by Josh Reiss, photographer
Walking past the pool on a Tuesday night after seven o’clock, you will likely notice a diverse group of people splashing around in kayaks. They are local war veterans learning how to roll (in a kayak) with the help of professional paddling instructors. This group is the first North Carolina chapter of Team River Runners, a non-profit started by kayakers with the goal of creating innovative paddling programs designed to assist with the recovery of those injured while serving our country.
The program works, according to Victor Gaines, a long-time member of the group. “Lots of these guys come back [from military service] with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) and just need something to do.” “Team River Runners has given them a sense of camaraderie, a way to connect with nature, and free paddling trips on some of the best whitewater in the country,” says WWC Paddling Coach Will Leverette. “I’ve seen some guys go from being hermits, trapped up in their houses to coming out paddling every week. It has completely changed some of their lives.”
It’s become some of their lives too—six people in the local group have acquired their own boats. Juliet Kastorff, volunteer instructor and owner of Endless River Adventures explained that this investment in equipment is a sign that the group has the potential to sustain itself. If the groups older members are invested enough to get boats, they will be invested enough to teach new River Runners. Though this internal source of confidence is appropriate, program is struggling due to a lack of equipment and boat storage.
There is some gear besides a boat that the River Runners need to go out on river trips. A paddle, a helmet and a spray skirt (prevents water from entering the boat.) are all needed to run the trips and according to Leverette, all of those things are in short supply for the veterans. For the past year the River Runners have had a symbiotic with Warren Wilson’s Outdoor Programs by sharing both gear and boats, but this cannot last forever. There is not enough room in the boat shed where kayaks and canoes are over abundantly lining the walls and every available rack.
Though most students can’t donate gear to Team River Runners, anyone can come address Team River Runners’ other need- student participation. Leverette expressed disappointment at the lack of student turnout this year. “This is probably the coolest thing Warren Wilson has ever done, and students have total access to it.”
Team River Runners is an incredible opportunity to meet local veterans of all ages while learning boating skills from experts and getting service hours at the same time—all on campus.