Photos courtesy of Cape Falcon Kayaks
Perhaps it’s the experience of gazing at a watery horizon line, pointing the kayak downstream, going with the flow, crossing the threshold of chaotic currents and emerging unscathed. Or maybe it’s the feeling of harnessing the power of the ocean, reveling in the terror of facing mountains of saltwater. Could it be the vision and patience required to build museum-quality sea kayaks from wood and skin? Whatever the case, Brian Schulz is convinced that his background as a whitewater paddler, sea kayaker and master skin-on-frame boat-builder has prepared him to deal with the terrible circumstances he now faces.
Four years of failing health, eight doctors and countless visits to specialists stripped Schulz’s finances. The once-avid whitewater and surf kayaker is perpetually exhausted, and suffers from panic attacks and heart problems. Finally, he was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy — a mystery affliction of the nervous system. He stopped paddling altogether and curtailed his boat-building courses. “There were whole months at times I just wished I would die,” admits Schulz, who recently revealed his condition in a blog post.
Yet Schulz refuses to give up, clinging to his passion for paddling and his burning sense of creativity as touchstones for his recovery and a brighter future. We caught up with the founder of the Manzanita, Ore.-based founder of Cape Falcon Kayaks for an in-depth interview about boat-building, paddling and personal wellness.
CanoeKayak.com: When did you become passionate about building watercraft?
Brian Schulz: I built my first skin-on-frame sea kayak in my early 20s. At that time most people were just building Eskimo kayaks, but as soon as I saw how tough and lightweight they were, I thought, ‘This would be an incredible medium for design.’ From there I just started experimenting. I think I built 20 kayaks my first year.
What’s the most satisfying thing about boat-building?
Initially it was the creative freedom of the medium, being able to design quickly and then try the result. A 25-pound kayak that you can drop off the roof of your car without cracking is pretty appealing as well. So, I started as a builder, but then my love of teaching took over. I get a lot of pleasure out of interacting with people, nurturing skills, and helping people create something as cool as a kayak in less than a week. Seeing someone smiling on the water for the first time in a kayak they built is really gratifying.
Are you someone who strives for perfection or functionality?
A bit of both. I’m borderline insane when it comes to design perfection. I’ve given up on entire concepts because I couldn’t get that last 3 percent dialed in. When it comes to construction, I like to keep things clean and pretty, but try not to go overboard. Kayaks get scratched up, so there is no need to make it into a sculpture.
How long had you not been feeling well? When did you first notice that something wasn’t right?
I first started having problems four years ago hiking with my girlfriend. She was just smoking me on the trail, and by the third day I could barely walk and breathe. These episodes got more and more frequent over the next couple years until it was constant. Then I started having chest pain, panic attacks, and heart arrhythmias.
Did your illness affect your work? How about paddling? Did you notice changes on the water?
Yeah, I can’t work much anymore, that’s really hard. I used to teach classes year round, working 10-hour days. Nowadays I’m in my shop about three hours a day. I haven’t been able to paddle for a few years now, and that’s tough for someone whose whole life has revolved around the water. My whole body is severely stressed, so most activities are too difficult for me.
What did you go through to finally get a proper diagnosis?
At first I was just being polite and not really advocating for myself, but as I got sicker I learned I had to push very hard to be taken seriously. I changed doctors eight times in three years, and had to fight every step of the way to see specialists. I was consistently treated like I had a psychosomatic disorder; even when the biopsy did finally come back that I do actually have systemic nerve damage, they didn’t seem interested in looking deeper than basic testing for a deeper cause. That’s hard for me because as a patient I want every possible avenue to be explored, but as doctors they have the unenviable task of being answerable to insurance companies and review boards. I have to fight as hard as I can, but I also see the other side of the equation.
What did this teach you about the medical system?
It taught me that while some of the technical aspects of medicine are really amazing, the treatment of chronic conditions can be less than exemplary at times. I think this stems from the paradigm of treating symptoms only rather than looking at the body as a whole organism. There is also the problem of doctors relying far more on testing than really listening to patient stories and thinking about how a variety of self reported symptoms might relate. The way my condition manifested was a flashing red sign for orthostatic intolerance, but even with me pushing that idea, it took three years to get autonomic testing which did confirm that, and another four months to get a biopsy to check for neuropathy. It’s pretty horrible to be disbelieved when you are in the kind of pain I am. Finally, there seems to be a lack of empathy built into the system, and that’s a huge failure. Science has unequivocally proven the physiological benefit of positive messaging and a caring attitude, but as my friend, a surgeon who works in a busy metropolitan hospital said: ‘When you are working 14-hour days that’s the first thing to go.’ So again, I don’t look at it as a personal failing of doctors but rather the system they’re forced to practice in.
You wrote, ‘For those of you who have known me as the person who used to wake up at 5 a.m. and surf until sunrise, and then work until long after dinner for months on end, this has been exactly the kind of wrenching transformation you’d expect it to be. I’m past that though, and I’m committed to focusing on what I can do, and most of all trusting my journey.’ What helped you ‘get past that?’
Losing kayaking, biking, running, my farm, my shop, my business, and my finances have been brutal. I’ve never experienced anything I couldn’t fight before and just losing ground year after year destroyed me emotionally. Hardship changes you though, it strips you of your identity and forces you to contend with all that any of us truly are, a light of consciousness, here for a while to do what you can in the world. Being sick is kind of like being swept into a Class VI cataract when you weren’t expecting it. You think, ‘There is no way I can do this, it’s just too hard.’ But you have to do it, so you do. You just keep bracing, and rolling up, keep the boat pointed downstream, and try not to fight the river. Every day I wake up and sometimes I’m just broken from everything I’ve been through, but I try to find beauty in anything I can, and try not to think about the unfairness of it all. Being sick is definitely a skill set. Learning to control fear and negative thinking in the face of constant loss and pain is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn how to do. Learning how to be nice to myself, and ask for help has been equally hard. It can be really discouraging when everyone else is surfing and kayaking, and you haven’t touched the water in years. The most important thing is just to trust, I trust as hard as I can that things happen for a reason, and that things can get better. I sincerely believe that we exist in a world saturated with consciousness outside of our direct perception, and whatever that force is, I put a lot of faith in the idea that impossible and amazing things happen everyday. Tomorrow might be my day.
Where do you go from here?
I’d give anything to paddle again, but it’s just not happening right now. I live with a lot of pain. I build a few boats here and there, try to keep above water financially. As far as what’s next, so much depends on whether I can make any progress against the illness. They tell me the neuropathy isn’t reversible, but so much of what they knew about neuroplasticity 20 years ago turned out to be wrong so I won’t believe that. Right now I’m trying every type of alternative therapy I can think of. I’m also taking the summer off, probably going to throw a sleeping bag in my old Subaru and drive to the quietest place I can and just read, and sleep, and eat as well as I can. If any of that that helps then after that I’m planning on converting all of my teaching knowledge into instructional media, doing smaller private classes, focusing more on my writing, and also doing consulting and limited building with my other passion, off-grid tiny houses. Could the illness stop all that? Yeah, but I’m not going to give up on having a life until I’m forced to. Right now I’m just focusing on using this experience to grow as a person, and hoping to inspire other people who are suffering. Chronic illness is a hard slog against the wind and there needs to be more resources and compassion for people facing that journey. If ultimately I somehow can use this experience to help people, that would be really gratifying for me.
— Visit Cape Falcon Kayaks’ “old site” for tons of resources on traditional kayak building and design
— Read more from Brian Schulz on his blog, Mind of Brian
— Follow Cape Falcon Kayaks on Facebook