The most inspiring among us don’t seek accolades or recognition; they simply follow their passion for paddling.

Mary Kurt-Mason and the students in her special talents class prepare to launch in Echo Lake outside Pagosa Springs, Colo. for their weekly class. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE

Mary Kurt-Mason and the students in her special talents class prepare to launch in Echo Lake outside Pagosa Springs, Colo. for their weekly class. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE

STORY BY CONOR MIHELL

Mary Kurt-Mason is the first to admit that some rapids terrify her. A self-professed “water baby” who has been whitewater kayaking, rafting and sea kayaking for over 30 years, she still sometimes worries that she’ll miss a brace, capsize and face a horrific swim. But when she summons the gumption to challenge her fears she relishes “that feeling of pride and accomplishment” that all paddlers know.

As a special education teacher in Pagosa Springs, Colo., exposing students to the same sort of fear-defying, life-altering experiences is Kurt-Mason’s secret weapon.

About a decade ago, Kurt-Mason, 60, launched an outdoor program for her students. It started small, just daily walking tours around her small town and the high school track. “A lot of students wouldn’t dream of going outside every single day,” she says. “Just walking taught them a lot.”

From these humble beginnings came snowshoe and ski outings, daylong raft trips on the local section of the San Juan River, and finally overnight raft and kayak trips. Kurt- Mason says it’s been a team effort all the way, with the complete support of forward-thinking school administrators and parents, who’ve organized fundraising drives to purchase a fleet of boats.

Because she teaches special education, Kurt-Mason has the benefit of working with a relatively consistent group of students from year to year. With the motto “never, never, never give up,” she’s watched kids like Zack Irons overcome their fear of water and the unknown. Kurt-Mason slowly pushed Zack’s comfort zone—having him ride in the bow of a tandem kayak, in a raft, and finally encouraging him to paddle a kayak alone across open water. “The day Zack had developed the skills and confidence to paddle a single kayak, he was so excited,” recalls Kurt-Mason. “I had my back turned when his friends pushed him out on the water. Suddenly I heard someone call my name. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s flipped.’ I looked and he was floating out there smiling. He yelled, ‘This is called independence!’

“That’s why I do this. It was amazing.”

Zack now attends college out of town, a giant step both he and his mother, Joanne Irons, attribute to Kurt-Mason. “She really knew Zack’s strengths and weaknesses. She has a special way about her,” says Joanne Irons, who joined Kurt-Mason and the students as a chaperone on their first overnight raft trip on Utah’s San Juan River in 2010. “As I watched Zack develop his self-confidence and independence it was a lot easier for me to let go and know he could do this.”

Kurt-Mason, who was listed as one of People magazine’s 2013 teachers of the year, is convinced the outdoors breeds gritty, tenacious adults like Zack—the true “indicators of success after high school.” Paddling gives her students “a chance to be brave,” she says. “They can’t learn that inside four walls doing a math problem.”

Kurt-Mason leading the class on an overnight kayak trip to Navajo Lake. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE

Kurt-Mason leading the class on an overnight kayak trip to Navajo Lake. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE

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