything longer and deeper when I'm paddling with Renee. I see more details in things I might barely have glanced at otherwise. I may point something out like a deer over there, or an eagle up there. When we meet other paddlers, I describe them: three canoes, aluminum, looks like another father-son trip, they have a lot of camping gear, everybody's smiling. Renee envisions what I describe, so I really notice the pleasant things.

Photo by Larry Rice.
Photo by Larry Rice.

C&K: And what happens when you're dealing with rapids?

Renee: When paddling whitewater we try to keep it clear and simple. Ken might say—very loudly: "Paddle…Paddle…Slowly…Slowly… Harder! Keep Going! Stop! Paddle! Draw Right…Draw Left…Back! Big waves coming…Paddle…Harder! Draw Right! Stop! Paddle! Eddy Right In About Ten Seconds…Let's Catch it! Awesome! Perfect!" The louder Ken shouts these commands the more urgent I know it is. I need him to yell the commands because it's hard to hear him over the rapids.

C&K: Are there problems or awkward moments in whitewater when very fast calls have to be made?

Renee: Of course. Sometimes when Ken shouts “Left” I go “Right,” and sometimes he shouts “Right” when he means “Left.” But we usually correct our mishap very quickly and avoid too much carnage.

Ken: I always try to let Renee know what happened and why: my timing was off; I misread the current;, the sun got in my eyes. I let her know what I plan to do to correct the issue, and she always asks if there was something she could have done differently or should practice to make us better.

C&K: Obviously you need to completely trust Ken when in a canoe, and he needs to trust you. How did you develop this confidence in each other?

Renee: My trust has evolved over many years and many hours of paddling tandem in our various canoes. When I did have my sight, I used to question some of his directions, which usually got us in trouble. I trust Ken because I realize that his river reading skills are FAR superior to mine.

Ken: I see almost every move Renee makes and I know what she can do; she's incredible! It's our partnership, our trust in each other, that enables us to paddle well. I really want her to have fun. I always want to paddle at my best when I'm with Renee.

C&K: What other outdoor activities do you and Ken do?

Renee: We enjoy sharing a lot of different things: canoe camping, car camping, hiking, fishing, tandem bicycling, with many variations of each.

C&K: Has paddling made your marriage stronger?

Renee: I believe that doing anything tandem—particularly canoeing and bicycling–has strengthened our marriage. I have heard that these two activities, along with building a house, are a true test of a marriage. I would say that we have passed all three with flying colors. Ken will always be my first and last canoe partner.

Ken: Canoes and canoeing have been a big part of our lives together; I can not imagine our lives without them. Paddling as a team has made our marriage much richer—and spicier.

C&K: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges, and possible solutions, facing a blind person who wants to go paddling?

Renee: The challenges are many, but chief among them is to find a trusted and skilled tandem paddling partner; getting training and getting out to practice; and having the proper equipment to stay safe and comfortable. Possible solutions? Hook up with a local paddling group; they might be willing to help and have some equipment that can be borrowed. Also, check out Wilderness Inquiry (www.wildernessinquiry.org) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's an outstanding company that offers paddling adventures for people with vision loss.

Ken: Learning to canoe well takes time, sighted or not. You need patience. For the blind person who is already a paddler, their sighted tandem partner will be a challenge if they have never paddled with someone who is blind. Renee is still training me a little every time we go out.

C&K: As a blind woman, have you encountered anything you can not do as well as a sighted person?

Renee: I recently heard an interesting acronym: B L I N D (Being Led In New Directions). So true. There are no limits to what a person can do, sighted or blind. I've read a lot of books (on my "talking" iPad) about some truly amazing visually impaired people and what they have done in spite of their blindness. Of course, it does help to have a wonderful partner who can help you accomplish your dreams.

C&K: Speaking of dreams, in regard to paddling, what are some of yours?

Renee: I want to do some longer backcountry canoe trips with Ken and a few good friends. Maybe to Isle Royale National Park or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or go south to the Buffalo National River or the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. However, this year my dream is to return to the Arkansas River and run the Class III-III+ Fractions section just above Buena Vista. After last year's darn-near-perfect run on Brown's Canyon, I say "bring it on!"

Photo by Larry Rice.
Photo by Larry Rice.