10 years of PaddlePower

A closer look at New England's paddling fundraiser for suicide prevention

Photo Kristen Senz


Slipping into a canoe on placid water has a therapeutic effect. Simply gliding along the surface has a soothing way of melting away concerns. A group of New England paddlers has found a way to translate that feeling into a fund-raising benefit for a crisis hotline that serves people with depression, including those close to committing suicide. The event itself has proven very cathartic. CanoeKayak.com recently asked PaddlePower organizer Kristen Senz about the 10th annual, two-day event on Aug. 18-19, which is open to the public. — Matthew Sturdevant

CanoeKayak.com: What is the river trip like?
Kristen Senz: PaddlePower covers a beautiful, lazy, 25-mile section of the Connecticut River that’s mostly flat water, from Orford, N.H., to Wilder, Vt. The river cuts through the lush green trees and hills that are typical of late summer in Northern New England. Paddlers pass by stately homes and old railroad bridges and beneath the impressive Ledyard Bridge in Hanover, N.H. Participants have the option of camping for two nights (campground accommodations are included with event registration) at Storrs Pond Recreation Area. New this year, L.L.Bean is providing a free paddling clinic at Storrs Pond for PaddlePower participants Friday evening before the event. The recreation area has the feel of the wilderness, but it’s only a few minutes from picturesque Hanover, home to Dartmouth College. Currently, PaddlePower doesn’t include any races or other paddling events, though some participants and organizers have suggested possibly adding something in the future.

What should paddlers expect otherwise?
The biggest thing we strive for is to make PaddlePower a worry-free adventure where every person feels welcome and accommodated. Through the generous support of our local sponsors and in-kind donors, we’re able to provide healthy snacks and drinks for all participants at rest stops along the route. We also supply all the meals for the whole weekend, offering a mix of options for meat-eaters and vegetarians. And, we have shuttle vans to bring participants back to their cars or to the campground at the end of each day. Also, we typically have two or three live music performances during the event and some excellent prizes to give away.

How would you describe the vibe of the event?
Although suicide is considered a somber topic, the mood at PaddlePower is upbeat. There’s a feeling of community and of doing something important among the paddlers. Oftentimes, paddlers meet each other on the river and discuss what caused them to get involved. Many say they enjoy connecting with people on the water and have made lasting friendships. This year, Aug. 8 at the Wilder Center in Wilder, Vt., PaddlePower is also hosting the East Coast premiere of the new documentary High Ground, by Emmy-winning adventure filmmaker Michael Brown. The film follows 11 veterans who attempt to summit a 20,000-foot peak in the Himalayas, despite a variety of physical and emotional wounds.

Photo Kristen Senz

How did PaddlePower get its start?
PaddlePower began in 2002 with the staff and board of directors at West Central Behavioral Health, a nonprofit mental health agency that provides high-quality, affordable mental health and recovery services to residents of the Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont. Phil Wyzik, the former VP of operations, and Dr. Will Torrey, the former medical director, came up with the idea of a two-day paddling trip as a fundraiser to support emergency mental health services. West Central operates a 24-hour crisis hotline that receives more than 3,000 calls per year. This is not an answering service or a national call center. It’s staffed by highly trained local professionals who are always ready to respond over the phone or in person to assist individuals, schools or other organizations in crisis. Our emergency services staff also assists local police departments in cases involving mental illness.

Often, these emergency services are not eligible for private insurance or Medicaid billing and therefore result in considerable losses for the agency each year. To help support these vital services for our community and to raise awareness on a broader scale for the preventable public health problem of suicide, PaddlePower was born. The first PaddlePower event was held in 2003, and as the years have passed, interest in the event and the cause has steadily grown. As we approach our 10th anniversary, the need for increased awareness and decreased social stigma surrounding depression and suicide has never been stronger.

Why, is depression and suicide on the rise?
Nationally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among people in the United States and is the cause of more than 36,000 deaths per year. It is the fourth leading cause of death among people ages 18 to 65 and the third leading cause among those 15 to 24. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come to a close, the suicide rate among members of the armed forces continues to climb. The U.S. has lost more active duty soldiers to suicide than in combat during these wars, and right now an average of one veteran per day dies by suicide. The overall suicide rate in America has increased steadily over the past decade, a trend that shows no sign of slowing. In 1999, according to the CDC, the rate was 10.46 per 100,000 people. As of 2007, it had risen to 11.26.

When a person chooses to end his life, his loved ones are often left to wonder why. An untreated or undertreated mental illness almost always underlies the act of suicide — more than 60 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from major depression. Financial problems, traumatic experiences, substance abuse, and physical illness or injury can contribute to a person’s decision to take his or her own life. The good news is that national research has proven that with the proper support, people can and do recover from depression and other mental illnesses. They can learn strategies for avoiding triggers, coping with stress and managing the demands of daily life.

So where does paddling come in, and how does my participation help?
The main reason for creating PaddlePower as a river adventure was to provide both a fun and reflective experience. Many of the paddlers who participate in PaddlePower year after year have lost someone close to them to suicide. For them, the serenity of being on the river offers a chance to pay tribute to their loved one and continue the healing process, while raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention efforts in our community.

West Central Behavioral Health wanted to create a memorable experience for all participants, whether they have personally experienced the tragedy of suicide or just enjoy getting outdoors for a good cause. With so many walk-a-thons and 5K races out there, a canoe and kayak trip makes for a unique adventure that has been successful in attracting new participants and enthusiastic sponsors each year.

Where can I find out more?
Our new and improved website provides all the details about the event, including a map of the route, information about what to bring, photos from past PaddlePowers, and a schedule of events. Paddlers and volunteers can also register for the event online and set up a personalized team page for collecting donations. PaddlePower is also on Facebook and Twitter!

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