Looking with Paraplegic & Quadriplegic Eyes
The Worlds Wheelchair Culture

Greg Allen: Still Me Voyage
Paraplegic canoes 1,000 miles of MacKenzie River solo
By Heather Nelson Interview in Wet Dawg 01.14.05

"Crack" Imagine hearing the sound of your spine snap, in an instant ending life as you have known it for 52 years. Greg Allen was thrown from his burro in 1999, leaving him with a cervical contusion and a ligament injury at his C2-4, C6, C7 vertebrae, and severe head trauma. He was later given the news; the accident had left him paraplegic.

Greg, who has spent his life as a guide and leader in the outdoors, made a decision to never give up his dreams. Inspired by Christopher Reeves, he realized he was still the same person he was before the accident. His dreams may change a little, there may be different challenges, but he was not going to give in to his paraplegia.

Five years after the accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, with the support of his family and friends, Greg successfully canoed the 1000-mile MacKenzie River, solo!

Greg Allen photo 


Heather: Given the diagnosis, paraplegia, some people would be left with a broken spirit, regretting all the things they would never do. Your accident seemed to have had the opposite effect. Where did you find the strength, courage and inspiration to take on such a journey as soloing the MacKenzie River in a canoe?

Greg: You canít succeed in any endeavor without a support system. I am not any different. Strength and courage for me came from my wife. An accident like mine doesnít just happen to me but it happened to both of us. It didnít just change my life, but hers as well. Instead of being a vibrant partner in a relationship, I became a burden. I became someone who needed to be taken care of. I needed help for everything. The biggest loss was the loss of independence. I lost the ability to take care of myself. My courage and strength were reactionary. When I got out of rehab and found myself just laying around, feeling depressed about everything that had happened to me, my wife gave me a talking book by Chris Reeveís, "Still Me." The similarities were almost identical. His struggle became mine. I remembered who I used to be. I decided I wasnít going to take all this laying down -- as it were. I got pissed off! When the doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life I just said "No, Iím not". IĎm probably still paralyzed, but too stupid to realize it.

Heather: On the river, what were the biggest challenges you faced as a paraplegic on a solo journey?

Greg: The river is a euphemism. It is just a journey. It has a beginning and it has an end. There are challenges in everyoneís life, on every journey. Thatís what a river is. The challenge is simple, success or failure. To finish is success, not to finish is failure. Solo means alone. Alone means you donít have anyone to help you -- or to compare with. When you are solo you are no longer disabled. Youíre just you. It took me three hours to setup camp everyday, but they were three of my hours, not yours or his, or anyone elseís. Timeís different when youíre alone. Thatís hard to explain but with 24 hours of daylight, everything takes on a different meaning. You canít be late and you donít have to worry about running out of time before dark. Thatís always been a problem in the bush -- doing this or that before it gets dark. If I have to crawl through mud dragging my gear to shore it doesnít matter because there is just me. I guess itís like being naked. If youíre alone itís one thing, if you're in a room full of people itís quite something else.

Heather: Tell us about your canoe and how you modified it to accommodate your disability.

Greg: My canoe is a vessel. Its primary function was to get me from one place to another. The canoe had to be stable and accessible. I had to create a system. I pontooned the canoe to a smaller boat -- a kayak. The two became the system. Together they were more stable than each one would be alone. I would fall out to exit, and fall in to enter. It wasnít very graceful or technical but it worked. Falling isnít always a bad thing; it just depends on where you end up and if you want to be there in the first place.

Greg: My canoe is a vessel. Its primary function was to get me from one place to another. The canoe had to be stable and accessible. I had to create a system. I pontooned the canoe to a smaller boat -- a kayak. The two became the system. Together they were more stable than each one would be alone. I would fall out to exit, and fall in to enter. It wasnít very graceful or technical but it worked. Falling isnít always a bad thing; it just depends on where you end up and if you want to be there in the first place.

Other than that, all I had to do was strap myself in. Sitting up for hour upon hour is difficult when youíre crippled. I used a back support and hooked it up to the gunwales, enabling me to be supported when I sat. Having no feeling below my waist I couldnít depend on my body. My sense of balance is a joke. I fall down a lot.

I paddled. I sailed. I even had a small outboard motor. Again, I had to succeed. There could be no excuse for failure. If I could get into the canoe, I could travel. Life on the river is benevolent. Because I can stand and walk a bit that was my only challenge -- getting in and out. The river would take care of everything else.

The rig was a solid foundation for me to travel in. My canoe is of the Chipewyan design, with a high curved bow and stern. It is historically appropriate. It was a canoe of the north. The kayak was small, utilitarian and on sale! By hooking them together they served my real disability -- no dough!

Heather: Coming off my first expedition, I must have stood 6-inches taller with the pride and confidence I felt. I also realized that I was much more in touch with my values. Can you share a little of what you brought home with you from the MacKenzie River?

Greg: Like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" I strutted. For a cripple, that ainít bad. It was a real rock n roll thing. "Nothing can stop me, nothing can stop me now." It was a real "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."

