Whitewater Healing

A father and son's autism journey leads to the river

Autistic children and their families raft the Nantahala River during Whitewater Healing's Western North Carolina event on Oct. 23.
Autistic children and their families raft the Nantahala River during Whitewater Healing’s Western North Carolina event on Oct. 23. Photo by Erin Kirkland

By Dennis Mashue

During a recent speaking engagement, my 18-year-old son, Tucker, summed up my parenting style in one word: “sketchy.”

After all, as the solo parent of an autistic teenager, my response to ineffective schools and social services organizations was to withdraw my son from school, quit my job with the federal government, and purge our lives of all non-essential personal property. What remained—kayaks, bikes, backpacks, and two Rubbermaid totes full of handwoven Nepali tassel hats—we loaded aboard our 15-year-old, clapped-out minivan, “Bucket.”

With Bucket’s suspension fully compressed, Project “Tuck’s Tooques on Tour” was off to a wobbly but wild-eyed start, leaving our small Michigan hometown behind, perhaps for good. We had no savings account and no safety net, but we at least had a mission—to visit as many national parks as we could, promote our little company Tuck’s Tooques, and talk with as many people as we could about autism and neurodiversity. Oh, and try not to starve, freeze, or fry.

So yeah, sketchy.

Three months and 20,000 miles later, we found ourselves in Salt Lake City for the 2016 Canoe & Kayak Awards. Somewhere between Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks, we’d received a call from Jim Coffey, owner of Quebec’s Esprit Rafting and founder of Whitewater Healing, an organization which provides whitewater rafting camps for autistic kids.

Tucker Mashue, 18, center, and his father Dennis, right, share some river time on the Nantahala. Tucker is autistic, and together he and Dennis run Tuck's Tooques, a pro-autism micro business which sells winter hats, mittens, and slippers.
Tucker Mashue, 18, center, and his father Dennis, right, share some river time on the Nantahala. Tucker is autistic, and together he and Dennis run Tuck’s Tooques, a pro-autism micro business which sells winter hats, mittens, and slippers. Photo by Erin Kirkland

Whitewater Healing had been nominated for C&K’s Paddle with Purpose Award. As part of Tuck’s autism package, he does not express emotions outwardly. But when Whitewater Healing was announced as the winner, he jumped to his feet, clapping and hooting wildly, chest pumped-up, gut sucked in, teary-eyed. And, more chest, gut, and eye-action for both of us when we later got to meet paddling legend and founder of Nantahala Outdoor Center, Payson Kennedy. Most importantly, it felt like we’d met a huge room full of the tribe we’d been searching for.

The next day, we committed to WWH’s Western North Carolina event in October, and I set about doing what only the sketchiest of parents would do: sold our kayaks and bikes in Portland, Oregon, to fund our transit back east.

The night we arrived in the Nantahala River Gorge, temps dipped into the low 30s, prompting me to wonder how many volunteer ambassadors and families with autistic kids would show. The volunteers struck me as unassuming, confident, and ready for a great day. After all, what could go wrong with an event designed to get autistic kids into Class III whitewater with guides who know little to nothing about autism? And yet, nothing did go wrong. In fact, everything went very, very right.

As a parent whose kid doesn’t exactly walk, talk, or act like his peers, I’ve grown accustomed to event volunteers who step lightly, due to an understandable fear of the unknown. As a responsible parent, I respect and appreciate that.

As a sketchy parent though, I want my kid to get wet, banged around a little, scared, pissed off, blistered, and perhaps even achieve Shrinkage: Level 10, which is only obtainable by enduring lap-fulls of frigid river all day. Tuck offered up verbal confirmation later – Level 10 Shrinkage? Check.

Overall, 2016 was a banner year for us. Tuck and I crisscrossed the U.S., logging over 27,000 miles, visiting 39 national park units, and 29 states. We hiked across treacherous snowfields on Mt. Rainier and Donner Pass, pondered life while sitting astride an ancient redwood tree washed up on the rugged Pacific Northwest coast, carried our kayaks a couple hundred yards to paddle the Rio Grande at Big Bend – only to find it bone dry in early May.

