By Paul Lebowitz
Published: March 8, 2011
My Hero is a short film, just fifty breezy seconds of a creekboater effortlessly boofing Class IV drops and running falls. It’s the sort of eye candy we’ve viewed time and again, pleasant but not provocative—until we see the paddler packing up his truck at the takeout. The young man with the unselfconscious grin uses a wheelchair.
In February 2007, Caleb Brousseau missed a 12-meter snowboard jump. He broke his back, losing the use of his legs but not his zest for life or his athleticism.
“It didn’t stop me from aspiring to do my best,” says Brousseau, 22, of Whistler, B.C. “Immediately I tried to jump back in and go, but I lost it for a while. That’s when a buddy asked me if I’d like to try kayaking.”
It was an inspired choice. “It gave me freedom,” Brousseau says. Getting there took a level of trust in his friends that is nearly incomprehensible. “I spent a lot of time underwater hoping people would show up with their boats,” he adds.
That first year, Brousseau couldn’t roll. He never swam. “I knew my friends would be there no matter what,” Brousseau says.
Jason Cathers helped out at pool sessions. It was a long, slow liberation. “Once he got his roll there was no holding him back,” Cathers says.
When Brousseau is in his kayak, people don’t see the chair. They see a graceful, gifted paddler whose rapidly developing skills have yet to plateau. “The movie is perfect. We get to see a solid kayaker having fun on a wonderful classic creek. To then see he is paralyzed definitely opens your eyes,” Cathers says.
Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Hjort was on the way to shoot the Stikine when he met Brousseau in British Columbia. He thought carefully about how to depict him on film. “I didn’t want to show Caleb as different than us, because he’s not. It’s a pleasure to be on the water with him. You realize how much life can bring to you, how much you can do if you really want to do it,” Hjort says.
“He just worked at it. Each stumbling block is just another problem to be solved. If you’re running his backyard class IV run in the Kalum Canyons, don’t follow him. He always takes the toughest, most aggressive lines and surfs and plays in holes that most kayakers avoid,” Cathers adds.
By saving the wheelchair for the final scene, Hjort got it right. For Brousseau, the chair is irrelevant, just a mode of transportation. His Jackson kayak is pure joy and East Boulder Creek, site of the film, is the world’s best water park. His motivation is one any paddler can understand. He’s just like the rest of us.
“Kayaking makes me happy when I get sad,” Brousseau says.
When he’s not in his kayak, Caleb Brousseau is a competitive para alpine skier with Olympic aspirations. For more of Benjamin Hjort’s films, visit www.hjortmedia.com.