ELY, MINN. – When he was 7, Scott Bush fell out the passenger door of a moving car and its rear tire ran over his hand. Surgeons attempted to reattach the hand, but to no avail. It was amputated 11 days later. He has lived without it for 35 years.
Bush, of Norwalk, Iowa, didn’t let the injury stop him. He played four sports in high school and, what’s more, was the founder of Templeton Rye Whiskey. However, he said he hasn’t canoed much because having one hand made paddling awkward.
He’s had a desire to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He recently booked a guided trip with the Ely Outfitting Co. to take his sons Adrian, 12, and Xavier, 10. As part of the package, the company bought a specially designed paddle to considerably enhance Bush’s paddling skills.
“If it turns out that this thing works well, I think it’ll be something I want to do a lot more,” he said before the trip.
Providing outdoor experiences to disabled people has been the lifework of Cindy Dillenschneider of Washburn, Wis. She was an outdoor education professor at Northland College from 1989 to 2016 in nearby Ashland. Experience showed her that paddle sports are some of the most accessible mediums for people with lower limb impairments. However, people with upper limb impairments don’t have that same advantage. She was determined to find a solution.
In 2005, she began prototyping a specialized paddle. After extensive research and a variety of evolutions, Dillenschneider patented a paddle that harnesses to the shoulder of a user’s lifejacket. Paddlers then use their good hand and arm for the paddle stroke, with their torso muscles generating power. The paddle is lightweight and adjustable for body size and blade pitch. Its shaft is constructed of carbon fiber with a fiberglass insert. The blade, made of a plastic composite, runs to an elbow joint that bends the upper shaft toward the user’s shoulder and lower shaft to the blade.
Dillenschneider said the paddle is the first of its kind. It also benefits people who have both hands but experience issues from carpal tunnel syndrome, stroke or traumatic brain injuries.
Beyond the physical assistance of the paddle, Dillenschneider describes it as an equalizer.
“I really wanted to make a person feel good about who they are, about what they can do with it and that they should feel equal to anyone else who has a paddle in their hand,” she said.
She added that outdoor professionals are in a unique position to introduce people with disabilities to the natural world. Unfortunately, the outdoor industry has sometimes fallen short and disregarded portions of the population, she said. But since she began her design, many businesses, groups and individuals have provided generous support. The primary components are produced by paddle-maker Bending Branches in Osceola, Wis.
Branches president Ed Vater said the concept is entirely Dillenschneider’s. However, the company has donated components and fine-tuned the paddle’s production. An avid paddler himself, Vater noted its intangible impact.
“Her inventing that product has brought liberty and enjoyment to a whole bunch of people,” he said.
Though her patent is from 2007, Dillenschneider said the paddle design is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the greatest number of users at all skill levels. As a result of the tweaking, she said she hasn’t been able to inventory her costs and finalize a price. She’s also trying to reduce the cost to make the paddle more affordable. She noted that it’s well-suited for outfitters, organizations and rental businesses.
The Ely Outfitting Company was the first outfitter to buy a paddle for rent by its customers. The paddle cost was $400 and rents for $10 per day.
The proof in the paddle
Ely Outfitting founder Jason Zabokrtsky said that when Bush initially contacted the company he mentioned his hand disability. Zabokrtsky was impressed with his gumption and was bound to make their wilderness adventure happen.
“I bought it just for this trip,” Zabokrtsky said. “We think everybody deserves to experience the Boundary Waters even if they have something that makes it a little more challenging.”
When Bush returned from the trip, he said the paddle was well-designed. It adjusted easily and snapped quickly onto his lifejacket. He also found that when his primary arm became tired, he could disconnect the paddle, anchor the upper shaft against his opposite arm and paddle at a 45-degree angle.
“It made a huge difference for me,” he said. “I was basically worthless on a canoe, and I was able to do a pretty good job on this trip.”
Bush went on about the paddle’s significance to his group contributions. He said his sons thought the paddle was cool because they knew he wasn’t very good at paddling. On the trip, he also watched his sons step up. They literally carried their own weight at portages and took ownership of map-reading to plan the next day. Bush said that team effort was particularly important.
“Every generation kind of thinks the next one is soft, including me… I thought it was interesting to really work together,” he said. “Every day that we think back to it, we’re going to remember it very fondly and even more so as time goes on.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.