We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, explored Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Tetons, Mammoth Lakes, the Flight 93 Memorial, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Boulder. We felt the chill of having U.S. Border Patrol Agents approach us silently at 2 a.m., announcing their presence from less than two feet away, as we surveyed damage to our vehicle after hitting a deer on a deserted stretch of South Texas highway near Big Bend.

Cool stuff, all. But one of the true highlights was the opportunity to spend a day paddling with Whitewater Healing and its amazing cast of volunteer ambassadors. As a parent who has actively participated in the creation of some remarkable outdoor-oriented programs for autistic kids, their friends and families, I view WWH as a wildly successful social experiment.

Throughout our year on the road our family motto has been “sometimes the fear won’t go away, so you’ll have to do it afraid.”

One of the highlights of our Whitewater Healing experience was boaters climbing atop a huge boulder, then jumping off into the rushing water. As our group pulled up, Tucker wanted no part of it, electing to stay in the raft and watch. But for the last two months he had been preparing for this moment, learning to pinch his nose and close his mouth so he could take that plunge. Knowing how badly he wanted to join the adventure, I asked again if he wanted to try, and his verbal reply was clear: “No!”

So, I said, “If it is something you really want to experience, and you feel your skills are adequate, remember that sometimes the fear won’t go away. . . .” And then I backed away.

Perhaps a minute later, my son said, “. . . so you’ll have to do it afraid,” as he clambered out of the raft and scrambled up the riverbank. Once up, ambassador Jennifer Taylor took his hand. When I asked, “Do you want to go with Dad, or with her?” His stammered reply: “Jen-nif-er.”

Hand-inhand, Tucker and Jennifer take a leap of faith. Photo by Erin Kirkland
Hand-in-hand, Tucker and Whitewater Healing volunteer Jennifer Taylor take a leap of faith. Photo by Erin Kirkland

Taylor later shared, “I told him if he wanted to hold hands as we jumped we could—or not. It was his choice. I saw his left hand extend and I gently clasped it, a warm feeling that continues to envelop my entire being with every recollection. It was a powerfully moving experience for me that epitomized the entire trip—a daring leap into crisp water, emerging to cheers from an incredibly supportive group.”

Coffey’s motivation to self-fund and launch Whitewater Healing? “We are humbled and honored that the paddling world has truly supported this endeavor. Most of our ambassadors had never had any experience with anyone on the spectrum, but I truly believe their experience volunteering with Whitewater Healing makes them amazing advocates for the ASD world.”

Which is perhaps the greatest value brought to the autism world by Whitewater Healing. For decades, society has focused on “curing” autism or forcing Autistic people to fit its version of “normal.” In my 18 years of research, advocacy, and parenting, I find it refreshing that a visionary like Jim Coffey is creating opportunities for the paddling community to share their talents and resources, and at the same time, gain a new perspective on people who live life honestly, transparently, and who have remarkable gifts and talents of their own to share.

I reached out to Richard Guin, Vice President of Mohawk Canoes for comment from the industry perspective. Richard’s whole family participated in the event, but I thought surely an industry professional would seize the opportunity to “leverage” the value of contributions made by members of the paddling community to members of the autism community.

Instead, Guin’s response completely sums up my observation on the day: “Taking a group of kids out on the water is always amazing. But a day on the river with Whitewater Healing is great — a bunch of autistic kids teaching a group of dirt bag boaters how freaking cool life is.”

Bucket-list item, “Find Our Tribe?” Check.

Dennis Mashue congratulates his son Tucker after the cliff jump with ambassador Jennifer Taylor, left. Photo by Erin Kirkland
Dennis Mashue congratulates his son Tucker after the cliff jump with Jennifer, left. Photo by Erin Kirkland