Blind Trust

Lessons in life and marriage from a blind canoeist and her sternman

Photo courtesy Ken Sebranek
Photo courtesy Ken Sebranek

Blind Trust appeared in the March 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak. It is condensed from this interview.

By Larry Rice

Renee Kuester-Sebranek and her husband Ken Sebranek had been paddling together for more than 15 years when she lost her vision to retinosis pigmentosa. The disease began to come on strong in 2004. Two years later, at age 41, she was almost completely blind.

"I had to learn how to do everything differently. I had to develop patience, to slow down, to learn to ask for help," says Kuester-Sebranek, 50. "I am finally over my anger and denial. This is how the rest of my life is going to be, and I want to make the best of it."

Foe Renee, making the best of life means camping, cycling and especially tandem whitewater canoeing with her husband Ken. One evening over pizza and beer, the couple shared insights on canoeing and marriage, blindness and trust. The next day they styled Class III+ Brown's Canyon on Colorado's Arkansas River.

Renee: Ken and I have been paddling together for 25 years, on small lakes at first and then rivers. In 2004, when I started losing my sight, we got involved in whitewater canoeing. In a good year we paddle about 30 days.

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 or an eagle. When we meet other paddlers, I describe them: three canoes, a father-son trip, everybody's smiling. Renee envisions what I describe, so I really notice the pleasant things.

Renee: At first, I was terrified of the smallest riffles. But we've had a lot of practice 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.

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 always want to paddle at my best when I'm with Renee.

Renee: When paddling whitewater we try to keep it clear and simple. The louder Ken shouts the commands the more urgent I know it is. 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.

Renee: Tandem canoeing and bicycling has strengthened our marriage. I've heard that those activities, along with building a house, are a true test of a marriage. I'd say we've passed all three with flying colors. Ken will always be my first and last canoe partner.

Check out more stories originally featured in Canoe & Kayak magazine.

Photo by Larry Rice.
Photo by Larry Rice.