Rick Storsberg, a.k.a "Ranger Rick", at this year's Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival. Photo: Rob Zaleski

Last year, Florida State Park Ranger and lifelong paddler Rick Storsberg, 63, was planning his retirement. “I was going to travel around the U.S. and visit all the National Parks and do a little volunteer work,” he says, smiling as we stood together on a sunny, white sand beach at this year’s Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival on the Southwest Florida coast. Then he pointed to his chest. “But when I went in for my physical they found a big black spot on my lung,” he says. The doctor didn’t know what it was. “She had to look it up in a book,” he explains. Storsberg was then told he had a rare and untreatable auto-immune disease, and that he had anywhere between a couple months to a couple years to live.

An accomplished Greenland-style paddler and rolling instructor, longtime Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival volunteer, a Florida Paddling Trails Association trailkeeper and founder of the Sarasota County Kayak Festival and Greenland-Style Rolling competition, Storsberg was diagnosed with Idopathic pulmonary Fibrosis. “A complicated term for my body deciding to reject my lungs,” he tells me, still smiling.

Storsberg admits he was crushed by the news at first. “I mean, I thought I was going to die,” he says. But he soon found out that a full lung transplant could save his life. “I can’t tell you how happy that made me,” he says, obviously excited. “And although it’s mind-boggling expensive, it’s a lot better than the alternative.”

And mind-boggling it is. Although Storsberg’s insurance will cover 80% of both the $125,000 pre-transplant testing fees and the roughly $150,000 to $200,000 transplant surgery itself, he’ll still need help footing the rest of the bill, along with the roughly $6,000 a month he’ll need to pay for the immune suppressant medications that he will have to take for the rest of his life.

“That’s a little daunting, “ Storsberg points out. “But the support I’ve received so far, particularly from the local paddling community, has just been amazing.”

For example: At this year’s Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, where I spoke with Rick on the beach, raffle tickets were being sold for a $2, 872 Tahe marine Bayspirit sea kayak, along with a carbon fiber paddle and rescue PFD—all donated by the Miami-based Paddle House—to raise money for Rick’s medical costs. You can still buy raffle tickets from The Paddle House’s website here for only $5.00. The drawing will take place Dec. 17 at the Miami rowing club from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm (there will be a beach party), and all of the proceeds from the raffle sales go to the Rick’s account at the National Transplant Assistance Fund (now “Help Hope Live”).

Help Hope Live is a 501(c)(3) non-profit group that assists individuals facing transplant surgeries and traumatic injuries with their non-covered expenses. “Basically, it allows me not to pay taxes on donations I receive,” Storsberg says. “And it’s an interest accruing account, so once I get some money into it, more will build up and I won’t have to do these fundraisers too often.”

Also check out Placida, Florida’s Grande Tour’s upcoming Paddle to Battle Lung Disease, Jan. 22, which will also be donating 100 percent of its proceeds to Rick’s cause. A $25 dollar donation includes launch, guided tour, food and kayak rental, as well as a rockin’ beach picnic.

If you’re not in the Florida area, you can also make a tax-deductible donation directly to Rick’s Help Hope Live account at helphopelive.org

“My retirement is going to be a little different than I had planned,” Rick told me as we parted ways. But I for one still think he’s going to have a pretty good one. As he says, “It’s always great to be alive.”–Dave Costello