River trip teaches about risk
Taking a wild ride down the Colorado River implies risk. So it should be no surprise that risk is a theme that looms large in both of Kathleen Jo Ryan's Grand Canyon projects.
In her introduction to 1998's "Writing Down the River," when she says, "This book is about taking risks," she's making no distinction between the physical challenge of rafting the Colorado and the challenges of spirit and intellect present in the heart of the Canyon.
For her current project, "Right to Risk," she organized and filmed a Canyon river trip for seven people with significant physical disabilities to explore risk as a fundamental right for all people even those society might consider most vulnerable.
"No one had done a serious documentary about this," Ryan said. "That they (the companies) operated so quietly meant that they were doing it for the right reasons they wanted to provide opportunities for people with disabilities."
"Right to Risk: Into the Heart of Grand Canyon," chronicles a 15-day, 225-mile river journey taken by 55-year-old Judith, who has multiple sclerosis; Daniel, a 27-year-old paraplegic; 23-year-old Sebastian and 44-year-old Kathy, who are both blind; Teresa, 37, who has spina bifida; Joshua, 26, with cerebral palsy; and Susan, 46, a non-verbal quadriplegic who was actually on her third Grand Canyon trip.
Along with film and boat crews, another 11 people accompanied the group to help accommodate the passengers' physical needs.
"Our goal is to change perceptions, reduce prejudice and increase opportunities," Ryan said. "We believe everyone has a right to meaningful experiences and to choose their own level of participation and risk. Often risk is inherent in the pursuit of these experiences, such as seeing Grand Canyon from the river."
The City of Phoenix Adaptive Recreation Department used its 15 years of experience in adaptive river trips to help with logistics and three outfitters Arizona Raft Adventures, Arizona River Runners and Canyon Explorations/Expedition provided crew and equipment. The call went out for participants through 14 organizations committed to helping those with disabilities.
According to Adaptive Recreation Director Ann Wheat, since River Rampage started in 1991, more than 600 people whose disabilities were an obstacle to river access took part in specially-developed and mainstream trips on the Colorado and San Juan rivers.
"People need to know they have every right to access their public lands," she said.
The program was inspired by a Colorado River boatman who emerged from a battle with cancer with physical disabilities. It was developed in partnership with the National Park Service, commercial river tour companies, the Arizona Department of Tourism and a network of public and private helping agencies for people with disabilities.
Wheat said it was the first NPS-sanctioned adaptive river tour ever.
River of Dreams, the fund raising arm of the city department, exists so that cost is never the barrier, Wheat said. Those who do receive assistance are asked to pay it back in the form of service to their community.
"We really have tried to minimize barriers to participation," Wheat said. "For the Grand Canyon trip we have a very simple and basic criteria participants must be able to understand and follow directions and they must have a doctor's approval." Also, an independent doctor and nurse review every participant's medical history and makes a final determination.
They have accommodated numerous wheelchair users with all degrees of paralysis, severe neurological disabilities like MS or cerebral palsy and those with cognitive disabilities as well.
Aside from practical limitations that a river trip can't safely accommodate ventilators or other sophisticated equipment Wheat said they have been able to mitigate nearly every disability except one. The only applicant she recalls turning away is one who suffered severe environmental illness and risked dangerous reactions to things like glue used to repair rubber rafts, propane used for cooking and sunblock.
"This is the only case where we've failed to come up with an answer," she said.
May's trip went off without mishap, just as the previous trips have. Wheat said that in their history, they have never encountered a serious medical situation on the river, at least not in their own group. Their accompanying doctor has been summoned to other river parties to stitch up wounds and provide other aid.
Before putting in, the team visited the South Rim where they were guests of the Quality Inn, Red Feather and the Best Western Squire in Tusayan.
Before they saw the Canyon from the inside-out, Ryan wanted to give them a look at the river from Mather Point and Desert View to provide a different perspective.
"Going to Desert View is important," she said. "It holds the most expansive view of the river, so that when they're camped at Carbon Creek, they can look up at Desert View and get a sense of perspective."
Ryan said one of the first lessons to emerge was for the benefit of those who were producing and organizing the program.
"We were full of ourselves," she said. "We weren't 'taking them down the river.' We were the ones catching up to what they had committed to. There was a little more work to taking them down there but what they wanted was the right to choose this. When they chose to sign on, they already knew they could do this. Once we launched, it became apparent really quickly that we were all in this together."
Some other preconceptions were put to rest as well.
"Because I've worked for 16 years around people with disabilities, I've brought less preconceptions than the commercial river guys who worked with them for the first time," Wheat said. "But I still went to Grand Canyon thinking that the physical barriers would be the most significant to overcome. I came out knowing that attitudinal barriers are more profound and challenging."
Ryan added that in many ways, the river trip provided a less daunting challenge than many of the day-to-day challenges that people with disabilities face.
It was a revelation, too, though it shouldn't have been, that physical disabilities did not diminish the participants' ability to experience the Canyon.
"When Sebastian is at Deer Creek Falls and crashing through the water, he's not thinking about being blind," Ryan said. "He's thinking of the joy of being in this magical, new experience. He's blind and he's experiencing this? Well duh! In fact for Kathy and Sebastian, there is only one way to experience the river and that's close up."
The trip in May was Ryan's 10th down the river, but the sense of wonder has not changed. Since her own powerful, first-hand experience through the Canyon in 1988, Ryan had been consumed with finding a voice to communicate the sense of spirit and place that she experienced there.
"I fell into the Canyon and couldn't get out," she said. "It captured my soul and swept me away."
Though she already had three successful books to her credit, it took her several years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on this idea. Working with Northland Publishing in Flagstaff, she found that voice 15 of them in fact, some of today's best women writers, who were offered a river trip opportunity and asked to write about it.
"Essays started coming in," Ryan said. "Each woman shared her own version. Each was distinctive, and even though they all did the same trip, they didn't all go at the same time. Every view was different."
It was not so much of a surprise that the book would find an audience with which it would resonate. What was unexpected, she said, was how it's been received as a classic.
In 2000, it inspired a companion documentary for public television about a river trip taken by four original contributors, which still continues to air on public television channel KAET in Phoenix.
Last May, the Grand Canyon Association reissued "Writing Down the River" in soft cover in conjunction with an exhibit at at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and Kolb Studio.
"I was surprised and delighted by its timelessness," she said.
In contrast, "Right to Risk" is beginning as a documentary that is likely to eventually become a book, Ryan's sixth. Her others include "Writing Down the River," "Irish Traditions," "Ranching Traditions: The Living Legacy of the American West," and its companion video, "Ranching," with Charlie Daniels. It was filmed by Ryan's production company and will air next spring on public television.
For more information, visit river-of-dreams.org, write to River of Dreams at 1946 West Morningside Drive, Phoenix, Ariz., 85253, or call 602-262-4543.
You can also visit www.phoenix.gov/PRL/adrecsvc.html.