Paddling their way to independence

Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Lindsey Kurt-Mason
Overcoming their fears and gaining independence, Pagosa Springs high schoolers, led by teacher Mary Kurt-Mason, join volunteers and take a moment to celebrate their accomplishments after paddling their kayaks in Navajo Lake. From left, Bryan Hinds, Iris Frye, Zack Irons, Jesse Aragon, Mary Kurt-Mason, Jason Reece and Christopher Brown.

It started with an idea.

To one unfamiliar with the particulars, it might have seemed like a small idea. Something possibly quaint, cute. Something that someone might have heard about and thought, “Well, isn’t that nice? Such a sweet thing to do.”

For those who had insight, who knew who and what would be involved, there was nothing quaint about it. The idea was anything but small. To some, it seemed too big, and even for Mary Kurt-Mason, at times it was overwhelming, and kernels of doubt wafted through her mind.

Kurt-Mason is the special education teacher at Pagosa Springs High School. Her idea, which first came to her over three years ago, was to have her students kayak across Navajo Lake.

“For me, this is pretty normal, but when I’ve told people in other school districts, they’ve seemed pretty shocked,” Kurt-Mason said.

Many of the students that Kurt-Mason teaches, she said, have an aversion to water. There was a trip planned to go to the lake and go kayaking, but some of the students were just too afraid.

“One wanted to go on the trip, but couldn’t get over his fear,” she said.

Seeing this fear, Kurt-Mason saw an opportunity to help these students overcome it.

“One of the things kayaking does for these kids, it gives them the opportunity to overcome fears that have limited them. Students with disabilities enlarge or exacerbate fears, unreasonable fears,” Kurt-Mason explained. “When they face their fear and conquer it, they have pride.”

Kurt-Mason explains that, in a kayak, you are on our own. You pick up that paddle, go out on a boat, and you are the master of your own boat. There is no one else to paddle for you, to steer for you; it is you and your boat.

“When I get out of the kayak, I have a sense of pride,” Kurt-Mason said and, with her students, she’s watched their self-confidence, courage and pride grow by leaps and bounds through kayaking.

Kurt-Mason has been kayaking for 20 years in one form or another. She mainly goes kayak touring on the lakes in Colorado. She has shared her passion before with friends and family, convincing people to join her on a nice kayak adventure. She also ensures that people bring safety equipment from before they embark on a kayak tour. Until three years ago, she had never shared her passion for kayaking in a more important manner, but she knew that if kayaking could give her such a sense of joy and freedom, it would provide a tenfold sense of joy, freedom and independence for her students.

May 2009 was the first trip out to Navajo Lake. Parents, students, aides and boats were at the lake shore. What was supposed to be a fun experience, though, was more trying. Anxiety, tension and fear were evident in the students. But that didn’t discourage Kurt-Mason. The next year, in tandem boats and, soon, single kayaks, students, staff and parents would go out to the lake.

At first, for some students it was a matter of just sitting in the boat for a little while. Then, it was a few paddles in the boat. Step by step, Kurt-Mason witnessed her students conquering their fears.

For the first two years, there weren’t enough boats. The students each spent a decent amount of time on each trip to the lake waiting for their turn in a boat. This setback, though, didn’t stop Kurt-Mason. It didn’t even make her weary.

“One parent helped to raise money for tandem boats,” Kurt-Mason said. Then, the local Knights of Columbus donated money to buy an inflatable boat for one of the students. This boat turned out to be a perfect match for the student, giving him the confidence to paddle out into the lake on his own.

“I am so unbelievably fortunate, and these students are fortunate. There is great support from parents, great support from the school and great support from the community,” Kurt-Mason said.

The parents, Kurt-Mason said, have been involved in the kayaking program since day one, and since then, have continued to support this endeavor.

“I wanted the students to learn a sport they could do with their parents or with their friends. Get in their own boat and go out on their own,” Kurt-Mason said, adding, “Independence, independence, independence.”

At the high school age, Kurt-Mason explained that each student is striving to become independent, and it’s natural and good that they do. “If I can help them (become independent), then that’s what I should do,” Kurt-Mason said.

And, for Kurt-Mason, nothing made more sense than teaching them to kayak.

Last summer, after three years of work, practice and planning, Kurt-Mason, her four students, parents, aides and her husband all went out to Navajo Lake.

“That lake trip, that was scary for me, because I knew what all could go wrong,” Kurt-Mason said.

The day of launch was a nice, hot day. The first goal was paddling out to the state line buoy. From the state line, it was to a small rock island, and then the last push was to shore, where the group set up camp.

In the middle of the night, Kurt-Mason was awakened by strong winds and storms. She and an aide got up and started tying everything down that they could and taking down the light tent. However, in the morning, after packing up and prior to launching their boats, the winds died down, and the group had a safe paddle back to the Colorado side of Navajo Lake.

After the final trip they took this past summer, Kurt-Mason has seen a huge change in the students.

“Between that and rafting and other outside outings we’ve taken, I watch these young men physically stand straighter. A lot of their behavioral issues have gone away or been greatly reduced. It’s been incredible,” Kurt-Mason said.

Kurt-Mason said that none of this would have been possible without support from the community, the school and parents.

“Kudos to the school district and staff. I have amazing support from staff. I can have all kinds of crazy ideas, but I need an amazing staff to see them through,” Kurt-Mason said. “It’s a huge group of people that makes it work ... It takes everybody to make it work. It takes kids wanting to do it, a school district willing to support it, business and community support. These students are very lucky to live in Pagosa.”

Kurt-Mason and her staff would like to see their kayak program used as a prototype for other school districts. She understands that it can’t be kayaking in every place, but it doesn’t need to be.

“When I went to college, they taught us to educate the whole child, and to look at them as a whole human being, not as a math score or reading score,” Kurt-Mason said. “That’s how I was trained and it’s natural to think that way. And kids with disability, I just see them as a person. I look at them as a person, and ask what can I do? What’s the next step? Reading and math and all of that is essential, but there’s more to life than that.”

For the program, the next step is dependent on the students. One student graduated last year and is now in his first year of college. Another student is new to the program, but Kurt-Mason said she has picked up kayaking quickly and well.

“The goal changes for each student. The goal changes to meet that student’s needs. For some, it will be just being in a boat. For any student that can paddle, the goal is to be independent in a boat. For all the students, we ask, ‘How far can we help you go so you don’t need us anymore?,’” Kurt-Mason said.

Over the course of the program, Kurt-Mason has taught eight students how to kayak. She hopes to have another overnight kayak trip at the end of this year, but can’t foretell whether or not this will happen or if it will be the right goal for this group of students.

Kurt-Mason’s story “Paddling to Independence” will be published in the February 2013 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine.