Photograph by Greg Maino
Sam Crowley has sea kayaked solo around Ireland, but he’s still humbled every time he teaches the sport’s most fundamental safety skill. The Marquette, Mich.-based instructor and massage therapist spends several weeks each summer teaching sea kayaking to people with disabilities. “The courage they have is incredible,” says Crowley. “Here they are with a body that’s a whole lot less able than mine and when it comes to doing the wet exit they’re like, ‘All right, let’s go.’ The reward for them is getting outside. It makes you appreciate just how huge that is for them.”
Crowley and business partner, Nancy Uschold, also a veteran expedition paddler, run Sea Kayak Specialists in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While they’re certified to teach beginner to advanced sea kayak skills and instructor courses, they agree that teaching basic adaptive paddling courses is most rewarding. Uschold, a physical therapist, discovered sea kayaking about the same time she was working as a counselor at Marquette’s Bay Cliff Health Camp for people with disabilities in the mid-1990s. She came across the American Canoe Association’s adaptive paddling instructor certification, and since its inception as a camp activity in 1998, kayaking has been a favorite amongst Bay Cliff’s youth and adult campers.
“I remember when we were running the pilot program and we had someone with multiple sclerosis who was in a wheelchair,” says Uschold. “We got him on the water and he was just beaming. He said it was the first time he felt like everyone else. That was one of the first times we realized just how powerful this program could be.”
Along the way, Crowley and Uschold have developed a business model that allows them to continue to embark on their own expeditions. Last year, Uschold stuck around Marquette while Crowley completed an expedition in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. This year, it’s Uschold’s turn to plan a four-week trip in Newfoundland. “Our commitment is to make sure there are programs there for the camp,” says Crowley. “Our other goal has always been to be able to get out and take off on trips of our own.” - Conor Mihell