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Four Miles of Fun

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Patti Hobbs has several disabilities but a lack of determination isn't one of them. That was evident as a volunteer lifted her from a wheelchair and placed her in a canoe. No one had told the Springfield woman that a person with cerebral palsy and a hearing impairment shouldn't go paddling.

"I wouldn't let anybody tell me that I couldn't do this," she says.

Neither would any other participants or organizers of this fourth annual float trip on the Niangua River for people with disabilities. This Springfield-based event had several sponsors, including a store called River Maddness, the Springfield Park Board, the Southwest Center for Independent Living and the Conservation Department. The canoe trip doesn't have an official name, but it has a good reputation.

"People love this trip," says Leatta Bergeson, an access specialist. "Obviously word has spread because we started out with two people going on the float trip and now we're at 18."

As well as serving as a supervisor, Bergeson is one of the people with disabilities who takes part. Her disabilities are from birth and affect three limbs. Other floaters have Down's syndrome, autism or various types of physical disabilities.

But for many, their biggest disability is having to live within walls built by peers with wider ranges of abilities but narrower imaginations.

"We know they can do this and they know they can do it, but others don't think they can do it," says former River Maddness co-owner Tom Lewis. "Primarily, they're limited in the things they can do only by the able-bodied public."

"A lot of times, their peers and family members have told them they cannot go out and do these things," Bergeson says. "Well, here we are, going out and doing these things."

The procedure for this float was the same as for the three previous trips: Each person with a disability is in the front of the canoe while an experienced paddler sits in the stern. In most cases, passenger and paddler know each other well. They met at training classes at Doling Park pond in Springfield in the eight weeks preceding the float trip.

At these weekly sessions on the pond, the novice floaters learned the basics of paddling--how to steer, how to sit and, most important, how to stay calm because there is no reason to be afraid. This is an important message to get across to parents and relatives, as well as the soon-to-be paddlers.

"You have a reaction from some of the families and friends wondering just exactly what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," Bergeson says.

Lewis and Springfield Park Board Recreational Supervisor Kevin Marquart were asking themselves those same questions three years ago. Marquart had the idea and Lewis had the boats.

"None of us had ever worked with people with disabilities before, so we learned as we taught," says Lewis.

"Initially, I think there was a little fear from parents and friends because they were worried about canoes tipping over. The disabled floaters themselves were apprehensive because they didn't know if it was possible or not," Beth Giest says. This was the fourth float trip for Giest, a former independent living specialist at the Southwest Center.

However, after a few meetings and training sessions, both teachers and pupils learned the trip was definitely feasible--with a few modifications.

One of those planning the trip was Gene Schoenhoff, the other co-owner of River Maddness. In addition to providing paddling instructions, he also took on the task of customizing some of the canoe seats to fit people in wheelchairs. In some cases, such as Hobbs', it was just a matter of providing ample support for the person in the canoe--sans chair.

For others, though, the wheels were removed so that their wheelchairs became chairs that fit in a canoe. Schoenhoff added a board that ran from one side of the canoe to the other to provide extra support for the wheelchair.

"Some people are comfortable in their wheelchairs and some need the side support," Schoenhoff explains. "I decided to use their existing chairs."

Overall, Schoenhoff says his work was just common sense, but Lewis isn't so modest.

"It's a picture of simplicity, but if someone charged for the work it would have cost us $500."

Schoenhoff and Lewis were two of the paddlers who would guide this trip. Both were equipped with radio headsets to contact each other and some of the other paddlers in the flotilla. The Niangua wasn't roaring, but it was growling in a few spots, thanks to rain two days before the trip. Everybody sported life jackets supplied by the Conservation Department. Safety was more than a good idea--it was imperative.

"Now is the time to check your egos in," Lewis told the paddlers in a pre-float huddle. "If you have any doubt about a spot, head for the bank and walk it."

Sage advice, but for this group of experienced river-runners, it was wisdom they already had.

"You have to pay careful attention to the river and the obstacles," says Charles Storrie, one of the paddlers. "You can't allow yourself to put your passenger in a position where they would have to swim."

One by one, the boats pushed off the bank just below Bennett Spring State Park and were whisked downstream by the Niangua's current. Some of the passengers had never seen this strip of the Ozarks, at least not from the bow of a canoe. Others had been on previous trips, but their grins and giggles showed their enthusiasm had not diminished.

"This is something that everybody wants to repeat," says Marty Montgomery, whose 21-year-old daughter, Morgan, has been on all four trips. "Once they do this, they want to do it again and again."

This fun had more than a river running through it, though. At the end of their 4-mile float, the group was treated to fried fish and coleslaw. Lewis put 53 pounds of batter-dipped catfish fillets on the tables. By the time the hungry floaters finished, hardly more than a plateful was left.

But unlike the previous three trips, this end-of-the-float feast wasn't the end of the day. Fishing was included in this year's activities, thanks to the Conservation Department, which provided rods and reels and a special one-day fishing license exemption.

Anxious hands grabbed rods as fast as paddler Durrel Giest and I could tie hooks onto them. Dinner time was over and fishing time began.

"The float trip definitely boosts the floaters' egos, but when you throw in fishing and other outdoor opportunities, it makes this even more fun," says Mark McCarthy, metro coordinator for the Conservation Department in Springfield.

"Fishing adds another dimension to the trip," Lewis says. "It gives the group another reason to be here, and it gives them some recreation after the trip."

This was the first trip that would include the Conservation Department. As well as providing fishing and floating equipment, Lewis said the agency also added credence to the event.

"The Conservation Department's involvement gives the parents and relatives [of the participants] more confidence in the program," he says. "It really shows what four organizations [Southwest Center for Independent Living, Springfield Park Board, River Maddness, Conservation Department] with the help of some sponsors can do."

It didn't take Morgan Montgomery long to show what she could do. After only a few casts into the swirling Niangua, she reeled in a 12-inch rainbow trout. Her day was now complete.

"I like everything about this," she says.

The feeling was mutual for those who had helped organize the event.

"Time spent with these folks is absolutely wonderful," Storrie says. "Even the smallest thing that's done for them . . . they get so much out of it. I draw my pleasure from seeing their pleasure."

As the Montgomerys prepared to leave, Morgan had one last thing to do. She jumped out of Mom's yellow car and wrapped her arms around Lewis. It had been too good day on the river to leave without a hug.

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