It was cinematic. It was romantic. It was every clichť there ever was. In a loud voice, in a pub in Inuvik at the end of the trip I sort of shouted, "Iíll buy anyone who has ever come down the Mackenzie by canoe a drink". I still have that money!

Three months later I sat out in the back of my pickup in Florida during a hurricane - Frances, I think - just digging it. My daughter pleaded with me to come inside. I just laughed and told her Iíd never been in a hurricane before. Yea Iím crippled, but I just went 1000 miles by river to the Arctic in a canoe, by myself. "Nothing can stop me."

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Heather: On your web site you say, "Probably the worst aspect of an injury like mine is depression. It's the suffering of all the physical pain and then also suddenly not being able to do the things that you've done all your life and the dreams you've worked for. They all just seem to have gone away in a flash. They really don't have to. It is losing these dreams that is the real disability and that can be overcome." If you were to speak to a classroom of wide-eyed, impressionable second-graders, what one life lesson would you want them to take to heart and integrate into their way of life?

Greg: Going down a river is just like growing up. A river changes everyday. Sometimes itís smooth sailing other times itís rocks and rapids. They are obstacles, they are big and they come up fast. You just have to get around them and carry on. There are good places to stop for the night and others youíre just stuck with.

When I was a kid growing up, they told me there were three ways to get through the rapids. One was to go faster so you could be in control of the boat. Two was to just flow with it and steer between the rocks and ripples; and three was to backwater and go slower so you have time to think and time to change direction if things were not going the way you want.

I guess thatís all there is to know.

Heather: The 'Solo to the Arctic' Journey was just a beginning in your larger plans. Tell us about 'Kripples n Kayaks' and what you hope to accomplish with this organization.

Greg: Kripples n Kayaks is a freedom march. There is no real difference between a wheelchair and a kayak - if you're crippled. "The Medium is the Message" - Marshal McKluan - 1965. The chair is a seat with wheels to help you get around. The boat floats. Historically the boat represents manís greatest accomplishments, exploration-wise. Personally the kayak serves the same function. When you become crippled, you begin to explore a new world.

The hardest 100 yards I ever traveled were when I was in rehab and had to travel from the physical therapy room to the elevator & back up to my room, alone. This day there was no one there to push me. The first 30 yards were easy - linoleum, but then there was carpeting. It was like I hit a brick wall. Everything turned to mud. I made it that time, and ever since. Thereís a lesson in there somewhere.

All people are equal, in the water. Itís embryonic. Everyone is more comfortable in the water - cripples arenít any different. Buoyancy isnít any different because youíre disabled. We all float according to the same laws of physics. There is an equality in floatability.

My wife and I are going to be traveling about the country doing demonstrations at various rehab centers and other appropriate places, showing disabled people how to use a sit on top kayak. We will hopefully demonstrate how to get in and out of a kayak so the person becomes comfortable and secure in paddling. After that they would be free to take short trips on rivers, lakes, and hopefully go on some overnights. We are also working with various outfitters and stores so that they too can do the teaching and help with the project.

I am also in the process of working with the Canadian Government to identify appropriate campsites along the Mackenzie for disabled people. The Mackenzie has been designated as part of the Trans Canada Trail. I will hopefully mark these campsites and compile a GPS guide with descriptions (and perhaps pictures) to hopefully be published. This would help raise some of the enormous amount of money necessary for an endeavor of this magnitude. www.tctrail.ca

Paddling is upper body. Wheelchair people are good at it. The Mackenzie set me free! It allowed me to exist on an even plane with able bodied people. It was a connection from the headwaters of a river to the ocean. It was a cosmic connection between birth and death, between disability and ability. It was a journey from paraplegia. "And lets make all the stops along the way."

Heather: If you were to find yourself in a private meeting with our next president, what message would you share with him?

Greg: I waited till today (November 3rd) to answer this question. Thereís never going to be any hope for spinal cord injury people without stem-cell research and he (George Bush) is not going there. I am real depressed about the election. I donít think he has the heart or intelligence to ever understand what itís like to be disabled. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see things from another personís eyes. I think George Bush is one of the most unsympathetic people on the face of the earth. If I could sit down with him - I think I would just cry.

Heather: Do you have a final thought you would like to leave us with?

Greg: It happens in a second. It changes your life forever. You can lose all your lifetime dreams and they are hard to get back, but itís not impossible. You just have to try harder, work harder, and dream harder. Itís all possible, but itís just harder. Maybe thatís not such a bad thing. You really have to understand how much your loved ones are also affected too. An accident like mine, like Reevesí, and all the other people who have suffered a spinal cord injury doesnít just happen to you, it happens to everyone around you. "You canít win, you canít even, and you canít get out of the game."

"Bad things are not the worst things that can happen to us. Nothing is the worst thing that can happen to us!" - richard bach

For more about Greg check out his web site at: www.stillmevoyage.com  or contact Greg directly at twobitco@hotmail.com

Posted on Paralinks with permission from Greg Allen