When serendipity and compassion meet – amazing things can happen.

Laura Jones, a general manager and buyer at River Sports Outfitters, is a stellar outdoorswoman who frequently leads the store’s kayaking and stand-up paddling excursions at lakes all over Knoxville.

Last year, Jones attended a kayaking symposium where she met Joe, an amputee, with the American Canoe Association (ACA). He told Jones about an adaptive paddling curriculum that enables people with physical disabilities to get out on the water.

This April, Jones, and her friend Leslie King, who works at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, completed the American Canoe Association’s 4-day adaptive paddling workshop certification training in Charleston, SC.

Laura and Leslie

Laura Jones (front) and Leslie King


The workshop covered the following topics:

  • Federal Disability Laws
  • Accessing disabilites
  • Kayak modification techniques
  • Pool practice with disabled volunteer students
  • Lake excursion with disabled volunteer students

Jones says, “Some of the students we worked with had spine injuries in different areas of their backs. Other students had balance issues, and some of the students were amputees. My student was a 13-year boy whose legs became paralyzed due to injuries suffered in a car accident when he was eight years old. He was very strong and athletic. Some of the students were much older and much weaker. Before getting into the water we test their upper body strength. If the student is strong, you put a little stool beside the boat and he will be out of the wheelchair and into the boat before you know it. Other students required assisted lifting. Throughout the entire workshop, we would go through the different processes and then re-group and discuss how we could improve our work and make it better and safer.”


Leslie King (middle) instructs a student


“The students’ safety and comfort was on our minds from start to finish,” says Jones. “The students told us, “Don’t be scared. We deal with this everyday and we will tell you if we are hurting or feel uncomfortable.” The scariest thing for me in the training was teaching the students how to make a wet exit. We had to deliberately tip over their kayaks. They needed to know what that is like.  It was very eye opening to see that they didn’t fall out all the way. Their legs would still be in the boat. They learned they had to have the wherewithal to dive down and free their legs.”


“Boat modification depends on where the paddler’s injury is located,” explains Jones. “We may need to build the seat up. We may need to remove some of the seat padding to relieve pressure on the back. If a paddler is paralyzed from the waist down, we need to remove things that may rub or scrape his legs. If the paddler has a hard time sitting up straight, we add closed cell foam to the sides of the kayak. You have to be super creative. You need to learn as much as you can about the person using the boat. We try to fix it and then they try it out. We keep adjusting  the modifications until the student is safe and comfortable.”

Regarding paddling, Jones says, “One student’s upper body was weak and he had balance issues on one side of his upper body. He used hand paddles instead of a full-length paddle. His hands were strong and he was able to propel himself forward without using his shoulders.” Jones says, “The owner of Create Ability was also at this workshop. He is creating hand applications for one-armed paddlers and for people who have various grip issues.”

Modifying the kayak with closed cell foam.

Using closed cell foam to adjust a kayak


“For me, the goals for learning this are getting people outside, teaching them something they thought they couldn’t do, and giving them options,” says Jones.

“There were about 18-20 of us, instructors and clients, out on the lake. We saw the biggest smiles from our students. It wasn’t about how fast they were going. A senior citizen student said she closed her eyes and had never felt so Zen before, so relaxed. She said she struggles every day with tasks, but not out on the water!”

“A bystander came upon us and asked if we were leading a class or taking a group paddle. He had no idea these clients were disabled. It was so rewarding. They looked and felt just like everybody else,” says Jones. “By the end of this workshop, all of the students achieved an ACA Level 1 in kayak paddling.”

at the put in

A student enters the water


Jones says, “Anyone with a disability can now register for River Sports’ kayak outings. “We just need to see the person a few days in advance so we can modify the kayak.” Jones says her friend Leslie King “hopes to expose her client base, including injured veterans, to use kayaking as one way to help get them active again, to help them do something they did before their injury, or to teach them something new. King works with rehabilitation facilities like Patricia Neal. We hope to start getting referrals from these agencies.”

For more information about RiverSports Outfitters’ kayak rentals and paddling excursions, please visit the store at 2918 Sutherland Avenue or call (865) 523-0066.

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© Debra Dylan, 2013

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